Jul 19, 2013

Wrong: Thoughts on the Death and Afterlife of Trayvon Martin

Below is a post that I wrote, but never published, in the weeks after Trayvon Martin's death.  At the time I wrote this Zimmerman had not been charged and there was no certainty that he would be.  With the conclusion of his trial about a week ago and the ensuing heated debate that consumed the country, I returned to this post to see how it looked with the benefit of hindsight.  I decided it looked pretty good.  Between this entry, and my various comments in discussions on Facebook, you'll get a pretty good sense of how I feel about this highly combustible story.    My hope and prayer is that through this tragedy many of us will seize the opportunity to understand each other a little better.  It's a long shot, I know.  Most consider this heavily-reported incident and trial to be divisive, but if we care enough to try, it can also be an opportunity to reach out, to allow our preconceptions to be challenged and maybe even changed.  

The following remains unedited from when I first wrote it, except for the final paragraph of which only the first sentence was written. I completed my thoughts on the "big picture" tonight.

When this story first began to gain national attention several weeks ago, I was deeply bothered by it.  I'm not usually one to get depressed from the news, but this story got under my skin.  Something felt really wrong about it.

Now that more than a month has passed since the tragic shooting of Trayvon Williams and the media hounds have had their way with the story, many things seem really wrong about it.

It's wrong to say that this incident--and by that I don't mean just Trayvon's death, but all that's happened since--isn't about race.  I'm willing to concede that we can't say for sure that George Zimmerman was acting out of racial hatred.  We can say though, with reasonable certainty that had both shooter and victim been of the same racial background (whether white, black, or Hispanic) this story would likely never have made it out of Orlando and onto the national stage.  Imagine if the races had been reversed?  White/Hispanic youth shot by an black overzealous neighborhood watch captain ten years his senior?  I don't know about you but I find that scenario hard to even picture simply because of racial dynamics in this country.

While the shots fired may or may not have been based on race, our national response to this certainly has been.   There are competing narratives here.  For blacks it's the deeply rooted story of black men killed with impunity.  There is the sense that Trayvon could have been my son,  Trayvon could have been me.  For whites it's the fear of the thug, the certainty that a young black man in a hooded sweatshirt, hands buried in his pockets is inherently dangerous.

It's wrong to say that this incident is mainly about race.  I groaned inwardly as Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton paraded on to the stage.  I was saddened to hear people voicing fears about riots and such if the angry black masses didn't get their way.  In truth, the more I think about it, the more I'm convinced that the main issue in this story is not about race, but about a truly bad law on the books.  The main reason that Zimmerman has not been charged with any crime is not because he is white and Trayvon is black, but because Florida's "Stand Your Ground" statute protects him, just as it has protected numerous dubious characters (including gangsters and drug dealers) in the years since it was passed.   This law is wrong and it should be revisited, reviewed, and repealed.

It's wrong to blame Trayvon.  Much has been made at how Trayvon's image has been burnished to make him appear more innocent than he really was.  Smoking guns such as his school suspension, gangsta posturing on Facebook, his actual size, and that he attacked Zimmerman have all been revealed.  But none of these things really matter.  The facts are that Trayvon was unarmed, was not engaged in criminal activity, and was accosted by Zimmerman.  If he attacked Zimmerman, it may simply have been because he felt threatened, that his life was in danger.  Unfortunately, Martin isn't alive to claim "Stand Your Ground's" protections for himself.

It's wrong to demand a conviction for George Zimmerman.  It's appropriate to call for his arrest and for charges to be made against him.  But to demand a conviction assumes legal guilt, and that is something that the courts have to decide.  Of course the courts must follow the law, and right now the law doesn't appear likely to be of much help.  The loudest calls of protest should be for the end of "Stand Your Ground" not the conviction of George Zimmerman.

It's wrong to simply blame the media. We love scapegoats, and media is always on easy one.  Sensationalist, and even dishonest, the media is to blame for this frenzy.  The media is slandering Zimmerman, the media is deifying Trayvon (or vice versa)--whatever is wrong here, the media is to blame.  Well I think that's too easy.  The "media" only give us what we want.  We, with our lust for entertainment, our taste for simple movie-plot storyline news, our need for heroes and villains, our short attention spans.  We are the problem, and the media, like politicians--another easy culprit, are simply mirrors reflecting what we demand.  The media takes its cues from the audience and so far we've given no real indication that we want anything other than what we're getting from the media.  Turn off CNN, Fox News and all the rest and watch how quick the media turns around.  The fault is not in the media stars but in ourselves.

It's wrong to lose sight of the bigger picture.  A guy I went to school with who is now a pastor summed up one take on that bigger picture quite well.  Another excellent take is this Open Letter to the Body of Christ by Kareemah El-Almin.  Pastors Paul & El-Almin says it better than I could, but let me just add:  I believe that any time we declare "all bets off" on our responsibility to respond as a follower of Christ, no matter how grievous the injustice, no matter how deep the hurt, we place our spiritual health and inheritance of grace at risk.  So while some of us might call for justice, while others see justice already served, let us all remember that in the big picture we are all in need of grace.

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