Numerous times throughout the year, enormous controversies erupt across our country demanding all sorts of time, energy and attention. They include endless hours of media debate, arguments across social media, hurtful words, broken relationships and many times, we are reminded just how polarized we are as a society. In light of this, we are faced with a few options. One is to wait it out until media outlets find a new controversy to cover. A second option is to jump right in the foray and swing away. And while there are probably a few more options, a third is to attempt to thoughtfully engage and contribute.
I’ll be honest, it’s tempting for me to sit this one out, avoid attracting any unneeded attention and frankly, I’m trying to catch my breath this summer. But since the news broke of George Zimmerman’s acquittal verdict, I have been trying to wrap my mind around what just happened. In doing so, I have been praying for peace, I’ve been praying that a healing process would begin to those who are suffering great loss, like the Martin family and the countless others who are hurting. I’ve been praying for the protection of others, from protesters to those near protesters to the Zimmermans themselves. And I’ve been wondering about justice, racism and our legal system. I’ve watched a little bit, and only a little bit of cable television but have read numerous of pages online.
Last night I felt somewhat informed, but a bit jaded. This morning I felt convicted that if we Christians move too fast past this, we’ll miss an opportunity to grieve with those who are grieving and perhaps pass up an opportunity to build bridges and bring reconciliation to the issues and brokeness that divides us. It’s too easy for me to sit this one out. It’s too easy to think, “Wherever Al Sharpton is, I don’t want to be.” I know the Trayvon Martin case will be exploited by some, but that does not mean that Zimmerman is innocent of manslaughter and it certainly does not mean that ordinary people should not express their feelings that something went wrong here. I am avoiding taking too high of a road and I find myself still trying to figure out what Trayvon Martin should have done.
First, let me say I am grateful for a justice system that is not informed by the media or a government office or agency. But what I really want is to be convinced that our society operates with a true sense of justice for all people. I am struggling to see that these days.
Second, I am aware of the minority crime statistics being posted and the countless stories of black violence – it’s context, it’s important but it is not justification. We will not address the issues of crime by one ethnicity saying your tribe has more criminals than ours.
A year ago, it seemed bizarre to me there was any delay in the first place to arrest George Zimmerman. Here we had a man shooting in an unarmed teenager after the man admitted to following him and confronting him. I kept waiting to hear that Trayvon ambushed Zimmerman and Zimmerman had no recourse and had to defend himself in such a way but that story never emerged.
From what we have been told, Zimmerman sees a suspicious Trayvon on his “patrol,” reports it to 911, is told to wait, maybe waits, stops waiting, gets out of the vehicle which leads to the confrontation. This changes everything for me. Then Trayvon is beating up Zimmerman, who in an attempt to save his life pulls out a gun and kills Trayvon at point-blank range.
There are those in comment sections saying things like, “What if Trayvon was actually up to trouble?” Great question and this is exactly why we have these other oft-heard words like “Caught in the act” and “Innocent until proven guilty”. They are not cliches, they are principles of law in our American society. Further this is why the 911 responder told him to stay in the vehicle in order to prevent this situation escalating and to allow the police to arrive.
It would have been one thing had Trayvon had just come out of a home that was broken into, or had stolen items in his pockets, or a detonator or an inventory of stolen goods in his bedroom or was armed himself or had an actual criminal record. Now mind you, none of these would be deserving of being killed by a neighborhood watchman with no civil authority and this is what I find so outrageous. None of that happened, there was no real reason for Zimmerman to confront Trayvon.
And so we have two angry people fighting it out in the streets. It’s here we like to insert the character assassinations so for the sake of argument, let’s play along. One a wanna-be police officer who at best, may have had noble intentions at one point to help stop neighborhood crime and graffiti but as it would clearly seem (at least to me) that he has lost himself in his vigilante crusade and had succumbed to racial profiling which led to him taking matters into his own hands. It turns out he has a domestic abuse record, has resisted arrest and assaulted an officer. These charges were dropped but I think most of us can agree that he hardly fits the model of a neighborhood watchman.
Then we have Trayvon, a 17 year old serving a 10 day school suspension who enjoys smoking marijuana and is at his dad’s fiancé’s place this week. Yes, he is troubled. He probably does have an anger issue, he appears prone to violence, and he could be paranoid (though in this case, it’s not paranoia, it’s an accurate sense of observing your would-be killer). Frankly, I cannot even perform this mock character assassination as I am too offended by those who continue to point out his character flaws as if it somehow justifies the act of killing him.
In any case, two sinners are committing actions of hate against the other in this fallen broken world, that is, until one violently ends the life of the other.
This is what is so vexing and why we must pause and ask the questions:
What if the teenage Trayvon had been the one who called the police on the suspicious Zimmerman? What if Trayvon heard about men who abducted young girls from affluent neighborhoods and called 911?
“9-1-1, What’s your emergency?”
“Umm, there’s this weird man driving around the neighborhood. Now he’s following me around in a vehicle. He’s stalking me, I think he may have taken some pictures of me, I don’t know but he’s creeping me out.”
We would assume police would have found Trayvon, then found the lurking Zimmerman, then arrested him and punished him for harassment. If the officer suspected Trayvon was high, he would have been taken in, his father would have picked him from the station and either that night or the next night, he’d be alive going to sleep in his own bed.
Or what if Zimmerman had won the fight? We could assume the police would have showed up on the scene and upon beating up an unarmed teenager with no sufficient reason, a victorious and armed Zimmerman would have been arrested and convicted for assault on a minor with no probable cause.
These two would be normal assumptions, that is until this past week.
Some are wondering why so many are sympathetic to Trayvon and assuming many are simply eating out of the hand of the media’s hype machine but that would be short-sighted. Many of us cannot figure out what Trayvon was supposed to do about being harassed by Zimmerman?
Some will undoubtedly blurt, “Trayvon should have just walked away!” Sure, that sounds reasonable, and he may have tried to do that at one point, but what do you do when the man twice your age starts following you in a vehicle and continuing to leave is no longer an option? What if that man attacked you first (no evidence of that here, just asking what if)? What if that elder man got a few heavy shots in on you before you were able to turn the fight to your favor? What if in the middle of the fight you realized he was armed? Some have said, “Well, I wouldn’t pound the guy’s head into the pavement. I would just get the guy off me then get up go home.” Sure you would but let’s say you actually did that. There is a good chance you just got shot in the back.
In a world without consequences (meaning this is rhetorical, please do not actually do this), I would suggest you drive around and get into a heated argument with random strangers. Confront people of various ethnicities, ages, in many different neighborhoods, and I suspect that many of your encounters will turn violent. For the sake of argument, probably three-quarters of these encounters will turn violent and I think the astonishing thing is how many elderly women will punch you. That’s not me stereotyping elderly women, that’s me remembering the countless television local news stories,”Look how one 85 year old woman fought back her would-be assailant.”
If you think the Zimmerman would have been acquitted if he shot an elderly woman at point blank range even if it was demonstrated she had uncanny strength to pin a man down 50 years younger then congratulations, I have a string of descriptors questioning your intelligence and understanding of race and justice that I keep deleting because of the long memory of the internet.
Please let us be reasonable, it’s not just that Travyon was an angry black teenager, it was because he was human. We all know about our human response in what we call, “Fight or Flee.” He could have been peaceful middle-eastern thirty-something man and still found himself in the altercation. The black community is responding in anger, hurt and protest as they are grieving for a young man who represents not only themselves but their children, their parents and countless stories of brutality and injustice.
It’s generally at this point someone will offer a statistic of minority crime, thereby revealing an either hidden or blatant display of racism. Then predictably it is followed by a warning “Wait until a Trayvon Martin breaks into your house or attacks a member of your family and there is no George Zimmerman to stop him.” The logic is as flawed as it is offensive as killing Trayvon has not made anyone safer and make no mistake about it, George Zimmerman is not a protector.
Some will point out the reality that this happens every day in American and around the world and will point that every situation is different. This is true in a sense but the anger and frustration we are feeling here with Zimmerman verdict is representational of another reality, we live in a world where justice sometimes fails.
For me, I know what George Zimmerman should have done. I am still trying to figure out what Trayvon should have done. Zimmerman could have stayed in his car, Zimmerman could have let the police handle it. Zimmerman didn’t have to be armed or leave his vehicle armed or could have fired off a warning shot or shot him in the leg or again, just stay in the car! This troubled young man didn’t have to die like this.
This story should create dialogue for us in our hearts, then our homes, our faith communities, and various other parts in society. If we resist it, well, I think we need to ask ourselves why. Are we too preoccupied with our own affairs? Are we content with the idea that if it’s not happening to us or in our neighborhoods then it’s not our problem? Are we content to live with either a personal or societal compromised sense of justice?
Tough questions but it would be good for us to engage at least on some level. As we do so, let us also be people of prayer. I am doing my best to pray for all involved, yes including George Zimmerman. I am also grieving with the Martin family and I am expressing my anger and frustration of the lack of justice before us. We can all do better.
For more read/watch:
Race, Trayvon Martin and Our National Wake Up Call. by Margaret Starbuck on Relevant Magazine.com
“Racism vs. Reality” by Richard Cohen – Unhelpful title. His argument does not justify Zimmerman getting out of his vehicle. And yes, I read the first line and finished the piece. Still does not justify.
“The Banality of Richard Cohen and Racist Profiling” by Ta-Nehisi Coates
WSJLive: Why Are Black Leaders Exploiting Trayvon Martin? – WSJ Political Diary editor Jason Riley talks about the in-house conversation the black community needs to have.
“Privilege, Blame, and Injustice: Reacting to the Zimmerman Verdict” – Essays from Dr. Christena Cleveland, Sanford Pastor Victor Montalvo, and Central Florida Bishop Greg Brewer on Ed Stetzer’s blog.