Monday, July 15, 2013

Searching for clarity

It's been roughly 36 hours since a man named George Zimmerman was acquitted of second-degree murder or manslaughter charges in the shooting death of a teenager named Trayvon Martin inside a gated community in Sanford, Florida, where the 17-year-old was visiting his father.

It's been a tough two days of trying to find my way past the disappointment, mounting anger and rage, the temptation to emotionally disconnect with companions and family who were born paler than I, and then the recognition that many of my friends, no matter their hue, also feel anger and outrage, and that this story goes deeper than skin color. It speaks to our mutual distrust of each other.

When racially-charged crimes happen -- whether they are celebrities accused, then acquitted of murdering an ex-wife and her friend, or video evidence of a brutal police beating, or three people chaining another to the back of a truck and then dragging him to an awful, grisly death, or a man strapping on a gun to ostensibly pay a visit to a Target store, only to end up gunning down a young man who was armed with a can of iced tea and a bag of candy while hurrying to get out of the rain -- no matter who you are, you feel as if you're being forced to choose sides.

Are you on the side of the police, the athlete, the neighborhood watch guy who presumed wrongly that this kid was a burglar, or do you identify with the victim? Or do you even question which person was the victim?

It's no secret that black men in our society are perceived as perpetrators. But that's a perception, not a fact. But that means being out in society is perceived as suspicious behavior, even if it's something many people do every day.

Driving while black is a real thing. Every black male (and many females, myself included) I know can tell a story about being stopped, or pulled over for some made-up infraction. One friend was pulled over in a southern state because his out-of-state license tag indicated he came from up north. Because he was unfailingly polite, and his young daughter was in the car, the police officer couldn't provoke a confrontation. He decided to just ask if he was all right, because he had been driving a long way and might be tired. Really?

I've been pulled over for "weaving on the road" after the bars close (but night workers like myself also are out late). I knew it was a typical DWB because after the officer asked if I had been drinking, he said slyly, "then what is that I smell?" He was hoping for the admission that I had had a glass of wine, or one beer, just enough to tell me to step out of the car. But I don't drink. At all. Ever. And I can't be bluffed. I stifled the impulse to tell him it must be his upper lip that smelled, and just said, "I have no idea because I don't drink, and I'm coming from work." There was nowhere for him to go from there, except, "well, stay on your side of the road." And that was just the first time I've been stopped for DWB. It's always at night when I'm coming home after 2 a.m., and the police are looking for drunks. One even told me I had come from the wrong way on a one-way street (I didn't, but if you're drunk, you can be fooled), another followed me for a mile before pulling me over on the highway(!) to tell me one of my license plate bulbs was out.

So that perception of "guilty of something, I just don't know what yet" is real.

George Zimmerman saw it. He, feeling that surge of power that comes with a gun, decided to confront it and be a hero. He instead found a young strong teenager who was alarmed a man was following him and fought for his life. Turns out, he had a right to be afraid. Zimmerman's heroic vision turned deadly when his "suspect" fought back. Did Zimmerman fear for his life? Maybe. But the jury didn't get the memo that one cannot and should not see a bear, stalk it, poke it and then claim "it started it" and then shoot it dead when it fights back. If Trayvon had been an animal, even a stray dog, Zimmerman would be in jail right now. We as a country feel more outraged by abuse to animals than we do to abuse of children.

And even though he was tall and wiry, Trayvon, just turned 17, was a child. As the mother of a teenager who is taller than me, I know the difference. They think like children and make mistakes like children. Demonizing a young man, calling him a "thug" after the fact does not justify shooting him down after ignoring a police dispatcher's advice to let the professionals handle it and then finding that this bear was able to fight back.

But I also need clarity about the jury. Six women, with 14 children between them didn't see a scared young man. He's long dead, so can't speak for himself, or to his state of mind. Perhaps they identified with a person who was "menaced" by a "street thug." Perhaps the prosecution did a terrible job of showing the measure of a man allowed to have a gun despite a violent past. Perhaps the judge allowed the defense to use character assassination of the victim to its advantage. Perhaps what we see, what is reported on and what is allowed for the jury to hear skews things too much.

And that is a reality. I believe everyone should serve on a jury at least once. I have and learned a lot about how deliberations work. You can't go with your feelings, your beliefs, or even your perceptions of what happened. You are hamstrung by using only what is in front of you and basing your decision on that and that alone. I served on a drug case in which we found the defendent guilty of a lesser charge. We all believed he was guilty of a felony, but the evidence just didn't support that. Afterward the judge came back and talked with us and we told him our misgivings. He said we did a good job, and this guy was going away for a long time anyway, having already been found guilty of a felony before. Turns out the guy was so dangerous they had him in leg irons the whole time. We never saw them; they covered the front of the table where he sat and when he testified, he was on the witness stand already when we entered and stayed there until we left. That was so we wouldn't be prejudiced by the heavy hardware.

So I get that the jury could only see the inept witnesses, the ambiguous testimony even from the state's experts and look at a doughy defendant and see him as vulnerable while hearing that a young black man was stronger.

We could blame the Stand Your Ground law. We could blame a lot of things that are wrong with this decision.

But instead of blame, we should look again at the stupidity, fear and ignorance that comes with strapping on a gun every time you run an errand. It doesn't make you safer. It makes you more aggressive, spoiling for a fight, looking for a reason to show your power.

I woke up angry Sunday morning. And that was tough for me, because of the feeling of frustration that comes from being a person of color who still also exists in a community of faith. So I tried to deal with my discontent, sending up prayers for the Martin family. But the one thing that put it all into focus came from several little girls in my church who restored my faith simply by giving me hugs when we all rose to pass the peace. They didn't see color, and they aren't blinded by fear and ignorance.

It's not us against them, black against white, or even young against old. It's time for searching, seeing, understanding that fear and ignorance of each other keeps us from walking in another's shoes. It's seeing a person, not a perpetrator, a teen instead of a thug, a child instead of a menace. It's seeing ourselves in each other.

We really are all in this together. So let's put away those familiar cloaks of fear and bigotry. Let's stop looking at every stranger as a suspect looking to do us harm.

And if you're going shopping at Target, leave the stupid gun at home and just go armed with a credit card. Goodness knows, I've always been able to do a lot of damage with those things.

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