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.

I Am Still Trayvon

I posted the poem below before, one of my favorites, because it is a true story. It is a simple story of how I, as a dangerous nine-year-old black boy in Pro Keds, scared an automatic-rifle-toting National Guardsman near the Safeway in Washington, D.C.

It was April 1968, no more than a week or so after Dr. King was assassinated. Tensions in the District were still high after the rioting that shook the nation’s capitol. The Government had called in the National Guard, ostensibly to prevent further rioting, but as much to scare the populous into staying in line. As I turned the corner, deep in my head as I always was at age nine, a nervous Guardsman spun, startled, and aimed his rifle directly at me. Within a moment, he had recovered, and pulled the gun down.

Later, as an adult, I could remember the incident, and was certain that he meant no harm. He was young, and nervous, and alone. And I was black.

The death of young Trayvon Martin stirs up these memories for me. It is not because the boy died, and I did not. It is not because he was black, as I am. No, I remember my encounter with the Guardsman because I was innocent. All I was doing was going to the store. I wasn’t targeted because I was black. I was targeted because the Guardsman had been taught to fear me.

Fortunately for me, I chose to tell no one. I chose not to learn to fear the soldiers in return. I chose not to fear uniforms, or my country, or those in charge. But I was lucky, you see. I was raised in the house of a career army officer. Other young black men aren’t so lucky. They learn to fear, and in return, become objects of fear.

And so, the cycle continues, one that can be traced as far back as Reconstruction. When I voted for Obama in 2008, I did not vote for slogans, or change, or the end to pointless wars. I voted for the American triumph of humanity over racism. No matter what else Obama does, or does not do, we Americans, together, won that victory. It was not an empty one. Less than four years later, I can still feel the change. It is no longer cool to hate. It is no longer acceptable to fear those different than you. It is no longer believable that anyone cannot – do anything – for reasons that have only to do with biology.

Today, I grieve, not only for young Trayvon, but for each of us. You see, when we stood together, those who voted for Obama, and those who voted against him, and watched his Inauguration, there was an unspoken tide swelling that said, “We shall hate no more. This far, no further.”

I still have hope. And I think to 1968, and I weep … because I am still Trayvon Martin.


i was born in Washington, D.C.
in 1958
a Negro
not because I wanted
to be born
or a Negro
but because I didn’t know better.

i was still a Negro
in 1968
at nine years old
and sporting my first
“natural” haircut (before the ‘fro)
when Dr. King died.

though I didn’t know who he was
at the time
i knew somehow
something in me
died with him.

i was reborn
two days later
when a National Guardsman
defending his country
aimed an automatic rifle
at my young brown head.

i lived
but the Negro died.