Pop quiz: if Trayvon Martin were 25, would you care to know his name?
If he had just been released from prison two weeks earlier, would you care that he was dead?
Why do you care so much about what happened to this one particular young man?
I ask because so much of the outrage surrounding Martin’s shooting has to do with his age. He was 17, shot on the way home from buying a bag of Skittles and an iced tea from a corner store. The imagery is striking — this young, skinny kid, far away from home, shot dead by a vigilante while returning from buying candy for his little brother. It tugs the heart strings, and it gets attention from even those “tired of talking about race.” A boy died, and there appears to be ample reason to believe that he got shot for, literally, trying to mind his own business. It’s the rare case where race is an unavoidable variable, probably the catalyst for everything bad that happened, and there is no polarizing effect. That’s what happens when kids get shot. No one wants to be the one to condone a child being stalked like prey. It’s an easy case to get behind.
But if our victim wasn’t so pristine, not a babe in the woods, are we having this discussion?
“We are taking a beating over this,” said Lee, who defends the investigation. “This is all very unsettling. I’m sure if George Zimmerman had the opportunity to relive Sunday, Feb. 26, he’d probably do things differently. I’m sure Trayvon would, too.”
The most annoying thing about being a black man is constantly having to explain what reason you have for being wherever the fuck you are at a given moment. George Zimmerman tracked Trayvon down because he was unfamiliar. As self-appointment overlord of the neighborhood, he needed to know who this odd black person was. In fact, based on the 911 calls, he needed to know who every unfamiliar black man was. When you’re black and male, you’ve always got a purpose. No one wants you just hanging around. It’s called “loitering,” in case you weren’t aware. No matter what, it would behoove a black man to have a helluva explanation for why he is doing whatever he’s doing. Because, if you wait long enough, someone is going to ask. If you don’t answer quickly enough, the cops will probably be called. And, if you don’t answer quickly enough, you might wish someone had called the cops, cuz they may have been your only hope for walking away unscathed.
Where’s your ID? Why are you here? Who’d you come to see? Hurry up and get where you’re going. We always have to prove we belong or, in other instances, that we deserve to be where we are.
In cases like this, we tend to try to figure out if the victim deserved to die. Did he have a weapon? Was he high? Was he behaving in a suspicious way? Was there any reason why someone may have thought, “I need to protect myself?” Or, put more simply, did he have it coming?
So what would have made it OK to shoot the kid? Or me, for that matter.
Not to get all self-indulgent, but with a hood on, 6-3, 140 pound Trayvon didn’t look much differently than I would. And I first would have walked quickly, then run. And if Zimmerman got out of his car and came toward me, I’d have swung on him. And then he would have shot me, and I would have been just as dead. Thing is, since I’m a grown man, chances are Zimmerman would have had some marks on his face for the cops to see.
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Would you, after the fact, have then thought it was OK to shoot me?
For giggles, let’s say that Trayvon’s body was found with a gun nearby. This happened in a town I went to school in many years ago, where Irvin Landrum, Jr., the victim of a police shooting, was found with a gun nearby. Cops claimed the young man drew down on them. The gun was once registered to a deceased former cop. The district attorney found no evidence the gun was planted, though.
For a second, forget whether or not the gun was planted. The real question is whether simply having the gun made it OK for cops to shoot this man. By that token, any cop riding in Sanford would have open season on George Zimmerman. He had a gun, after all. But we all know simply having a gun doesn’t mean you deserve to get shot. They wouldn’t license them if that were the case, no?
Had Trayvon Martin had a gun on him, would it have been OK to shoot him? Not had he pulled it. Just if he had it. Would that have been enough?
Those are the trickier questions when things like this come up. The biggest reason people feel so comfortable fighting on behalf of Martin and his family is there are no issues like those. He is a perfectly clean victim, the opposite of Rodney King.
Thing is, it’s not cool to shoot dirty victims for no reason, either. Had Martin been packing with a quarter-ounce of weed in his pocket, George Zimmerman still shouldn’t have followed and shot him. If Martin had a rap sheet long as my arm, there still would have been no reason to end his life. Bottom line: “looking suspicious,” is not probable cause, especially not for some dude who just lives in the damn neighborhood.
But so many black men look suspicious. The elephant in the room in this case is how mainstream the belief is that black men look “suspicious.” I’ve seen the outrage from many white people — and black ones, for that matter — that this could happen, but not a lick of introspection.
It’s not hard to look on the Internet and find black men writing stories about their personal experiences with the police. My sister wrote about what missing children mean to her as a survivor of the Atlanta Child Murders.
But is there anyone out there documenting how this case made them realize how scared they truly are of black men? Is there a blog post out there about how someone, like Zimmerman, finds black men suspicious and now realizes how faulty that thinking was? Where are these people who have crossed the street when they’ve seen me coming? Where are the cops talking about how they erroneously hassled young black men, accused them of being gang members, or all the other stuff I’ve had to deal with? Where are the old ladies talking about how they’ve called the cops on guys who may have been doing little more than walking back home?
I’m personally tired of hearing about how this affects black people. Quite honestly, there’s little for the average black person to learn from this. Most of us know the deal with police. We just know, now, we gotta worry the same about fuckin rent-a-cops. But trust, we knew people were afraid of us. We learn that at a very early age and deal accordingly.
But listen to Zimmerman on the 911 tape. Listen to how calm he sounds. And listen to how predictable everything he says is (including not even mentioning the black part at first, but it was clear what he was saying). We’ve heard people say stuff like this before because…people say stuff like this. But if you turn on CNN or any other place, you’ll find dozens of people saying this sort of flawed and irrational thinking happens all the time…but not a soul out here saying, “damn, this made me look at myself differently.”
Once again, we’ve got all this racism…but the only racist to be found is George Zimmerman. Who, as many have gone out of their way to point out, is part-Hispanic. FWIW, his last name is Zimmerman. So there’s that, as if anyone should truly care about either fact.
Bad news, folks: there’s a great chance you’re part of the problem on this. I’m not judging anyone. We all grew up in this country, surrounded by this racism, bombarded by images from the same media. It takes conscious resistance to avoid judging black people in this country, especially when it comes to men and criminality.
But please, read through what I wrote here. Think about some of the more basic elements of this story. Then, ask yourself how many of them sound personally familiar. If they do, please change.
Because just like Trayvon Martin got shot, it could have been me. I may be “famous,” but I wouldn’t make nearly as good of a victim. I’d just be a dead black man, not a boy, and that’s something few seem to care about.