Thursday, March 22, 2012

Some Thoughts on a Young Man's Murder

Trayvon Martin. His story tears me up. It's hard for me to know how inundated folks are about news stories in the States (since I'm in the UK), but clearly this story has been getting much play.

If you don't know much about the story, you could read about it HERE, at the good old BBC.

Or HERE at the Guardian.

Or you could listen to the On Point show about it HERE.

Or just do a search. Plenty of stories out there. They'll tell you about a teenage boy that got shot to death while armed with Skittles, a bottle of iced tea, and a cellphone. He got shot because a paranoid neighborhood watch vigilante seemed to really be afraid of black males he didn't know. Despite the fact George Zimmerman weighs 250lbs and had a handgun (compared to Martin's 140lbs and convenience store items) he claims to have felt his life was in danger. With gun in hand, he shot. An irreversible action. The local cops accepted that. Didn't even arrest him.

Wow.

When I was a teenager I looked much like this boy. (I would post a photo of me at the same age if I had one with me.) He could be me. He could be my one of my friends. He could be Chris, or Omar, or the other Chris, or the other David, or Dwayne or... I could go on. Neither I nor any of my friends ever did any crime more serious than teenage mischief. None of us got arrested. None of us were a danger to anybody.

Like Trayvon... accept that we were luckier than him.

There was a time in college when I - influenced by eye-opening African-American history and literature courses - went a bit Afro-centric in my look. Grew my hair out a bit. Wore a knit cap with a Rastafarian vibe. Sported t-shirts with African themes. The more convincingly I grew into my African appearance, the more I noticed how differently people looked at me. Librarians that I'd known for years didn't recognize me. People seeing me approach them on the street grew clearly nervous. And...

I will always remember one time on campus, when I came out of the stairwell in the English Department. It was late in the day, maybe 7pm or so. I came face to face with one of my professors, a middle-aged white man with whom I'd taken two courses the year before. Apparently, I'd changed enough that he didn't recognize me. He flinched, and slid to one side of the hallway and... bolted passed me.

I stood there thinking, "What just happened?" Not only had he been my professor for two courses, he'd given me A's in both of them. He knew that I edited the college literary magazine. He'd been in the jury that awarded me the college fiction award. At least, if he'd recognized me he would've known all those things. But that evening he didn't see the young man he knew. He saw a black youth that scared him. Instead of saying, "Oh, hi David. You gave me a fright," he bolted like his life was in danger.

That's what concerns me. This professor had no reason at all to think his life was in danger. He should've recognized me from hours in his classroom - hours in which I consistently earned top marks. I was on campus, entering the department in which I had an office (as the magazine editor). And yet he ran from me because I looked - in that moment - like someone he thought was scary. How was I scary?

I had puffy hair and a funny cap. Oh, and I was black.

I've never forgotten that moment, but I hadn't thought about it for awhile. I hope that anyone reading this will have sympathy for Trayvon Martin's family. I also hope you'll ask for actual justice to be applied to his killer, and to the police that didn't feel this boy's death merited criminal examination.

If a law says you can shoot someone because you're afraid - as the Florida law apparently says - innocent people will die (are dying). Being outraged by the misguided act of an individual is one thing. Being outraged by organizations and politicians that facilitate irreversible violence in another.

I'm angry at both right now.

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8 Comments:

Blogger Derryl Murphy said...

David, many years ago I attended meetings at a college in a suburb of Chicago (it was a student union thing), and one night we were taken on a tour of Chicago. No surprise, the driver got lost because they just didn't go into the city that often.

Long story short, we ended up parked on a deserted street while they tried to figure out where we were. At that point, a large young black man carrying an Adidas bag walked past, muscles bulging and him glaring at us through the windshield. The immediate reaction of the natives was panicky whispers of "Don't look him in the eye!" and "Ohmygod ohmygod ohmygod!"

And so my immediate response was to give him a big smile and a wave. The good (but really, so surprise to me) news was that his response was an equally big smile and wave, even as my hosts were yelling "No, Derryl!"

As a young man, I was amused by what happened, and told the anecdote now and again as a humorous item. But as I got older I realized what this said about society (mine as well; I don't pretend that being Canadian lets me off the hook with this sort of shit). It can still prompt laughs, but it also makes me curious and sad.

And then, just when I'm getting hopeful, someone like Trayvon Martin reminds me of just how far we all have to go.

11:53 PM  
Blogger Alan Horne said...

So many people have jumped to the conclusion that this is a racially motivated crime. And, really, it could be. But I worry that people are embracing this idea without gathering evidence for it.

Yes, Zimmerman killed Trevon in cold blood, but there are several explanations as to why it occurred. We know that Zimmerman was a self-appointed neighborhood watch chief. We also know he was extremely paranoid. In the past year, he called 911 fifty-one times---all false alarms.

The most likely motivator for him to kill, it seems, is a kind of vigilantic mindset that he twisted himself into. He fooled himself into thinking he was some kind of police officer. It seems he wanted to be a hero. This desire could have led him to target anyone walking alone at night.

Of course, it's also very possible that he his actions were based on BOTH racial profiling and his own delusions of martial authority. But how can we prove it?

Unless he has a documented history of racism, it will be difficult to prove that the killing was a hate crime. It seems, however, that his ACTIONS can be proven to be homicide, even if his motives cannot be empirically proven either way.

In any case, I ask that we all wait to cry racism until we have documented proof of such.

12:46 AM  
Blogger Howard Tayler said...

Obligatory disclaimer: I'm a middle-aged white guy.

Three years ago I decided I needed a makeover. I stopped wearing t-shirts, and wore dark dress shirts instead. I still wore jeans, but I always made sure they were crisp -- the ratty ones were for yardwork only.

Shortly after I did this I went shopping and was SHOCKED at how much differently I was treated everywhere I went. Women looked at me more. Shopkeepers went out of their way to help me. Everybody was more polite.

About six months ago I was sick, and went shopping in my pajamas with a hoody. For the first time in two and a half years somebody asked to see my ID in conjunction with my credit card.

It's not just race, people. Race is certainly a HUGE part of perception, but we pass out snap judgments all day, every day, based on dress, gender, height, weight, hairstyle, and more. We have to learn to be better people.

Especially if we happen to be carrying lethal weapons around.

1:09 AM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...

Derryl,

I recall a similar experience when I was a kid visiting my father in Trinidad. Me and some cousins were sitting in a parked car. When they saw a Rastafarian walking by, they jumped to roll up the windows, saying exactly the "Don't look him in the eye!" sort of thing that you mention.

Nothing happened, of course. The guy just strolled by. That was a long time ago, but I've never forgotten it.

Alan,

For me there's a matter of definition of terms here. I would argue that it's clear that race played a significant role in all of this. In Zimmerman's fear and reaction, in Trayvon's fear and reaction. In the cops' failure to express much concern over the boy's death, and in all of the reactions people have to it - including denying that race is important. There are broad and myriad ways that race plays out in all of our lives every day. I find that acknowledging that is a useful starting point in considering complex, multifaceted situations like this.

To say that race has a part in this doesn't mean that I think Zimmerman stared in the mirror every night and said, "I'm a racist. I hate black people." That's very unlikely. But that doesn't mean he didn't fear young black men in a particular way - a way he likely didn't fear young white men. This is hardly a controversial notion. If that fear made this situation - and his clear paranoia in general - escalate to a deadly outcome than race has to be part of the discussion.

Howard,

I don't disagree with you at all. You know that, right? Everyone makes snap judgments based on many things - me included.

My discussion of my particular experience - and comparing it to the experience of other black males - takes nothing away from the diversity of situations many people face everyday. I'll happily say that I'm including race into the discussion because this is a situation in which I feel some kinship to Trayvon because of a shared racial identity. The closer you are to it, the more you're likely to feel it with particular, specific and personal poignacy.

6:48 AM  
Blogger Diana Munoz Stewart said...

I have never been threatened, intimidated, or so much as cursed at by a black man. I have been treated with respect and kindness in every encounter I have ever had with black men. There is this horrible destructive myth about black men that has no reflection to my reality. So where is the collective image that speaks about the black men I know? The one that says you will be treated with respect, because this individual knows what it is like to be disrespected? The one that says you will be given the esteem or indifference, closeness or distance you invite, because a black man has no need to give you something you don’t want or to take something from you that you don’t want to give. The one that speaks about what I’ve witnessed--a man’s dignity and self-composure in the face of small mindedness? Where is the myth that reflects the individuals I know?

6:12 PM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...

Problem may be that myths are easier built on unrealistic exaggerations, while reality is, too often, harder to believe.

Diana, you have touched on something. I'm very, very conscious as a black male of a need to appear non-threatening in many situations. I go out of my way to control body language, to smile and make eye contact (or not smile or make eye contact). I've often felt people respond to me with concern - like when I'm passing them on the street at night. I'm there trying to make it clear I'm not a threat (without looking absurd) at the same time I'm thinking - "If you knew me, you'd know you're safer with me around than without me - since I'm the type of fool that would jump to help you if anybody else was harming you."

That's what I'm thinking, but the person anxious to get away from me doesn't know that.

8:46 AM  
Blogger Dan (Targh) said...

David, it was great to meet you this weekend at Eastercon. I was the guy who semi-cornered you at the BWB party.

I've heard mostly about this case through my activity in an online forum populated primarily with Americans, and it does appear to have been very much in the news there the whole time. It stuns me that Zimmerman wasn't arrested, and I can't help but feel that aside from the motivation behind the killing, the fact that he was able to legally carry a firearm has something to do with it. I think it's hard to deny that in a country with stricter gun controls it would be a deal harder (though still not impossible of course) for events like this one to occur. As someone who's been living in the UK for a while now I wonder if your opinion on gun control in the US has altered? I'm well aware from the same forum that this is a somewhat controversial subject, as with anything that touches on the constitution.

I do very much wonder what the police would have done if Martin & Zimmerman's roles had been reversed. I have a feeling that Trayvon would have been arrested, and that's a very troubling thing.

Hopefully in the longer term some good will come of this and similar crimes, and make us all challenge our preconceptions - but it's a high price to pay.

5:02 PM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...

Dan,

Good to have met you! Eastercon was a good time, wasn't it?

As for gun control... well, I don't know if my time in the UK changed my opinions on that or not. I've been back and forth over here for fifteen years, though, so maybe the UK has shifted things in me that I now think of as completely natural to me. I'm all for stricter gun control. No doubt about that. It makes for safer nations, as actual facts around the world prove.

I don't have much hope for an immediate change in the laws in the States, though. The lobby against anything (even the most obviously reasonable) gun restrictions is too powerful and well-funded.

12:13 PM  

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