Saturday, July 13, 2013

The Cost of Racism

Trayvon Martin's killer, George Zimmerman has been found not guilty of murder.  He was not convicted of manslaughter, either.  In fact, despite having shot and killed a person after an incident initiated by Zimmerman himself, the state of Florida did not convict him of any crime.

There has been a lot of talk about whether Martin and Zimmerman engaged in a scuffle or fist fight prior to the shooting.  About whether or not Martin hit Zimmerman or whether or not Martin had pinned Zimmerman to the ground prior to Zimmerman firing his weapon.  About whether it was Martin or Zimmerman who was heard calling for help.  The problem is, none of that is the point.  None of that is the story.

At its core, this is a story about an unarmed teenage boy traveling on foot who was followed and then approached by an adult male who was not only driving a vehicle, but was packing a weapon.  Let me repeat that because it may take a moment to really comprehend the gravity of such words: This is a story about an armed adult who confronted and killed a child walking alone at night.  

I can think of three main circumstances in which it is appropriate for an adult to approach an unattended child whom they do not know:
1) The child appears lost and is too young, or otherwise unable, to sort the situation out alone.
2) The child is in imminent physical danger.
3) The child's actions have the potential to place those in the vicinity in immediate bodily harm.

With a few possible exceptions, I can't think of any other reason why an adult would need to follow, speak to, or otherwise interact with a child or teenager they don't know, particularly in the manner that Zimmerman approached Martin.  Put yourself in Trayvon Martin's shoes.  You're seventeen years old, running an errand on foot at night.  It's dark out, but you don't see any reason not to be walking through the neighborhood on your own.  You notice an adult you don't know who seems to be following you in a car.  The further you walk, the more you're convinced this guy is definitely following you.  You might start feeling nervous, but convince yourself it's nothing and keep moving.  Maybe you pick up your pace.  The car keeps tailing you.  You're on a call with your friend and you tell them you think someone is following you and that you're going to get off the phone.  You hang up and the guy has gotten out of his car and is coming towards you.  You're angry, and probably anxious.  You ask why he's following you.  He asks what you're doing here.

When I was seven years old, my best friend and I were playing in my front yard.  We were approached by a strange man who asked us if we knew anyone named John.  Being little kids and eager to help and not sensing any danger, we said we didn't know anyone named John, but that we had a friend Jonathan who lived across the street.  The man left, but must have gone around the block because he came by again, from the same direction, this time to show us some pictures.  We didn't know anyone in them.  He came around the block a couple more times.  My friend and I were getting irritated with him because he kept interrupting our game, but we weren't particularly worried.  My parents were right inside and hers were just down the block.  But the last time the guy came around he said the magic words that set off all the stranger-danger alarm bells in our little second-grade heads.  He said he wanted us to meet him around the block at his car.  Thankfully, he walked away again and we ran directly into my house and told my parents, who called the police.

When Trayvon Martin was approached by George Zimmerman that night in February of 2012, he was seventeen, not seven, and likely very aware of the potential threat he was facing.  Martin was also a black male teenager, and had probably already experienced first-hand the realities of racial profiling - both by the police and by others around him.  I have no doubt that as soon as he became certain that Zimmerman was tailing him, alarm bells were going off loud and clear in Martin's head.  I have no doubt that he must have experienced an acute mix of emotions - fury, frustration, and fear.

Zimmerman and Martin may have fought.  Martin may have lashed out.  He might have indeed struck Zimmerman.  Given the situation - being a seventeen year old black male approached by a strange adult with a gun - no one should be surprised if that's the case.  Martin's options would have been pretty limited.  He could run or he could fight.  Either way, Zimmerman would still have a gun.  And a car.    

We don't know exactly what happened in the time between Zimmerman getting out of his car and the moment when Martin was shot.  But we do know what happened first and what happened last, and I frankly can't think of anything except racism that explains how an armed adult can confront an unarmed teenager, end up shooting and killing the child, and get away with it.  Those of us who had hoped for a guilty verdict spoke of "justice for Trayvon."  Truthfully, even if Zimmerman had been found guilty, there would still be no real justice for Trayvon.  He experienced the most egregious injustice there is - the senseless loss of his life.  But there might have been justice for all the kids that will follow him - we might have found comfort in knowing that this jury, and this system, would protect children and young people - all people - from assholes like Zimmerman.  I'm still processing everything that this verdict means, but I know what it means in terms of freedom - kids like Trayvon will have less of it going forward and guys like Zimmerman - grown men whose sense of masculinity and self-worth are found by "guarding" their neighborhoods with firearms - will have more.

 


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