July 15, 2013

Some Unpopular Thoughts on the Zimmerman Case

Trayvon Martin Protest - Sanford
Trayvon Martin Protest - Sanford (Photo credit: werthmedia)
There have not been many times during the life of this blog that I have wanted to write something and refrained from doing so because I knew it would anger many in my audience. It has happened a few times, but I usually manage to push through my hesitation because I'd rather be true to myself than cater to what others want to hear. This is one of those posts that I have been reluctant to write.

I have steered clear of Facebook and Twitter since the Zimmerman verdict dropped because I grew tired of all the hyperbole around it. The lead up to the trial was bad enough, with many of my fellow progressives falling all over themselves to label Zimmerman as guilty (and racist). Since the verdict, I realize that many of these same progressives are extremely disappointed that he was not convicted. I have no problem with them expressing this opinion. However, those determined to paint Trayvon as some sort of civil rights martyr quickly grew tiring.

It seems almost impossible for many people to look at both sides of a case like this and to identify with both the Martin family and Zimmerman. I do not find it particularly difficult to do both, and I'd like to give you an example of what it looks like.

Trayvon's Family

It is quite easy to adopt the perspective of Trayvon's family. Their high school student was shot and killed while walking in their neighborhood. He wasn't out with his friends getting into the sort of trouble that many 17 year-olds do, regardless of their race. He was not doing anything wrong at all; he was walking through their neighborhood. Their child should be relatively safe in their neighborhood. They have every right to outraged. They knew he wasn't out there looking for trouble. That someone would suggest he was acting suspiciously would have to strike them as absurd.

I imagine that any parent of a teenager could look at this case from the perspective of Trayvon's family and lose sleep over imagining something like this happening to their own child. The idea that their child could be killed because he looked suspicious to someone else - especially someone who may have been a bit paranoid in the first place - is horrific. "He's just a kid," they might say, "he's not out to hurt anybody."

Zimmerman

Admittedly, it is harder to identify with Zimmerman, but I can do so up to a point. I've lived in a couple bad neighborhoods, and I remember the constant fear. In the span of two years in one of these neighborhoods, my car was broken into four times, I was shot at (a near miss I heard passing close by my head), a close friend and five acquaintances were shot, another good friend was assaulted by a stranger, a family friend's home was burglarized, and I witnessed two altercations between police and youth the local media would describe as gang members. My good friend developed PTSD in response to being shot and nearly dying due to some surgical complications. My fear was not nearly as debilitating as his was, but it certainly affected me. If I had access to a gun at this time, you better believe I would have carried it everywhere I went.

I vividly remember lying in bed next to my girlfriend at the time and wondering how I could possibly protect her if the criminals decided to enter our residence. It seemed inevitable because houses up and down the street had been hit. I didn't have anything of value, but there was no way they could know that. My baseball bat was not much consolation, but it was all I had.

I don't fault Zimmerman for getting involved with a neighborhood watch program. I remember the feelings of helplessness, and at least he was trying to do something. Assuming there had been crimes committed in his neighborhood, I do not fault him for initially following Trayvon or calling the police. He did not know Trayvon; he saw a 17 year-old in a hoodie. In the neighborhood I described above, I would have regarded a 17 year-old in a hoodie walking around at night suspicious, regardless of his race.

But this is about as far as I can follow Zimmerman. There is no excuse for him continuing to follow Trayvon after the 911 operator told him not to. Not only did he continue to follow, but it sounds like he made the decision to confront Trayvon. Both were incredibly stupid moves with which I cannot identify.

Race

Race is relevant in the Zimmerman trial because there is some evidence that outcome of "stand your ground" cases often breaks down along racial lines. But I am not sure that Trayvon's race was terribly relevant in how Zimmerman responded to his presence. I do not recall hearing racial slurs in the 911 tape. Initially, Zimmerman did not even seem sure that Trayvon was Black. What I do recall was the reference to how "these assholes" are never caught. I see little reason to assume that Zimmerman was referring to any particular race here.

When I was living in the neighborhood I described above, race was also not terribly relevant. There were Black gangs, Latino gangs, and White criminals of many types. Age, manner of dress, and behavior were far more relevant to me in determining who looked suspicious than race.

Of course, there is another way that race is relevant, and it seems to be one that few want to acknowledge. There are bad neighborhoods in every major American city that are known to be unsafe. Their existence is no secret to the people who live there, many of whom happen to be racial/ethnic minorities. Their existence is no secret to law enforcement. And yet, most of those fortunate enough not to live in such neighborhoods are generally content to avoid them, both physically and psychologically. This is a problem, and it is one of the ways race becomes relevant.

What I would most like to see come from Trayvon's death is a stark and unavoidable reminder that victims of violent crime - no matter where they live - have families who care about them and who are deeply affected by their loss. When we see the Martin family in their grief, we should be reminded of all the families losing children to violence. We should ask ourselves why we continue to look the other way. Making Trayvon's death about gun control or race are merely distractions.

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