AKIE BERMISS: By now the Trayvon Martin movement has become something of a mainstream story. I doubt there is an American who watches the news that doesn’t yet know all about the Florida shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin by the 28-year-old George Zimmerman. By now most people are familiar with the “#millionhoodies” protests that have been going on since the shooting became a national story. By now most folks will have come by some set of facts or another about the shooting and had to confront the question of whether race played a role. If I’m honest, the question is really simply: how *big* of a role did race play, but I won’t mince ideas so early in the game. And certainly, by now, people know that Zimmerman — who’s shot killed Martin — was not taken into custody and, as of the writing of this, has still not been taken into custody. And so we are all pretty much aware of the basic plot developments and the points of contention that have been flying back and forth.
All that is left to discuss is just what all this actually *means.*
Some call it a tragedy, some call it a shame, and some have called it a miscarriage of justice. All are likely right — it is a matter of perspective. There is no question, however, that race is some how tied to this tragedy-same-injustice. Tied to it, I would argue, in several complex ways. And this is why it is important even beyond the simple question of what to do with Zimmerman. Almost all of those racial over-tones are exposed in harlequin-esque contrast by story of Geraldo Rivera’s immensely stupid utterances last week. While I find Rivera’s statements to be shamefully idiotic, I am grateful to his idiocy for it does (in its brash and direct way) illuminate what might have been more difficult to pin-point otherwise: Trayvon Martin was not only a black boy in a neighborhood that was not considered “black” but he was also *dressed* black — and it was his attire which possibly made him stand out even more to Zimmerman who described him as being “up to no good.” His reasoning behind that appears to be his race, his attire, and his location (ie, in Zimmerman’s neighborhood). If we can agree to this, we can move forward in our search for meaning in all this.
Rivera’s comments — when removed from the illogic of their founding — indicate that Zimmerman’s reasoning was not alien to the rest of America. That, indeed, hoodies (especially on young black men) are considered to be some clue as to the nature of the person wearing them. Namely, that they are a ne’er-do-well of some sort. Indeed, in my own experience with Police and most white-normative situations, a hoodie is often a sort of deal-breaker when it comes to civil discourse. What’s most disturbing about Rivera’s comments is that they are part of common-sense advice many black men are given about going out in public. We know that, no matter what we actually look like (or actually *are* like), black men are considered dangerous. Never mind the history of violence in every racial community of Americans, there is a special place in American lore for the black male. So it is known that when we are confronted by people of authority — especially police — that we should go through extraordinary pains to make it clear that we do not want to pose a threat. We should try to be as docile and open as possible.
Indeed, I have followed this advice on a number of occasions and I can say that I am probably only ALIVE today because I had the wherewithal to repress any urge at outrage or umbrage when an officer of the law has pointed a gun at me for no good reason. In fact, considering the very, very low number of violent crimes I have committed in my life (’0′), I’ve had police confront me at gun point a rather inordinate number of times.
Now, given that this is an agreed upon trope (dangerous black men in hoodies) AND that hoodies remain a very popular form of attire, one can imagine the type of anxiety many of us feel when we wear what we’d like and walk around. Is the answer — as Geraldo suggests — to simply and pragmatically do away with hoodies altogether? I think not. And yet, my I *do* often fear for my well-being (if not my life) when I walk around the city in a hoodie. And while I fully support the #millionhoodies movement, it can also be a bit galling to see non-blacks in hoodies and think to myself, “well *you* can wear a hoodie to your hearts content and not have a thing to worry about.” Obviously, I get more from the sense of solidarity, but there is a schism there that, for all the unity now, won’t help me the next time I’m walking back to my car in a strange neighborhood looking “up to no good” with my hoodie on.
That’s one’s part of the racial issue. The other is more to do with Zimmerman not having been charged with any crime. And this is actually turning out to be a very difficult nut to crack. On the one hand, Zimmerman killed an un-armed 17-year-old boy after, according to him, being assaulted (with fists, mind you) by said boy. On the other hand, Florida has a peculiar legal conundrum called the “Stand Your Ground” law which basically states that a person who is being attacked may defend themselves — with deadly force, if necessary. And so, if indeed there was a fight going on and Zimmerman felt he was in serious danger, Florida law exonerates him of any legal wrong-doing
Now, whether this stands up in court, I can’t presume to know. That will be for a jury to decide if Zimmerman is ever charged with anything. But it brings into question some very troubling hypotheticals. Firstly, if the roles were reversed and Trayvon had been the one with a weapon and told the police that he’d be accosted by Zimmerman — would he still not be charged with *some* kind of law-breaking? I’m frankly incredulous that he wouldn’t have been taken into custody immediately and held for quite some time before the concept of the Stand-Your-Ground law was even brought to light. The history of black men and legal authorities in this country is *very* poor. Though I disagree with Florida’s assessment of Zimmerman’s guilt, I can at least understand the logic behind their reasons for not charging him. I cannot, however, believe that they’d have been so conscientious with a black man. Call it race-baiting if you like, I’d venture say history is on my side in this.
And secondly — perhaps more insidiously — what is the likelihood that Zimmerman would have shot a white man by whom he was being assaulted? Is there something to be said for the irrational fear that I wrote about previously? Isn’t there a scenario where a person with a gun draws it on an unarmed person they feel threatened by and uses the very threat of being shot as a deterrent? How did things become so dire that Zimmerman so no other means of escape that to shoot his alleged aggressor? I have to assume that people get into fist-fights all the time. Is Florida prepared to have all those fist-fights end in people being shot dead?
Its an alarming thought.
So while the country is still grappling with the question of the righteousness of Zimmerman’s shot or whether Martin was unfairly (and ultimately, fatally) profiled — we might also take this opportunity to ask ourselves: shame, tragedy, or injustice — what were the contributing factors? What is the pervasive culture around black men and hoodies, and yes, gun ownership? And how, perhaps, can we prevent this kind of thing from happening again? Or even somehow cut-back on the likelihood of this scenario even presenting itself.
While the pressure is on, we might be able to get something done.