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Stuck in the middle again

July 15, 2013

For the last day and a half I’ve been contemplating the results of the George Zimmerman trial.  How does it happen that an armed man, in violation of a specific request from the police, stalked and eventually killed an unarmed teenager on his way home from buying candy?  Apparently at some point in time Zimmerman became afraid of Martin and therefore, under Florida’s stand-your-ground law, was justified in killing him.

It seems to me that there is a gap between judicial justice and social justice in our country.  Our country’s founders set the bar high to convict someone of a crime judicially.   You are innocent until proven guilty and the proof must be beyond a reasonable doubt.  Therefore, when only two people know what really happened and one of them is dead, doubt is hard to overcome.  Our founders seemed ready to accept a lot of guilty people going free to lessen the odds of an innocent one going to jail. Society however, or at least most of us, see something wrong with that outcome in the Zimmerman  case.

I was the overnight cashier in a large supermarket for nearly seven years.   On these nights there was often only one other worker in the huge store and never more than three or four.  As their duties took them all over the store it was often that, when someone entered the store, there was nobody but me around.  During this time I probably saw 1,000 young men come in dressed in a manner similar to Trayvon Martin.  They had their hoodies up hiding their faces; had their hands hidden from sight; strutted as if they owned the world.  The majority of these young men were black but no small number was white or Hispanic.  So, in a sense, I’ve stood alone before 1,000 Trayvon Martins. 

Obviously I am still here so fearing for my life was never an issue.  What is more, I can count on the fingers of one hand the times anything went wrong on one of those visits.  The most serious thing any of that small number ever did was to pilfer a box of condoms.  Since that young man also bought soda, chips and a variety of other snacks I suspect the theft had more to do with embarrassment than crime. 

In that long night job I learned, before I ever heard of either Zimmerman or Martin, that young black men in hoodies are not a significant threat to an old white guy like me.  How is it that Zimmerman failed to learn that?  I suspect that the twin causes were limited actual experience with young blacks, and awareness of incidents from the 5 out of 1,000.  These two facts combined to allow him to conclude that something evil was afoot as a young black teen walked home with some candy.

In the aftermath of this tragic death and the lack of social, if not judicial, justice there is a consensus that we all need to learn something from this.  What we need to learn however is not so clear.  It seems that everyone has retreated to their respective political corners and fired off tweets.  One might think that, based on the variety of opinions, many people feel that complex issues such as racial justice, gun violence, and determining where and when stalking becomes self-defense can be resolved in 140 characters or less.

I actually don’t know what is right here but I do know that something is wrong.  Neither tweets calling for revenge nor tweets calling on Zimmerman to sue for “malicious prosecution” seem to be good solutions.  I guess I am stuck in the middle. 

I can’t help but think that I’ve been blessed to actually come face-to-face with 1,000 Trayvon Martins.  It is clear that many of them have been schooled by their families in “accepted behavior to stay out of trouble around old white guys.”  Having met 1,000 of them makes me wish they didn’t need that schooling.  In my 1,000 experiences I got to see some of them numerous times.  Over time, as we recognized each other and had casual interaction I even learned a few of their stories; learned to joke with them; learned to like them.  It is through that experience that I’ve concluded that the only solution I can see is for more of us to seek more interaction to have more understanding of people different from ourselves; even if it takes 1,000 times.


From → Christianity

  1. This is indeed excellent coming from an experienced “Old White Guy,” Thank you for taking the time to write this article. I wish I can share it with the rest of the world.

    Your brother

  2. Kyle Jensen Høifødt permalink

    In short, I think the entire case has proven what the last line of the blogpost articulates: that understanding and interaction is what is needed, not being quick to suspicion, assuming the worst about people different from you, and not profiling people by superficial things like hoodies or skin colour. No matter what one believes about the case, I hope that all can agree that both men made bad decisions on that night– Zimmerman assuming the worst about Martin and proceeding to stalk/follow him, and Martin assuming the worst about Zimmerman and (allegedly) looping back around to the point of conflict. If only the two of them had done the simple thing and calmly asked the other what he was doing– while being on guard but not suspecting the worst about the other.

    Regarding the verdict:
    The jury made a decision, and what is done is done. I don’t necessarily agree with it, but I can accept that the jurors made what they thought was the correct decision.

    The entire case and media circus surrounding it is what ticks me off. The vicious generalisations and thinly-veiled racism from both “sides” (if you want to call them that) is downright disappointing in the year 2013. The idea that a “side” had to be taken, either “pro-Trayvon” or “pro-Zimmerman”, is yet another example of the public’s tendency to turn to a tribalistic my-team-is-right-and-yours-is-wrong type of outlook.

    Events like this just divide people. Even groups that have goals I agree with (anti-racism groups and the like) have been guilty of (I don’t like this term, but I’ll use it anyway) race-baiting style tactics to get their message across. Bringing up old wounds does not help heal new wounds. Many supporters of gun rights (that I agree with) have painted and portrayed Martin, and young black men in general, in a terribly stereotyped, demeaning way.

    I think it is fair to say I’m in the middle, but not exactly “stuck” there– I’d prefer to be in the middle than on either of the opposing sides.

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