Perhaps history does not repeat itself exactly, but it is certainly prone to extended paraphrases. Long before the jury announced its decision, many people had seen what the outcome would be, had known that it would be a strange echo of the words Zimmerman uttered that rainy night in central Florida: they always get away.
I hate to say I told you so (actually, that is not entirely true… but at the very least as I get older it generally makes me feel more sad than vindicated) but I really did tell you so about this one. As the Zimmerman trial got underway and no one took issue with the defense attorney cracking jokes, the freakishly homogeneous jury, and the abased treatment of victim Trayvon Martin’s friends and family, it seemed pretty clear to me what was going to go down.
Of course it could also be that I am a historian and I feel that the history I have studied and lived prepared me for what would be the eventual verdict that came out as I was sitting at a lovely dinner at dear friends’ wedding in Mendocino County.
The familiarity dulled the sharp edges of the tragedy. The decision the six jurors reached on Saturday evening will inspire anger, frustration, and despair, but little surprise, and this is the most deeply saddening aspect of the entire affair. From the outset— throughout the forty-four days it took for there to be an arrest, and then in the sixteen months it took to for the case to come to trial—there was a nagging suspicion that it would culminate in disappointment. Call this historical profiling.
This doesn’t make me any less saddened by the fact that a young man was killed for no other reason than he was a black teenager. The truth is teenagers make those not used to dealing with them very twitchy, and I know this from a plethora of experience – I always watch how people react here in the “liberal” Bay Area when I get on Bart with my Berkeley High (hardly threatening, although very diverse) students… and the reactions of the commuters on the train are always the same, ranging from discomfort to disgust to real concern. And the fact that he was black does matter.
Racial bias is real. Racial profiling is real. Racial inequity is real. Racial injustice is real. Don’t take my word for it read the science on racial “profiling.” Read the science around the study of “unconscious bias” at Harvard University.
Maybe we could look at some white kids who tend to wear hoodies… skaters and surfers – no less likely to be punk kids by the way – but I cannot remember the last time I heard of one of them being shot and killed for basically being in the wrong place at the wrong time (which skaters and surfers frequently are…) And as I watch the often swift hand of justice in America I have to play the mental game of wondering how things would have played out had Martin been white and Zimmerman black. Save for pro athletes (which is a rant for another time) I feel pretty confident in saying a black male shooter would have been immediately arrested (no weird 46-day delay) and incarcerated. And I seriously doubt Mark O’Mara and Don West would ever take a case of the everyday criminal of color. In fairness, I don’t know for sure, but it is a feeling I have. Just like the feeling I had when I said these things:
It’s Florida Vince. No justice there. And in times of uncertainty like we are living in (economically, politically, ideologically, environmentally) people are desperate to have something tangible to be afraid of… and so they make a young black kid seem *that* scary. It is easier to be afraid of something concrete and tangible than to face the daunting reality that our collective survival is going to require a huge effort to come together and work shit out. As you know, very few people really want to do work in any context. Everyone just wants solutions and results. Sad. [FB, 10 July 2013]
Now we are faced with the aftermath. People are angry. and I don’t think it will be long-lived or effective. People have short attention spans and the media at the very least is banking on that. Frustration will incarnate as destruction and there will be greater alienation and divides. And the reality that Trayvon Martin did absolutely nothing that warranted the sort of outcome that Zimmerman had in store for him will be lost among the fall out, resentment, and intentional effort to justify the outcome of our modern justice system.
In the final analysis, we are all human. We are all Americas. E Pluribus Unum: Out of many we are one. The time has long since come for us to talk about race and racism for real in America. We are a great people. We have fought great battles since our founding as a nation. We have defeated kings, tyrants, foes, great depressions, and divisions. Yet, on this issue of race, we continue to hide, to deny, and to destroy one another. Let us find the courage to talk to one another. To listen to one another; and to build a better future for our children, one with another.
Until people get ready to really put in work and start to deal with the fact that there is something broken within us that allows us to trade in and market fear as the basis of our social structure, we will remain broken, and the costs will continue to add up. Trayvon Martin may not be important to you, but if he were your son, he would matter, so by extension he should matter to you. And you must remember that. Because it could be your child next. Like these kids, my kids, from Berkeley High… who all graduated and are now working, attending some of the most prestigious schools in the country, making art, making a scene, making noise, serving their communities and families… because they have not had those opportunities taken from them by someone who was unable to control his fear, but none the less put himself in a situation that he found scary even when he had been explicitly told not to.
We may not be Trayvon Martin. [Very interesting Tumblr site here exploring just how we are not Trayvon.] But, then again, we may be. Either way, Trayvon represents something about America that we must acknowledge before it is too late.