Trayvon, George and the need for context

A Trayvon Martin shooting target, available on the web.
When my kids were small, my younger son (whom I will call Junger) often complained about my older son (called Alden here).

"Dad! Alden hit me!" he would cry, sobbing.

"Alden!" I would discipline my older son. "Don't hit your Junger! He's smaller than you!"

But after a while, I realized that there was more to the story than Junger let on.

Finally, after one of Junger's complaints, I would ask, "Well what happened before Alden hit you?"

"I hit him."



Last night's shocking acquittal in the Trayvon Martin meant many things. Perhaps that the facts of what happened that February 2012 night in Tampa was beyond the ability of the jury to nail down. Perhaps the points of law about second degree murder and of manslaughter did not neatly fit the evidence. Perhaps the defense clouded the jury's mind and raised atavistic fears by showing pictures of a bare-chested Trayvon.

But to me, the case hung upon the same issues with Alden and Junger: context.

There was more going Between Trayvon and George Zimmerman than what occurred in the last 60 seconds of the confrontation between them. Sure, if you close the brackets around that interval, you will see a young black teenager dominating an older Hispanic male in a fight. There are punches thrown, a nose broken, perhaps a head being banged on the pavement.

But if you widen your vision a bit, you will see the young man terrified by what might have been an attacker, following him around for no discernible purpose. You would have seen the older man sickened at the thought of losing the trail of another would-be burglar. You would have seen two men terrified of each other, locked in an embrace of social and personal expectations and the need to stand tall.

Confrontation was inevitable. Add a gun to the mix and it becomes lethal.

Widen your vision even further, to the climate of a nation that is slipping back into an acceptance of racial stereotypes and fears. Many whites have long been sick of perceived favoritism toward blacks. Those who favor affirmative action are now constantly on the defensive. The conservatives on the Supreme Court tell us that racism is no longer an issue, so protections like the Voting Rights Act and racial preferences in college admissions are no longer needed or can be limited.

But observe the way folks took sides in this case. I saw many whites automatically take the side of the person closest to their color. I saw that many cheered when "their guy" was acquitted. "Hallelujah!" tweeted one especially noxious political commentator.

As long as we root for one side or the other in these cases, we lose sight of the real objective of our justice system: the truth, and the whole truth. While there is truth that Trayvon Martin turned on his attacker, there is also truth that his attacker willingly, perhaps recklessly, set in motion a chain of events that lead to his target's death. Unfortunately, the jury, or perhaps the American system of justice, is unable to deal with complex truths, and so justice is left undone, or only partially done.

The truth is that had Trayvon Martin chosen the obsequious route, kowtowing to the threat of violence and intimidation that George Zimmerman represented, he might well have lived. Had he begged the light-skinned man to save his life, and acquiesced to his demands to tell him what he was doing in the neighborhood, he might be with us today. Humiliated and angry, but alive. But Trayvon acted like any cocky, self-respecting 17-year-old would: defiantly, even taking on his assailant. But in the context of America in 2013, defiance and acts of self-defense from a young black man raised the stakes too high. Trayvon's "sin" was to chose not to flee and not to beg. And it put him in the cross hairs of a culture that still panics at the prospects of black assertiveness.

George Zimmerman and his supporters are rejoicing today. They won the case. George gets to go free and to tell his story to the morning shows. maybe write a book. The racists among his backers will enjoy the latest rout of black pride and assertiveness. They have slain their monster. The slave revolt has been put down yet again.

The rest of us must renew our efforts to push back our own dark angels. And doing so, push back our society's level of paranoia and intolerance. Trayvon Martin died because it is still not OK in our land for the black man to fight back, no matter how righteous his cause. It is not OK for him to be angry or demanding, lest he trigger a backlash or be derided as "uppity." The non-violent path of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was not only righteous and scripture-based, but practical. Sadly, black men and women had to take the brunt of racial fears on their bodies in order to change their oppressors' hearts.
The acquittal of George Zimmerman, and the glee that it brought in some quarters, teaches us that we have not yet achieved the post-racial millennium. We have been lost ground on the achievements of the civil rights era due to our complacency and racism fatigue. It is up to us again to carry the torch of freedom and dignity. To brave the taunts and insults of those who still prefer a world where whites dominate via the power of their guns, courts and legislation. The task is not over. The fight for a just world is not won. The prize is not yet in hand.