My brother is a tall, skinny, black kid with an athletic build who frequently wears a hoodie, often with his ear buds in. Sometimes he does this in a beautiful cul-de-sac community where he does not live, but my relatives in Delaware do, where all the houses look the same and there are only a few streets. All the backyards connect without fencing, and sometimes he’ll go for a walk down the street, or through the grass, sometimes at night, oblivious to who may be seeing him, wondering what he’s up to, while he’s ignorantly and blissfully listening to A$AP Rocky.
He is Trayvon Martin.
And as I’ve read and watched and discussed this case to anyone foolish enough to get me started on the topic, and although I, like many people, have occasionally been frustrated by the ways in which the media has characterized this case (George Zimmerman’s race, in my personal opinion, is irrelevant), the witnesses (like Rachel Jeantel, who has been beaten up on by not only the conservative media, but also the black community, the Twitter citizenry, and the defense and prosecution lawyers, even when they’ve tried to show her deference), the importance of the verdict (which, in my personal opinion, is irrelevant) and the potential of race riots after it is delivered (which, in my personal opinion, is irrelevant), I am almost embarrassed to admit how amazingly personal this case is to me as black man who will someday have black children.
That is because my brother is Trayvon Martin, and my future children are Trayvon Martin.
The indisputable facts of this case: George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch coordinator with a license to carry a concealed weapon, was accustomed to being on red alert after a series of burglaries by young black males who plagued his gated community. On the rainy evening of February 26, 2012, Zimmerman saw a potential perp — a young black male with ahoodie who was talking through his ear buds to a friend on the phone — and Zimmerman called the police as he had done half a dozen times before in the weeks before the incident.
Instead of remaining in his car, he got out and followed the teenager, even though police told him that an officer was on the way and they didn’t “need” him to do that. The teenager continued to travel away from Zimmerman, who continued after him. Eventually there was a confrontation, a fight, and the teenager, Trayvon Martin, was shot by a single bullet through his heart. Zimmerman has maintained that Martin was beating him up violently against the concrete, and that the killing was in self-defense.
And, believe it or not, the fact that Zimmerman can even claim self-defense, or the fact that anyone, regardless of race, can claim self-defense in a situation even tangentially resembling this one, is the mostdisturbing and terrifying aspect to me.
Defenders of George Zimmerman say, he had a reasonable reason to identify and suspect Trayvon Martin considering the recent burglaries. Getting out of his car wasn’t illegal, nor was ignoring the suggestion of the police dispatcher! Certainly nothing is wrong with asking someone, “What are you doing around here?,” and if, at any given moment, he had a reasonable fear for his life, then he had a legal right and responsibility to protect himself.
I have walked into restaurants and rest stop bathrooms where I have instantly been aware of my blackness, only because everyone else around me is. I have walked into places where people have literally whispered and pointed, without even the slightest bit of shame or covertness, to their companions at me, the lone black person in the establishment. I have had relationships dissolve because of parents who were “concerned” about what people might say about the black guy.
Me. The Old Navy cargo shorts and silly t-shirt rocking, flip-flops all day, every day, during the summer wearing, me. On the Cosby scale, I’m about six shades darker than Lisa Bonet and six shades lighter than Malcolm Jamal Warner. I’m Mr. I-wrote-a-book-on-Pee-wee-Herman-and-frequently-listen-to-the-Spice-Girls-and-the-only-hoodies-I-own-advertise-either-the-college-I-attended-or-the-musical-theater-show-I’m-directing-at-my-full-time-job.
But, you see, I’m Trayvon Martin. And if you’re a black male, regardless of your age, your height, your weight, how dark your skin is, what you’re wearing, and what you’re listening to on the device in your pocket, someone somewhere is seeing you as Trayvon Martin.
Even if you’re carrying a package of Skittles and an Arizona iced tea, just trying to continue your phone call and get to your father’s house to watch the NBA All-Star game with your little half-brother, you are Trayvon Martin.
And nice people who know me personally, hopefully, will shake their heads in confusion at this and will say, “Well, that isn’t fair! If they only knew you, no one would ever be afraid of you.” And, of course, that’s the point and the problem. Because if I can cause someone to feel nervous, concerned, or uncomfortable while they’re eating in a restaurant, then it doesn’t require a leap of faith to understand why George Zimmerman assumed that the teenager walking around his neighborhood was a threat.
But what I think is equally disturbing is that I canunderstand, and by extension, at least to some extent, accept the decision of George Zimmerman to notice Trayvon Martin and make that 911 call in the first place.
When I walk into a convenience store late at night, especially if I’m the only person there besides the employee, I’m amazingly aware of how my presence might make him or her feel uncomfortable. I consciously try to smile and look pleasant. Sometimes I even go so far as to have my debit card in my hand before I reach the counter so I don’t have to reach in my pocket and run the risk of causing any alarms – literal or figurative. When stopped by a cop (which, especially when I was a teenager, would happen all the time), I sat patiently with my hands on the wheel, and gave clear and non-threatening verbal warnings before I made any movements.
“My registration is in my glove compartment,” I’d say. “I’m going to take off my seat belt, open my glove compartment, and go get it for you, sir.”
One time on the New Jersey Turnpike, as I was driving back to college, a state trooper stopped me for speeding. After I gave the verbal warning and got the okay, I reached into my glove compartment.
“Rolling papers?” he asked.
“Are those rolling papers?” There were about five super-flat packets of Stride gum in the back of my glove compartment.
I said they were packets of gum, and after I pulled them out and put them in the trooper’s hand, which he inspected with his partner as if the two of them had never seen a pack of gum before, I was let off with a warning and sent on my way.
And as I drove away, I took those packets of gum and threw them in my book bag. How stupid, I immediately thought, for keeping them inthere. I should have known they looked like rolling papers.
It wasn’t until I got back to my dorm room that I was amazed that in that encounter, I somehow felt guilty, like I had done something wrong for having gum in my car. There are people who will argue that if only Trayvon Martin had declined to hit George Zimmerman after he was a) hit first, or b) approached, or c) followed, depending on which version of the story you believe, or if Trayvon hadn’t been wearing that hoodie, despite the adverse weather conditions, he’d still be alive. Sure, he wasn’t guilty of anything really, but he could have made life easier for himself by maybe not acting or looking so, I don’t know, bla—intimidating?
This is a significant part of the underlying concern a lot of people, particularly black people, have with this case. It isn’t enough that Trayvon Martin was killed with nothing more than a cell phone, a photo button, a bottle of Arizona iced tea, and a package of Skittles on him, but then insult is added to injury when it’s insinuated that he somehow, inherently, deserved it for walking-while-black in a gated community that happened to have previously been plagued by black criminals. Somehow, for a lot of people, it wasn’t George Zimmerman’s fault that Trayvon ended up killed because, as we “all know,” Trayvon was sort of asking for it.
You put on a hoodie and you know what baggage comes with that, right?
This case will, frighteningly, come down to whether or notthe six jurors believe that George Zimmerman was justified in his fear. Another way of asking that is, of course, whether or not those six jurors, if placed in the same situation, could imagine themselves reasonably drawing and acting upon those same assumptions.
Is it impossible to imagine that? Of course not. But that’s precisely the problem.
Because as I think about what certainly occurred that evening, and what likely did, even if I give every single concession to George Zimmerman’s contested version of events (ie: Trayvon hit him first, Trayvon pushed Zimmerman to the ground, Trayvon beat him up, Trayvon saw the gun –- which is amazingly unlikely in the blackness of the night with the weapon concealed, but let’s just say that happened), I can’t help but think to myself:
Good. Good for you, Trayvon Martin, for doing what I would hope to God my brother would do if he was walking down the street with a package of Skittles and was followed and confronted by a man with a decade of life and 70 pounds over him.
Because what people don’t understand about this unfortunate situation is that I feel some degree of fear when I’m doing nothing wrong, like in the restaurant, rest stop, and convenience store, and my very presence causes someone to feel afraid.
And if you aren’t safe with a package of Skittles, walking around your family’s cul-de-sac in Delaware, wearing your Old Navy flip-flops,then when are you ever safe? If you find yourself approached by some stranger, why can’t you run from them without it being assumed that you’re fleeing the scene of some crime you’re destined to commit? If you’re a teenager and confronted by an adult you perceive to be creepy, why can’t you fight for your life? Stand your ground? And why, if you get killed after all of that, would people say it must have been your fault?
A lot of people don’t understand that. They think black people see race in everything and Al Sharpton should have just minded his business. Trayvon Martin was a hood and George Zimmerman did what any responsible person would have done. Justice was already served, they say, and a verdict finding Zimmerman guilty of anything would some sort of de facto reparations –- an example of white guilt and a bone thrown to the civil rights movement.
And that’s only because they haven’t walked a mile from a 7-11 back home in Trayvon Martin’s shoes, like so many other people have.
As University of Connecticut professor and New Yorker columnist Jelani Cobb wrote, “We live in an era in which the protocol for addressing even the most severely bigoted behavior very often includes a conditional apology to the offender—a declaration that he has made a terrible error, but is, of course, in no way racist—and, eventually, an outpouring of support for the fallible transgressor, victim of the media and the ‘race-hustlers.’ We grade racism on the severest of curves, and virtually no one qualifies.”
That’s true, which is why I think questions of George Zimmerman’s racial views are irrelevant. Labeling anyone a racist is a feudal argument, especially since it amounts to nothing. I have never seen someone effectively convinced that a person is a racist. It’s a judgment that’s impossible to be talked into or out of.
But I offer this. Just a few hours ago, Zimmerman’s defense attorney Mark O’Mara, who I believe has genuinely been a relatively reasonable person throughout this trial, took to CNN to give his first interview after the two sides rested their cases. He was asked by the anchor what he thinks George Zimmerman’s life will be like if he’s acquitted.
O’Mara, with a stone face and look of genuine disappointment in the truth embedded in his answer, said that Zimmerman will never be safe. He’ll always live his life in fear. He will never know when a “crazy person” (his words) will kill him.
“Everyone knows what George Zimmerman looks like,” O’Mara said. “He doesn’t know what a person who wants to kill him looks like.”
And this was said without even the slightest hint of irony. The irony jumped out of my television, into my living room, pointed at me, and laughed in my face. And I called it “sir,” and I apologized for even noticing it in the first place. And it shot me in my heart and made me come to my computer and confess the truth that I’ve met George Zimmerman.
Zimmerman doesn’t know what a person who wants to kill him looks like, but everyone knows what he looks like?
Which is fundamentally different than George Zimmerman knowing what “they” – those many, many Trayvon Martins out there – look like.
(Author, Hackensack High School Teacher, Rutgers Alumni, Rutgers Professor)
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