I Was In The Middle Of Times Square During A Shooting Scare

by Sa'iyda Shabazz
Originally Published: 
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As a native New Yorker, there isn’t too much that scares me. Having lived through 9/11, I have a certain calm in the face of extreme attacks. But I will admit, these cases of white men as domestic terrorists and shooting up wherever they want puts me on edge. There are few places I genuinely feel safe. And a recent trip back home to New York made me realize that there really are no safe spaces now.

Gun violence and domestic terrorism committed by white men has everyone afraid of leaving their houses. And for good reason. You can’t go to the grocery store or church or send your kids to school without worrying about being killed by a dangerous person with access to military grade weapons.

When I was back home in NYC, I wanted to meet up with old friends. My best friend works in Times Square, and since she works late, my son and I met her for dinner. Sure, it’s full of tourists, but it’s a good place to find a restaurant that will have a children’s menu. My best friend and I knew we wouldn’t be seeing each other for a while, so we were trying to soak up all the time together we could. After dinner, ice cream, and a quick walk through Sephora, we found a spot on one of the giant stone slab benches to sit on and run our mouths. My son laid on the bench watching YouTube videos, asking me if it was time to go back to my parents’ house every ten minutes.

I don’t know which one of us noticed it first. But behind my friend, suddenly a swell of people were running towards us. My heart stopped as I instinctively grabbed my bag and scooped up my son from the bench. People were coming at us fast.

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“Don’t let go of Mommy’s hand, don’t look behind you, and just keep running,” I yelled at my 5-year-old son.

We got across the street, halfway down the block before everyone seemed to stop. My heart was racing, and for the first time I looked around me. My son was still holding my hand tightly, but my best friend wasn’t with us. Panic seized my body as a million thoughts ran through my mind. I had no idea where I lost her. Somehow, my son was totally cool as a cucumber.

“Are you okay, Bud?” I asked him, checking him for bumps or scratches.

“I’m fine,” he nodded calmly.

I reached down to take my phone from his small hands and realized he only had the case. Now I worried that I wouldn’t be able to locate my bestie. Then again everything I need — identification, credit cards, cash — was in my phone case, and we were leaving town in two days. If I didn’t have my ID, my ass would be stuck in New York.

After things seemed to settled down, I took my son’s hand to retrace our steps and thankfully, I found my phone laying face up on the sidewalk, my best friend’s name flashing. When I called her back, she told me she was hiding in a parking lot around the corner.

Police patrol in Times Square on a busy summer evening on August 08, 2019 in New York City. After a weekend of mass shootings that left 31 people dead, a backfiring motorcycle that was mistaken for gunshots sent hundreds of people running through Times Square on Tuesday, resulting in a stampede and numerous injuries. Spencer Platt/Getty

As soon as I saw her, we threw our arms around each other, crying softly. I could feel her shaking, and my heart was still racing. We tried to figure out how we got separated, but our subtext for everything was I thought I lost you. She works on the next block, so we walked back to her office building to collect ourselves.

It wasn’t until we get there that we found out what happened – a motorcycle backfired. Since it had only been two days since the shootings in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio, people just assumed the worst and began to run. Of course, everyone was relieved that it wasn’t anything truly serious. But, as my best friend and I said to another woman taking shelter in the lobby, what kind of times are we living in?

Living in a major city, and being from a major city, I’m aware that anything can happen at any time. But we live in this new version of America, where everyone is on high alert at all times. Domestic terrorism permeates all of our lives every day. Now that I’ve lived through this, my life will never be the same. I cannot equate my experience with people who actually lived through these domestic terror attacks, but if I felt even a tiny bit of what they felt during it, I have even more empathy for the victims and survivors.

My first thought was “What if I die?” As I clutched my son’s hand and ran, I knew I had to keep him safe at all costs. But what if that wasn’t enough? What if one of us got shot? Would he know how to get help? What would I do if I had to cradle his body, watching the life drain from it? There is no way I would be able to be calm in that situation.

This time, we were lucky. But what if there’s a next time? These are the effects of constant domestic terrorism — thinking “when,” not “if.”

How did we get to this point? That’s the question that I keep coming back to. What kind of country are we living in that the sound of a motorcycle backfiring is enough to send people fleeing for their lives? And more importantly, why the fuck do we keep allowing this to happen?

Of course, these questions are purely rhetorical. I know that it’s because our government is hell bent on misinterpreting the 2nd amendment, which was talking about the right for people to protect themselves from armed militias, not the right to purchase a military grade weapon and shoot up a shopping mall or popular night spot. And these shooters? Nothing but entitled white men who think they’re way of life is the only way of life.

If there’s one thing I know for sure, it’s that I will never forget that night. Even now, a few days later, just thinking about it makes my throat close. I tend to downplay the fear that wracks my body when I talk about it. But I can’t think about it for too long without wanting to cry. The image of hundreds of people running at me will haunt my dreams for the rest of my life. Picking up my son and running for our lives will never not rock me to my core. I’ll forever remember the feeling of throwing my arms around my best friend in relief. Domestic terrorism reduces many of us to balls of anxiety.

“Wasn’t that strange, Mommy?” my son asked me after things had settled down.

“Yeah, Bud, it’s very strange.” I wrapped him up in my arms, kissing his sweet head.

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