Before last week I have to admit that I hadn’t followed the tragic events involving Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman very closely. About three years ago the Bay Area was transfixed by the sad death of Oscar Grant and I didn’t want to follow another tragic racially charged case. I got caught up, though, in an informative email exchange and saw an explosion of outrage among many Facebook friends and I began to read more about the details of the case. In reading a lot of the comments about the case, a huge divide among our nation seemed to come clearly into view.
Over the past few decades there has been an epidemic of deaths of young African Americans due to gun violence, from both the prevalent black-on-black violence and white-on-black violence. Especially in Oakland, community leaders have been imploring state and federal governments for decades now to get more involved in fighting gang violence, in fighting poverty in inner city neighborhoods, in fighting for gun control laws. The seeming lack of interest in the lives of the young African Americans who are dying in the streets and getting incarcerated in prisons makes many African Americans suspicious of cases where kids like Trayvon Martin are killed for just walking in a neighborhood with skittles and some bags of tea. Especially coming a few years after Oscar Grant got killed in Oakland, there is this sense among many African Americans that young African American lives do not mean much.
The week after Trayvon got killed, Trayvon’s mom said in a press conference that she thought this incident was a tragic misunderstanding and not necessarily just a racial incident. I think she’s right. I think Trayvon’s reaction to Zimmerman and his gun was an immature overreaction, but Trayvon was an immature teen and I think any teen, whatever their race, would’ve been scared to death and might’ve overreacted to Zimmerman. If I was walking home late at night after visiting a 7-11, and a stranger started following me and flashed a gun at me, I’d be scared to death too. Considering that the police dispatch warned Zimmerman not to follow Trayvon and that Zimmerman was in a frame of mind that Trayvon was another punk that always got away with things, I think Zimmerman made many bad decisions that led to a needless confrontation.
Conservative writer David French wrote an article for Commentary Magazine that is probably the best that I’ve read so far about the Zimmerman case. David French wrote:
Zimmerman’s defenders have glossed over his action in following a law-abiding citizen after sunset as nothing more than an exercise of his rights as a citizen and neighborhood-watch captain. The sociologist John Lott Jr.—in a post questioning whether the “affidavit of probable cause” in the Martin case was legally sufficient—wrote on National Review Online: “Surely Zimmerman had the right to investigate a strange person in his neighborhood.” Yet this assertion ignores the on-the-ground reality that such behavior would be incredibly alarming and possibly threatening to the person being followed…
…After all, not even the most zealous Zimmerman defender has credibly accused Martin of initially doing anything other than walking home from the store—an entirely lawful act. If a teenager is followed after sunset by an unknown man, there are two predictable reactions: (1) The teen would likely be frightened, and (2) most reasonable observers would see that fright as reasonable and the unknown man as a potential threat.
Contra John Lott, citizens do not have a blanket right to “investigate a strange person in [their] neighborhood.” No such broad right exists in the Constitution, relevant statutes, or common law. Zimmerman’s alleged right to investigate is certainly limited by Martin’s right to walk in public spaces free from threats or threatening behavior. Were Zimmerman’s actions reasonable or unreasonable? Could Zimmerman have been reasonably viewed as a threat to Martin, and did Martin thus have the right to “stand his ground” rather than Zimmerman?
George Zimmerman initiated things by following Trayvon Martin. From what I’ve read, Trayvon Martin did not know that Zimmerman was part of a neighborhood watch. All he knew was that a stranger was following him for no apparent reason. When Trayvon asked George why he was following him, Zimmerman didn’t identify himself as a part of a neighborhood watch. When Zimmerman answered Martin by asking why he was in this neighborhood, it probably freaked out and angered Trayvon even more and Trayvon overreacted. Trayvon Martin was immature and made a mistake in in fighting George Zimmerman. Trayvon’s history of suspensions show that he was an immature kid. But that doesn’t excuse Trayvon getting shot for walking in his neighborhood after going to a store to buy skittles and tea bags. George Zimmerman was the adult in this situation with a gun. As an armed neighborhood watch person, he had the greater responsibility to be cautious and to make sure a situation doesn’t exacerbate and get worse. I think what happened was that a series of misunderstandings and misperceptions snowballed and led to Trayvon Martin’s death. The juror from the trial who recently had an interview was right when she said that Zimmerman made a series of bad decisions and should’ve stayed in his car.
I don’t think George Zimmerman is an evil person, merely a person who made a mistake in casting suspicion on a kid who was doing nothing wrong. I think Zimmerman will sincerely struggle with this for a long time, in the same way that Johannes Mehserle has been struggling with accidently killing Oscar Grant two years ago. I think both Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman have been stereotyped and demonized when I think both people are more complex and human than these one-dimensional portrayals of both the Right and Left. It was wrong for many activists to prejudge George Zimmerman as being guilty of something without first allowing him to say his side of the story and defend himself. But it’s equally wrong to just prejudge Trayvon Martin as being a punk who deserved to get shot.
I’ve read a little about the protests going around the country, and I empathize. I can understand the outrage of African Americans over the callousness over the system’s initial reactions to the death of Trayvon Martin, which is fueled by their outrage over the decades of the system’s callousness over the countless deaths of African American youths. Many African Americans feel like the wider society doesn’t care about the killing of African American kids, and I think the fact that conservatives have been so zealous in defending George Zimmerman and casting bad allusions about Trayvon Martin is just another brick in the wall for why minorities in general feel alienated from the Republican Party. I’m hoping that activists stop focusing on retrying George Zimmerman and focus instead on fighting negative stereotypes of African American males that lead to unfair racial profiling. Charlton McIlwan wrote an article for the Christian Science Monitor about the unfair media portrayal of African American males. He wrote:
Rivera’s observations are about the relationship between race, dress, and perceptions of criminality – a reality worth exposing at every turn. But he places blame on the Martins for not making their son sufficiently aware of the risks that his stereotyped dress made him vulnerable to. Rivera should have directed his blame elsewhere: news media that perpetually associate criminality with black males; legislators who frequently criminalize certain styles of black dress; and a criminal justice system all too willing to disproportionately monitor, harass, arrest, and incarcerate black boys and men because of mere “suspicion.”
…What is at issue here is not police officers’ ability to use tactics that stem the tide of violent crime – because the statistics show that these tactics do not. What is really at issue is the fact that the weight of police ineffectiveness to combat violent crime gets lightened on the backs of black and brown bystanders.
According to an internal police department study by the LAPD covering the year 2004-2005, blacks – relative to whites – were 127 percent more likely to be stopped, 76 percent more likely to be searched, and 29 percent more likely to be arrested.
…If change is to occur, we must first replace our exaggerated images of black male criminality with those more in line with reality, borne out by evidence.
For instance, a 2006 report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics compared homicide victim and offender data over a 30-year period. It showed that the gap between black and white offenders is much smaller than what the images we see on television and film tell us. From 1976 to 2005, blacks account for 51 percent of all homicides perpetrators, whites 47 percent. Surprisingly homicides perpetrated by whites are more likely to be gang related.
We must be willing to start countering the scary black man narrative with statistics like these when children are still young. Recent developmental research shows that children pick up fear of people of different races from their parents, and do so at a very young age.
I don’t have as many African American friends as I had when I was younger, but I remember a few of them telling me similar stories. I was lucky that I was sheltered in navy bases and never experienced racism until my dad retired from the navy and my family lived with civilians. Compared with what many African Americans have experienced, my own experiences with racism were really rather minor. I think the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case causes such outrage within the African American community because it strikes chords with their own experiences. I don’t think George Zimmerman should be the whipping boy for all the racism that African Americans have had to endure, but I do think we should try to better understand the outrage that African Americans feel and to address the problems that they have to face. One of the problems that this country has right now is that we don’t try to understand or empathize with people who are different from us, and we have the tendency to demonize or stereotype people whom we disagree with.
On a personal level, I hope that George Zimmerman express some remorse for the death of Trayvon Martin and apologize and offer condolences to Martin’s parents. One of the things that gets forgotten in all this is that a teenage boy is dead and his parents are in mourning. Zimmerman’s decision to follow this kid who was doing nothing wrong led to this situation.
Many people in the white community are as troubled by this tragedy as the African American community is. And even a handful of conservatives have joined their liberal counterparts in expressing outrage. Joe Scarborough wrote an article that criticized the way many of his fellow conservatives commented on this case. He wrote:
I can also conclude that many conservative commentators were offensive in their reflexive defense of Zimmerman, as well as their efforts to attack the integrity of a dead black teenager. I am also not sure how it is that the right-wing’s professional chattering classes usually find themselves on the other side of African-Americans in racially sensitive cases.
I do not remotely suggest that all conservatives opposed Zimmerman’s trial. The National Review’s Rich Lowry agreed with a handful of conservatives like myself that Trayvon Martin’s killer should be tried in a court of law. But I remained confused by a political party that desperately tries to expand its minority outreach by considering the granting of citizenship to millions of illegal immigrants while refusing to even give the benefit of the doubt to a young black man gunned down for no good reason in a suburban Florida neighborhood. I just don’t get it.
What I do get is why over 90 percent of African American voters have been voting against GOP presidential candidates for most of my life. Conservative commentary and GOP stand-your-ground laws only exacerbated that divide.
African American pastors and community leaders have been trying to get the nation to focus on the general violence, both black-on-black violence as well as white-on-black violence, against African American males for several decades now. Malcolm X was criticizing this violence way back in the 1960s. For many African American leaders this is just a part of a much broader fight to bring the country’s attention to the problems of poverty. They notice that poor rural white communities and poor Asian immigrant communities have the same problems of drugs and violence that poor African American communities have, so many African American leaders have been trying to ally with other leaders for a much broader fight against poverty.
Starting in the 1970s, the manufacturing jobs that used to provide work for the working poor and middle class in African American communities began to disappear as the American economy began to transition to a more information economy. The middle class began to leave the inner cities for the suburbs, and this left the poor in the inner cities alone to fight the lack of job opportunities, the growth of crime and drug use, and the cutbacks in social services under the Reagan years during the 1980s. All of these factors were more than the poor inner city African American communities could handle and they were overwhelmed. All of these factors led to the violence that hurt African American youth to this day.
African American leaders have been fighting for decades to draw attention to the poverty of these communities, the lack of job opportunities, the substandard schools, the drug problems, the feeling of being trapped and the feelings of helplessness that many African American poor people feel.
Growing up in my neighborhood, I’ve seen the same thing with poorer Filipino Americans, Vietnamese Americans, Hispanics and poor whites. It’s one of the big reasons why I have a more ambivalent opinion of free market capitalism. It’s a system with great benefits, but also great flaws.
From what I’ve read, it seems like many people are making hostile comments that are exacerbating racial divisions rather than trying to empathize and bridge those divisions. Hopefully more people will tone down their rhetoric and try to bridge the the divisions that have opened up. As human beings, we all have biases and prejudices. Some African American religious groups have been reluctant to support LGBT rights. I know some Asian parents who have warned their children not to have romantic relations with whites and blacks. I know personally that I have some prejudices that I’ve struggled to overcome. It’s human nature to have some prejudice. It’s our responsibility to learn and to try to overcome any prejudices that we have.
The Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman tragedy touches painful chords in the African American community. We should listen and try to understand why.
A vigil for Trayvon Martin’s family at the Martin Luther King Jr. Bridge
A Trayvon Martin vigil in Toledo
Here is a vigil for Trayvon Martin in Miami- Florida July 14, 2013
A vigil for Trayvon Martin in Green Bay
President Obama speaks on Trayvon Martin and why this tragedy resonates within the African American community
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