Saturday, March 24, 2012

We are all Trayvon Martin ... and George Zimmerman.

The weekend before last, I had a rather distasteful experience.  I was walking down the street in my neighborhood, which, I am happy to say, is fairly nice.  There are "nicer" neighborhoods out there, of course, but I like the neighborhood where I live, and I feel reasonably privileged to live there.  As I strolled west on the northern side of the block, I noticed a man walking east, towards me, on the same side of the sidewalk.  He was fairly non-descript; older than I, perhaps 50's or 60's, carrying a bag from Whole Foods Market.  I probably wouldn't have even really noticed him.  I probably would have just nodded to him and gone on my way.  I certainly wouldn't have noted that he was of a different race than I...

...except that, instead of passing me on the sidewalk, he stepped off the sidewalk, cut a semi-circle around me, then got back onto the sidewalk once he'd passed.

I was floored.  Granted, I was dressed a little scrubby; I was wearing cargo shorts, sneakers, a baseball cap, a grey hoodie.  So  what?  I'm an attorney.  I wear a suit and look dignified every single day of the week.  I think I'm entitled to wear whatever the hell I want on the weekend.  Beyond that, I've lived in my neighborhood for years.  People I've never met still know my face, and smile, or nod.  Heck, I've even taught self-defense classes at the local Y.  Here I was, a pillar of the community; what gave this guy the right to question MY presence in MY neighborhood?  Although I couldn't be sure what the man was reacting to (my race?  my clothes?  some combination thereof?  just didn't want to crowd me?), I knew that I had a really unclean feeling about the situation.  Really, that's the insidious thing about prejudice; when someone mistreats you, you can't help but wonder if that was the reason.  At the end of the day, though, I decided that this was no big deal.  I  just fired off a quick tweet about it to let off some steam, and let it go at that...

...until the next day, sitting down to breakfast with my soon-to-be wife, when I read about what happened to Trayvon.

And then, at the breakfast table, I did something then that I never do.  I'm not usually one to let the latest tragic news affect me too much.  Oh, it's sad, sure, but beyond that, things happen, right?  Being sad about it isn't going to change anything, or bring anyone back, so why waste time on woe?  Better to just try to keep moving forward.  But this day.  This day was different.  On this day, I looked up from the news story, up at my wife.  I thought about what it would be like to be taken from her.  I thought about what she would go through; she, my mother, my father, siblings, friends.  I thought about the magnitude of such a terrible tragedy.  And then ... and then,  looking into my wife's eyes, I cried.

I cried because, in light of my recent experience, it hit just a little too close to home.  I cried because such a tragic thing could happen. I cried for Trayvon.  Because he died.  He died a child, already a tragedy.  He died, in fear, in pain, in a manner in which the worst of us should not have to die.  For nothing.  No cause.  No purpose; hell, poor Trayvon never even had the time to discover what he was willing to fight for, to die for.  At best, Trayvon died for no other reason than that George Zimmerman, was scared of him.

I cried because, by dying a death that no one deserved, Trayvon proved that really, truly, he could have been any of us.

That is the truth, of course.  If Trayvon could die this way, why couldn't any of us?  That messed with, and messes with, me. I just kept asking myself, what if Whole Foods Bag had been someone different?  What if we weren't in California?  What if it were nighttime?  What if he'd previously been a crime victim?  What if he thought the guy that victimized him looked like me?  What if he thought I looked like I was "on drugs?"  What if he'd had a concealed weapon?  Come to think of it, how could I be sure that he hadn't?  Geez, what if the guy had been just a little more scared?  I thought about a million different facts, a million different variables.  And each time, I came to the same conclusion: I could not sufficiently convince myself that I could not be Trayvon Martin.  No matter what I told myself -- that this could never happen to someone like me, that Trayvon and I were worlds apart -- I could not, and still cannot, place myself anywhere but directly in Trayvon's shoes.  Why couldn't any of us find ourselves, in the wrong place, at the wrong time, face-to-face with the wrong person, scared of us in just the wrong way?  Just think.  We're scared of things all the time that we have no real reason to fear: spiders, the dark, clowns.  But George Zimmerman thought that he was justified in taking a life because he saw a boy, in a sweatshirt, talking on a cell phone.  Okay, it was dark.  Okay, Zimmerman didn't know what Trayvon had in his hands.  These are facts that justify the use of deadly force?  These are facts that justify what essentially amounts to, at least, murder in the second degree?  Even Bernie Goetz might be scratching his head at this one.

The question that needs to be explored, truly, is why George Zimmerman was scared.  And I submit that the answer is this: it is because we, all of us, have failed.  We have failed as a society.  We have failed because we have permitted a status quo to exist whereby we judge people, taking into consideration traits as meaningless as the color of their skin.  We have participated in this status quo; we have permitted it to exist.  We have even ADAPTED to it; we accept it as an inconvenient truth.  We have all failed.  And now, we are all, yet again, paying a terrible, terrible price.  We failed Trayvon Martin most of all, because his was the innocent life snatched away without reason.  But we have also failed George Zimmerman.

"Now, just a minute," you say.  "He's a monster," you say, "he's nothing to do with me!"  "I'M not racist," you say.  "I love everybody," you say.  "Oh, sure, some people ARE racist, but that can't be avoided...".  "Anyway, what about free speech?"  These are all fair points ... but ultimately, they are excuses.  Maybe race isn't your particular issue...but you, too, have at some point in your life jumped to a conclusion about someone.  So skin color doesn't matter to you; maybe you don't like the gays.  Maybe you're a misogynist.  Maybe you've got a less, ah, "conventional" bias, like ginger kids, or plumbers, or something.  Or maybe, just maybe, you're one of those people who thinks that it's alright to use words like "hick," or "redneck." Maybe you think it's okay to use "Red states" as an epithet.

Guess what?  It's not.  None of these things are okay.  Because they all boil down, in essence, to one problem.  That problem, the true problem, is intolerance.  We, as a nation, have tolerated intolerance for far too long.  We have permitted fellow countrymen, our brothers, to harbor beliefs that are not serving them.  To harbor false tenets, ideas, about how to get through life.  To harbor ideas that have lead them to hate and fear others for things that they cannot change: race, gender, sexual orientation, nationality.  Yet, when fate, circumstances, or whatever you care to call it, places such a misguided person in a very, very unfortunate situation, where that person acts in the only way that, theretofore, they know how, we point everywhere but at ourselves.  We pretend that we have not all learned to hate and fear each other because of the things that distinguish us from one another.  "Distinct" is not the same as "other," "different," or "opposite."  "Distinct" means "disparate."  That's it.  No value judgements about which is better, or which is worse.  No pre-conceived notions about what a certain trait means.  Just the simple, important truth that, whoever you are, I am you, and yet not you.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt once admonished us, once upon a time, that we have nothing to fear but fear itself.  We have been given countless opportunities, over the years, to let that lesson sink in: Watts; Rodney King; even the afore-mentioned Bernie Goetz incident, just to name a few.  Yet we continue to permit these false dividers to exist.  We do not fight them like the insidious cancer that they are, the blight that eats at the very roots of our society.  Do we really need another wake-up call?  How much worse can it get?  How much worse does it have to?

It is time for us all to move forward as a nation.  Messrs. Gingrich, Santorum, Romney:  I implore you, all of you, to condemn what happened to Trayvon Martin.  Publicly.  Openly.  And in a way that makes it clear, crystal clear, that racism in America is unacceptable.  I am sorry, but no amount of votes, and no office, not even the highest in the land, is worth selling your soul.  Speak truth to power, and bugger the consequences; who wants to be President of the proverbial house divided against itself, anyway?  Oh, and, Mr. Gingrich?  If I, you, President Obama, or anyone else had a son, they too would look just like Trayvon Martin.  Because they would be a human being, you see.  An individual guaranteed "certain inalienable rights."  The right to live.  The right to be free.  The right to follow their dreams.

Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton did have a son.  His name was Trayvon.  He was seventeen.  He had a sweetheart; he had aspirations.  He saved his father's life at the age of 9.  And now?  Now he is gone.  Not because he was "on drugs;" not that.  He is not dead because he failed to identify himself; nor did he have any duty to so.  He is certainly not dead because his "minority" parents neglected their purported duty to warn him about wearing a hoodie -- despite the ignorant, poorly conceived, and mind-numbingly stupid comments of Geraldo Rivera.  Indeed, Trayvon did nothing wrong.  Let's be crystal clear about that: Trayvon did nothing wrong.    Trayvon is dead for one reason, and one reason only: because George Zimmerman shot him.

George Zimmerman shot him.  Because he was scared.

* An aside, here at the end, because Mr. Rivera's comments really don't warrant serious treatment along with the rest of this subject matter.  But you, sir, should be ashamed of yourself -- you know, like your OWN SON is.  Thank God Gabriel got some common sense from somewhere; hopefully, he'll talk some into your other son, who apparently sees nothing wrong with what you had to say - or being advised by his father, essentially, that he'd better know his place. I'd call you a "Tio Tomas;" but that would be hypocritical in light of what I'm attempting to say here.  So, for God's sake, please just stop talking.

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