16 July 2013

Who are Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman? A letter to Isaac explaining as best I can.

Dear Isaac,

Last Sunday on the way to church, you asked that question in response to a story we heard on NPR.  It was the big news of the morning because the jury had come to a decision the night before and many people in the country had been waiting for the verdict.

Your father and I explained the basic facts of the case and what the jury had decided. But they do not come close to explaining who Trayvon Martin was, who George Zimmerman is, or what the case was really about.  Based on what the law says and the evidence that was presented for the jurors in the courtroom, I believe that the decision that was handed down was the right one.  That does not mean that I also think that what George Zimmerman did was right or that I defend his actions.  But we are a nation that is governed by the rule of law and a system is in place to ensure that the actions of men and women in our country are brought before our courts.  A person's guilt or innocence is decided based on facts, not emotions or biases. If the facts prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, the person is punished in a way that has already been determined by the law.  If the facts do not prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, the person is free. This system protects people from being punished for crimes they did not commit or from being punished too harshly.

But Isaac, we have to remember that our government and our laws were created, written and are carried out by people who are not perfect, who make mistakes and who view the world through their own sets of biases and beliefs.  The system does not always work and our laws are not always fair.  Though I know that it does not always work the way it was meant to, I believe that our system of government is a good and just one.  It is people who corrupt it and people who hurt others.  There are a few questions that I hope will be looked at more closely as a result of this case by people who come to the table with a mind to heal the hurts, not simply bandage the wound.

Why was George Zimmerman patrolling his neighborhood with a loaded gun?  This is an important question for me.  I don't want you to think that I don't want people to own guns, but knowing that someone is walking around our neighborhood with a loaded gun looking for troublemakers would not make me feel safe.  Zimmerman's gun gave him the power to protect himself at the cost of Trayvon Martin's life.  But what if the gun had gone off during the altercation and killed an innocent bystander?  By having a gun, Zimmerman felt powerful.  That power, possibly, made him engage in an interaction that he otherwise would have avoided.  It is one thing to drive around your neighborhood and make sure nothing "funny" is going on and alert the authorities if you see anything that looks suspicious.  It is another to take on the role of neighborhood protector/defender.  Isaac, if you ever own a gun -- and let's face it, since you are your father's son, you probably will at some point in your life -- you need to remember that ownership of a gun means that you need to be more careful, not less so.  Having a gun does not mean you are automatically protected against threats.  It means that you need to take great care to protect others against the threat you pose once you hold that weapon in your hands.

What is self-defense?  Your father and I have told you that we would support you if you struck back at someone who hits you first.  You would be defending yourself. (But, please never do this on school grounds, at least not at as long as I am still teaching.)  But if you hit someone because you believed they were about to hit you, then, I am sorry son, you would be in a world of trouble.  But, by definition of the law as it stands in Florida (and other states), you would be within your rights.  By law, George Zimmerman did not have to be in imminent danger, he just had to believe that he was in imminent danger before he defended himself, in this case with a lethal weapon.  We were not there.  We do not know what was actually happening -- who was the aggressor, who hit whom first, who was holding whom down.  But to take violent action against someone because you think he might be a threat to your life is not self-defense.  Not by my definition.  And this, Isaac, is where I think the law is wrong.  But I am not a legal expert.  That is simply my gut feeling.  And if someone walked into our house and I thought he was going to hurt you, I cannot say that I would not find a weapon and make sure he could do no harm to you or anyone else, ever.  And I would probably claim self-defense. I do not know what it feels like to wonder if I am going to live through the next few minutes, and I pray that I will never know what it feels like to wonder if you will live to see your next birthday.

Why do we have gated communities?  I think this is the most troubling of the questions that I have asked myself as the incident was flushed out through various news outlets, and as the trial went on, and now as the analysis of the process and the various opinions are written in the aftermath.  Throughout history there have been the "haves" and the "have-nots."  There have been the privileged classes who live inside their walls so they do not have to interact with the lower classes.  George Zimmerman was patrolling his gated community because there had been break-ins and trouble from, supposedly, people who did not belong in the neighborhood.  He saw Trayvon Martin and assumed he was one of the people on whom these "troubles" could be blamed.  Martin did not belong there.  He was an outsider and Zimmerman was suspicious of anyone who was not part of his community.  Now in reality, Isaac, Trayvon Marton, was visiting a friend, had walked to the store and was on his way back to the house he was visiting.  He was a guest in that community.  Instead of inquiring where he was going and trying to interact with this guest, Zimmerman was suspicious and angry that Martin had come within the boundaries of his safe haven.  Martin was unknown and therefore not to be trusted.  Isaac, I hope your father and I have taught you to be open and welcoming to people outside your "group."  If our society continues to put up walls, then there will be more Trayvon Martin's and more George Zimmerman's.  You are being raised in a church family, Isaac.  And it is a church family that, I believe, is good at opening its doors to outsiders.  It will be up to your generation to take down the gates and the walls and the tracks that divide society.  As long as they stand, the message of love and tolerance and equality that we are supposed to take to heart will be muted by the false boundaries that these boundaries erect.

What image do you project to society?  This, Isaac, is where I go a bit right-wing on you.  Brace yourself.  You are not quite eight as I write this and we have not had major battles about how you dress.  I do not fuss about whether your athletic shorts match your t-shirt and I only make you "dress-up" for special occasions.  I try to respect who you are and what makes you comfortable.  Thus far, you have probably assumed that I sympathize with the people who are angered by Trayvon Martin's death and George Zimmerman's acquittal.  This is where I switch things up.  Trayvon Martin was wearing a "hoodie" pulled up over his head and "walking slowly" the night Zimmerman confronted him and was shot.  What Martin did after that we will never know because he is not here to tell us.  What we can assume, though Zimmerman did not take the stand to testify to this, is that what he saw when he looked at Martin walking down the street was a young man who was part of a culture that was identified with unlawful activity.  In short, a "thug."  Isaac, I am not sure you have caught on yet, but I do censor what you wear.  I will never buy you a t-shirt with a slogan that I think portrays an attitude of disrespect or angst.  And I will never let you buy one.  It may not be fair, but "you are what you wear."   If you show society an image that is subversive or antagonistic, then you will be thought of as subversive and antagonistic.  If you dress to emulate a certain culture then you will be seen as belonging to that culture.  I do not know whether or not Trayvon Martin was a thug, but he was dressed like one.  Is it fair to judge him for that?  No, but society does and Zimmerman did.  If he had been dressed in a polo shirt, khakis and a peacoat with a pair of loafers on his feet, I would not be writing this to you today.  Isaac, know this -- you will be judged by the culture with which you choose to identify -- rightly or wrongly.  Choose wisely and make sure your actions always emulate the values that you have been taught.  And if you try to walk out of the house wearing something I deem inappropriate, then game on, son.  If you will not safeguard your image, then I will.

Isaac, I wish there were easy answers to your questions and I wish that I could say that the jury's verdict was the final word.  But there aren't and it most certainly is not.  I wish that I could say I believed that by the time you were raising children of your own that cases like this would not exist.  But I don't.  All I can say is that I hope you will keep asking questions because that is how you learn about the world around you - the good and the bad, the right and the wrong.  Be open to new experiences and be curious before you give in to suspicion.

And I pray that you will always feel like you can ask me or your father anything.  If we don't know the answers, then we will discover them with you.


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