Trayvon, Zimmerman, and the Death of Empathy

I previously wrote about my feelings regarding Trayvon Martin’s death in my piece, “I Am Still Trayvon.” I won’t repeat it here. Instead, I will make a personal confession. The Zimmerman verdict surprised me. It didn’t surprise me because I thought he would be found guilty; instead, I was surprised that anyone was surprised by the verdict.

Trayvon_Martin_on_the_backseat_of_a_car 220px-Zimmerman,_George_-_Seminole_County_Mug

I was surprised, you see, because my surety in Zimmerman’s release wasn’t based on knowledge of Florida state law. Instead, it was an indication of my own reemerging cynicism. Young men die in the U.S., as they do all over the world. My belief in Zimmerman’s acquittal flew in the face of my knowledge of law. There was an overriding factor, I believed: none would ever see a young black kid as a victim unless the shooter had been another black kid. It was all about race, I thought.

But there was a burning belief in the recesses of my conscience that edged me toward a deeper analysis. This wasn’t about race, although the superficialities would indicate that it was. Now, I’m not talking about Zimmerman’s motivations: that is now between him and God, and I am not He. I’m talking about the jury.

This morning, my dad called, and we spoke about the case at length. He relayed a story regarding his reaction to the shooting of 20 six and seven year old children at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut. Now, that shooting affected me a great deal, not in small part because I am a parent, but more so because I live on a street with an elementary school. Each school day, I am awakened with a procession of six and seven year olds on their way to class. It was difficult to image a 20-year-old becoming twisted enough to want to harm them.

The killings affected Dad too. It was some small irony that the impact of the murders hit him while he was in church at New Town United Methodist. As the pastor began speaking of the horror, as pastors must, my dad became so emotional he had to leave the sanctuary. A concerned friend followed him out, worried, and asking, “What’s wrong, Claude?”

“What’s wrong?” we all ask. That we even have to ask the question is what is wrong. What is wrong is that a jury can’t imagine how frightened a typical 17-year-old boy, full of bluster, might be. What is wrong is that we can no longer be outraged by death come too soon, or a life taken too cavalierly. What is wrong is that you can count on an acquittal not because of racism, but because it is so hard to care anymore. Give society an out, and they will take it. Tell a jury, “Maybe this was nobody’s fault,” and they will nod, and say, “Not guilty.”

Because, you see, it didn’t happen to them. Their unasked question? “What’s wrong, Claude?” “You mad, bro?”

Naw, I’m not mad. I’m just not dead enough yet not to feel.

So, for those who think the Trayvon Martin case was ever about race, let me replay it. However, since I am a writer, I will change the characters and the motivations, but not the actions.

A 17-year-old girl is walking home from the grocery store. She has candy and junk food, and is feeling great. Rain threatens and it’s scary being out by herself, so she pulls her hoody up both as protection against the elements and in order to look tough enough not to be messed with. It didn’t work.

A man follows her in a jacked-up old car. He’s on the phone, but she feels he’s also up to no good. In fact, she’s almost certain he will follow her home where he will rape and possibly kill her. For the sake of imagining, let’s say he doesn’t intend to. Let’s say he only wants to get her number.

She doesn’t know that, however. And, in any case, her damned number is none of his fucking business. Is it?

So, he stops the car, walks over, and asks for her number. She refuses, they argue. A struggle ensues, and he is getting heated. Now, maybe he’s changed his mind. Maybe he wants to rape her, or maybe he’s sorry he ever asked for the damned number. She digs her fingers in his face. Someone screams. He pulls out the gun and shoots.

The end.

So, there are two camps here. Camp 1 says she was afraid of being raped and fought for her life. When she was just about to overpower her rapist, he shot her, and the jury acquitted him. Self defense. That is what happened in the Martin case. If you are being followed by a rapist, you better be damned sure you can convince a juror you are the victim.

But what else happened in Florida? A man got out of the car, liking the girl and asking for her number. She flipped the fuck out, started trying to kill him, and he shot her. He quickly realized he’d gotten in over his head and panicked. His crimes? One, very poor judgment. Two, reckless endangerment that lead to death. He meant no harm, but harm was done. That’s manslaughter.

Why was he set free? Because the lead prosecutor got greedy and went for 2nd-degree murder, placing his own desires ahead of the law and the evidence. A 2nd-degree conviction was never going to happen, because it requires “a depraved mind without regard for human life.” Hand-to-hand combat is not “a depraved mind.” That conviction would have pretty much have required Zimmerman shoot Martin without any resistance. It also happened because the prosecutors couldn’t get the jury of 6 women to identify with the young, black victim. Identifying with victims is something we now have to be trained to do. And it happened because we are so jaded, all of us, including me, that Shit Happens is not just a saying, it’s a legal decision.

Trayvon Benjamin Martin, all 5’11” and 158 pounds of him, was shot to death by George Michael Zimmerman, a 5’7″ wannabe cop with a short-man complex. The verdict: Shit Happens.

And it will again, unless we change — all of us.

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21 Replies to “Trayvon, Zimmerman, and the Death of Empathy”

  1. Due to my complete lack of interest in ‘news’ (especially entertainment as news.. the trial was on in the hairdressers for goodness sake,) i was very interested in your take on the whole thing. though of course I did not know he had been acquitted. I really really do not read, or hear or watch the news, all these things seem so convoluted,no-one tells it all, reporting is always weighted. So I know less than a little about it all. My own thoughts are if you walk outside with a loaded gun and then walk back inside after shooting someone to death, then i smell a RAT.. there should be some kind of repercussion. Some kind of consequence. Lucky this did not happen in Papua New Guinea, Mr Zimmerman would be dead by now. Mistake or not. Is that too primitive a thought? Yes it is. Visceral really..I know.. not evolved. If this was my son, i would not be on the tele, I would be hunting and then I would go to jail. The guy had a loaded gun and was following my son. I know that is simplistic, but there you are. Well you can see now why i don’t watch the news. Sorry. have i said too much.. well.. Time to go and feed my animals! .. love love.. c

    1. Sometimes the visceral reactions are the truthful ones. I keep asking myself, what if it was a girl victim and he was a rapist? Would we still have acquitted him. I think the answer is yes.

  2. So true, if that wanna be cop would have listened to the police dispatcher Trayvon would still be alive and well. My son is a law enforcement officer and I hear the stories of these self entitled fools that try to subvert the system and it never turns out well for anyone.

    1. That’s what I think it’s about too. I’ve been accosted by these types before, and sometimes they are the same race as me. It’s just some guy wanting to be a big shot. So pointless.

  3. You are absolutely right about it not being about race but it was, made to be about race. Our country is great at doing that. Over zealous DA going for a win, the father changing his story to sway the jury and Zimmerman, aka Napoleon walks…It’s a shame that people, the world over don’t stop to think that we all bleed the same color red. I, personally, do not think Mr. Zimmerman would have bothered with Mr. Martin if he had of been a woman…he was there for one thing and one thing only and that was to “police” the area. Unfortunately, he was not the police and he did not heed the police’s warning of not following Mr. Marin. This is just another example of the sick state of our justice system and it miscarriage of justice that happens everyday in our country. From convicting on circumstantial evidence to going after a charge that can never be convicted on. My heart goes out to both families as none of them will ever Rest In Peace. I can only hope that someday, the world will learn the definition of empathy.

    1. Leanna, thanks for your insightful comments. I agree with you. And what’s worse, I think we’re finally reaching a place where racism doesn’t matter, and the media is so interested in selling themselves, we get these stories that miss the whole point.

      Zimmerman didn’t get off. He’s made his and his family’s life miserable.

      1. Again, I agree with you wholeheartedly Bill. His and the entire Martin family. This is a sad, sad world we live in when our own media reports what they want us to know, not what we need to know. It’s even sadder to know that foreign media reports more accurately and timely information than our own does. I don’t usually watch the news or even read it for the fear of misinformation and the feeling of dread it leaves in my soul. I’d much rather read damnyouautocorrect.com and have a good laugh instead, life is just way too short… 😉

  4. I can’t remember which Facebook friend shares your work, but I’m glad that they do. This was so stripped down and bare-bones, nothing to stumble or trip over – just straight-up “c’mon, guys”. Thank you for putting that out there.

  5. I liked your retelling of the story. Viewing a situation from a different angle can be illuminating. Zimmerman entered a situation with the wrong intent, wrong expectation. He was told to stay out of it by police and he disobeyed. He is culpable for these reasons.

    1. Thanks for the feedback. I think the fact that the two were different races might be relevant, but it obscures the real problem, and that is a bad law gives people the right to shoot people as if they were cops.

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