Do we now live in a country where we can decide that if a teenager looks suspicious based on skin color, clothing and stance we can follow him against police orders, approach him with unwarranted questions and then, when we don’t receive the response we want or are met with hostility, shoot him in “self-defense?” Apparently yes.
I don’t get it. Why is an adult like George Zimmerman carrying a gun in the first place? He’s not a police officer. He’s a neighborhood watch guy who wasn’t even on duty when he shot 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, a Black boy who was carrying nothing more than a cell phone and Skittles at the time. And forget the legal right to bear arms argument. Use logic. What is the point of carrying a gun with you when you live in a gated community and are going on an errand? To pretend you’re an action star? To derive some sort of gleeful macho joy, or booster confidence shot? Or maybe it’s just that little bit of an extra upper hand when you’re trying to make a point and the other kid, I mean guy, is not listening to you?
I decided not to become a lawyer in my third year of college when I realized that legalese, memorization and cleverness in word twisting often trumped logic. So I’m going to simply state it this way: When Mr. Zimmerman called the police about this questionable kid they told ole George not to follow him and wait in his car. But instead ole George got out of his car and tailed him, grumbling that these “punks always get away.” What happened after that is anyone’s guess. Except that one was a white person with a gun and the other was a Black kid just walking home, minding his own business. Do the math.
Mr. Zimmerman’s defense attorneys loved pointing out that there is no law against getting out of your car and following someone. Well, okay. But if you’re walking along and being followed for no reason and are carrying a licensed gun, does that mean that you can then shoot the person following you? What is harassment anyway? Who has the right to shoot first? Is this the Wild West? Or just a Florida suburb where racism rules the day not only on the streets but also in court? I’m not talking about law. I’m talking about logic.
I am SOOOO tired of people saying race has nothing to do with this case. It has EVERYTHING to do with this case. White people think tall Black teenage boys and young men are suspicious and potentially menacing. In fact, when I was a teenager, in the late sixties and seventies in New York City, it was often thought that if you saw one of those guys on the street and they approached you they’d either rob you, knife you or, worst case scenario, rape your girlfriend while pointing a gun at your head.
Except not always. Not if you didn’t choose to think that way.
True story. I can remember as a 13-year-old walking home from school in Jackson Heights, Queens one day when a Black teenager a couple of years older walked up to me fast and demanded my wallet, sort of motioning through his coat that he had either a knife or a gun. The weapon in the coat looked a bit suspicious but I reluctantly gave him my wallet anyway because, well…you never know. But then something funny happened. I was compelled to ask him if he really wanted my wallet, since there wasn’t a lot of money in it, and how come he was taking it. He replied that he needed money. I told him okay, that I didn’t think he was a bad guy and asked how come he picked me. He looked at me and said he didn’t know.
Then something even funnier happened then. He didn’t run away. He kept on walking with me. So we continued talking. He asked me where I went to school and I asked him stuff about himself. He didn’t answer all my questions but I felt, as I walked home a few more blocks, we were getting to know each other a little better and I was proving that I wasn’t a racist – which was the worst thing a Jewish liberal kid in NY like me could be in 1968, or so I thought. Also, I Just didn’t think this guy was so bad. He didn’t have a killer look in his eye. Nor did he have, it turned out, a gun or a knife. Certainly he didn’t have a cell phone – though he might have had some candy that was the equivalent of Skittles. In fact, I’m almost certain he must have.
I’m not any kind of young hero for making these choices because, as my mother later screamed in my ear when I told her this story: “YOU COULD’VE BEEN KILLED! WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH YOU??!!!” (Note: I was smart enough to not tell her this story until many years in the future so I suppose I do deserve some credit for intuiting that). Rather than heroic, I simply think of myself as someone who, even though I was young, was mature enough to take the temperature of a tricky situation and approach it with calm and logic.
Calm, logic and maturity is something we should all employ when faced with potentially tricky, or difficult, situations. Even when there is some risk involved. You don’t stop an ant from eating your picnic food with a rifle. Nor do you shoot the neighborhood dog chewing on your rose bush by blowing him away with a lit cannon. Or stop the guy trying to steal your car, even if it is a Porsche, with an AK-47 and a round of 10,000 bullets. It’s a machine, for god’s sake – not your sister. Or someone’s son.
One more story. About 15 years ago my boyfriend/partner/lover/not yet husband and I park our car in Beverly Hills and are walking a block towards the Writers Guild Theatre for a movie screening. Suddenly, a group of young guys drive by in a revved up car and YELL at the top of their lungs, FUCKING FAGGOTS! It all happened so fast that there was no time for reason, bitchy retorts or violence. All I remember is that I was about to scream back at them – a scream that they probably wouldn’t have heard (but still…!), when my partner grabbed me and looked me in the eye, as if to say: Why?
Why, indeed? This is the first question I’d ask George Zimmerman if we were family, or even friends, something I know we will never be. My second question would then be: if he saw the 17 year old gay boy me in the locker room at the gym while we were both changing and thought I looked at him the wrong way, would he start questioning me, too? And what if I started yelling back at him? And then a fight started? If this were a Florida locker room, somewhere that I likely would have never frequented (but still!) would he be justified in shooting me too if things got heated and I defended myself from his harassment? (Uh yes, gay guys are frequently known to be shot dead for a single inappropriately bitchy retort).
This is not stretching the metaphor. It’s all the same metaphor. You can’t profile someone because you’re suspicious of their race, or sexual preference, or height, or gender, or weight. No matter how many times you might have been challenged by a fat kid, or a short kid, or a gay kid, or a, well, colored kid.
I don’t give a shit what a jury said, what the law says, or how well a team or grandstanding, self-satisfied lawyers argue the case. It makes no logical sense. And it’s wrong.
Oh, coda to the wallet story. Before he left, the kid gave me back my wallet, with my money inside. Again, that doesn’t make me a hero. But it does make me, as a 13 year old, a hell of a lot smarter than George Zimmerman. Not a high bar, granted.