Because My Nephew Likes Skittles

(In 2012, One Page For is focusing on children and the issues they contend with..Sadly, this story relates….)

The story I am about to recount  can be read here in the Miami Herald.  

A few weeks ago, in a gated community in Florida, a man named George Zimmerman, a man not employed by the police,  but a man with a history of being a super-vigilant neighborhood watch patrolman, was on “patrol”. He saw a young black male walking down the street at night. In the past few years, apparently, robberies had been up  in this community, many, apparently connected to African American teenaged boys.

And so when he spotted an African American teenaged boy, a young black male, walking down the street, Zimmerman called the cops.

On the phone, according to 911 tapes, Zimmerman said to the 911 dispatcher that the kid looked drugged and suspicious.  911 told  him not to pursue this kid and that cops would be on the way.

Because when you see someone “suspicious” in your neighborhood, especially if you’re in a neighborhood where cops show up when you call,  that’s what you do: you call the cops and you let them come and do what they do, because they are trained and you are not.

But  what Mr. Zimmerman did instead was tell the dispatcher “Yeah” …he was pursuing the kid. And he continued to purse the kid when the dispatcher told him not to. And in the midst of this he said something about the kid being one of the type who “always get away.”

Apparently, this kid wasn’t going to get away this time, because  Mr. Zimmerman followed the kid, 17 year old Trayvon Martin. And then he got out of his SUV at some point.

And and then he and Trayvon got into an altercation –overheard and even recorded by neighbors –at some point.

And then Mr. Zimmerman, using his legally concealed 9mm handgun, shot Trayvon Martin to death.

Mr. Zimmerman claimed self-defense, and, since no one could give testimony otherwise, he hasn’t been charged with anything.  Apparently,there’s a law that says if you get in a fight in Florida and have a gun, you can go ahead and use it and kill someone. You can consult the news on that one. And it isn’t my purpose to write about what should happen to next.

Instead, I’m just another person trying to figure how, no, why, this happened and how to keep it from happening again.

And what I come to isthis: a kid, Trayvon Martin, was the victim of the convergence of two deadly outlooks held by far too many people in our society.  He wasn’t the first. And it is horrifically all but  certain he won’t be the last.

The first toxic outlook, perhaps the one that played in the most,  is this:  because a “disproportionate” number of young black males, black teenaged boys, commit crimes, it is okay for other people to look at any young black male, any black teenaged boy, as a suspect.

That’s how millions of people think. It’s self-defense, we tell ourselves and each other. We have a “right” to be suspicious. Or in other words, “Sorry millions of guys, but since some of you do crime, all of you are going to have to pay the price.”   We blame the criminals of the demographic for pushing us to be poisoned against the normal everyday kids in the demographic. As if we aren’t to blame for being irrationally prejudiced against millions of kids because of what we, many of us, mainly see in the media.

How many people who are worried about black kids in their neighborhood have even talked to one in any context?

Apparently, according to his dad, Mr. Zimmerman wasn’t a racist in everyday life. But here’s the thing, whatever Mr Zimmerman’s personal relationships with black people (see article),  his noting of Trayvon Martin’s race did factor into this shooting. Didn’t it?  Black kids were caught stealing before. And here was another one of them. That type who always gets away. People  might even justify Mr Zimmerman’s fears by saying  “Well, if  I lived in that neighborhood and if some black kids had been ripping people off, I might be suspecting every black kid I see….”

Because we live in a society  that has let itself off the hook about generalizing all young black males as suspects “because we know a lot of young black males commit crimes. ..”

And so, we also live in a society where young black males have a lower expectation of and right to be taken as individuals, to be left alone when they’re just walking, to not be harassed by watchmen.

To not be shot to death.

They don’t get to live in the same world we do, we outside of their demographic. And sometimes, they don’t get to live at all.

Until we take a long ____g look at how we view black boys over,say, 12 in this country and stop it, that’s where we are.  And where we are is a big reason this boy is dead.

But you know what, I’ll grant you prejudice as a human instinct, almost subconscious . I’ll give anyone, including myself, that handicap.  And I will also  hold out hope that every good-hearted person who hears about Trayvon Martin will look at little closer at his or her own jump judgements, fears and prejudices and try to exorcise them. Because it may be natural, but it isn’t all right.

But pure prejudice is not the only thing that caused this boy’s death.  It was the combination of racial prejudice with another destructive mentality and the action this mentality leads to.

And that is the mentality held by far too many people in this country who do not have military or police training that they have the aptitude, reflexes,  nerves under pressure and judgement to walk around, armed, in their neighborhoods, on college campuses or through shopping malls to protect us all from the bad guys who may also have guns.

It is fine to bear arms if you want. Have at.  But far too many people are chomping at the bit to get concealed carry permits, like the one Mr Zimmerman had, not just for self or home protection, but to be cowboy, to be the guy who stops the cafeteria shooting, the grocery store parking lot takedown.

Or the sinister armed robbery on his block.

These people believe they will not be misled by their own fears, flaws, weaknesses  and prejudices – like every other  human being – including, often, trained law enforcers – and therefore they will be able to save the day in crises and never make a fatal mistake. They will do good, not harm.  And we should trust them….with our lives and the lives of our loved ones.

They over-estimate themselves.  They deputize themselves.

And then, at least in the case of Mr. Zimmeran, who I am sure is not an evil man, they kill someone else’s child.

But here’s the thing:

If  kids are increasingly going to be killed for being suspects –by untrained people– and if black boys are suspected more than other kids….what is the conclusion we reach about which kids are most jeopardized with this toxic, growing mindset of vigilantism ?

Let me pause here to say I left a fact out of the story of Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin. And that fact is Trayvon Martin’s dad lived in the neighborhood where the boy was walking and Trayvon was no criminal, just a kid coming back from a 7-11 with skittles and an iced tea.

I left that fact out because I’m tired of it mattering to the media and to people who consume media whether a dead black teenager, an undeveloped being with untapped potential was a “good” kid  looking towards college or a “bad” kid known for gangbanging or dealing drugs. A dead kid  is a tragedy  no matter his background or trajectory or who shot him or whether or not he had drugs or stolen property on him when he was gunned down walking down the street.   It’s either a tragedy that his bright future has been robbed of him for no reason or a tragedy his future was not bright.  But it is always a tragedy a young person has no future at all.

How desensitized is this country to young black males dying when we don’t get that?

I dont mean to imply Trayvon’s reputation and background isn’t important. It is important to know who he was and how he was a good kid. I suppose I include this point here because Ive been wanting to make it for a while. And also maybe because I feel guilty about this myself, because what drew me to this story was how the victim fit a familiar demographic –  just a suburbanish kid, no issues, going about his business. I was drawn to it by the irony and relatability and the fact it re-inforced my distrust of vigilantes.

I just should’ve cared because this was a kid who got shot and killed.  I need to work on that.

But here’s the final fact, and this is what it really comes down to for me and why I am writing, and it’s partly a selfish thing, too:

I am the aunt of a ten year old boy. He likes Legos and soccer, he’s learning piano so next year he can play drums, and recently he’s been wearing around an empty Darth Vadar pinata on his head as a mask.  He is amazing, kind, crazy, and awesome.

But soon enough 10 will turn to 13 and many many people will cease to view my nephew as a cute little kid anymore and will instead begin to view him as  “suspicious” – not because of anything he’s done, but because, with a white mom and an African American dad, my nephew is brown-skinned. He will be a young black male.  And whether people may think he’s black or mistake him as some due for Latino, sadly, in the eyes of far too many people, either way, he’s  a suspect, a stranger, one of those kids who “always gets away.”

And if that’s all it was, that’d be bad enough. My black nephew shouldn’t be less free to roam and be himself than my two equally amazing white ones.  He shouldn’t need a separate set of directions for negotiating the world than they do.

BUT the idea that someone might think that, then act on that, and have a gun at the time…

My nephew?  Uh-uh. Unacceptable.

Unacceptable for anyone’s nephew.  I can’t imagine what Trayvon Martin’s aunts, if he has some, are feeling right now. And I actually won’t let myself try.

We need to work, as humans in this country, at no longer justifying our mass fear or disdain or whatever it is for  young black males as simply “self defense, ’cause a lot of them are criminals.”   We need to realize how unreasonable and unright that is.  They are our children, for Godssake. And our mindset  is killing them.

And we need to stop thinking we’re all fit to be sheriffs with guns. We are not.  And that is just the truth.  (We have enough to contend with violence involving actual police, but I do not feel qualified to talk about that issue…) .

And as long as these two ever-increasing mentalities are not addressed, there are going to be more  kids who didn’t deserve it being shot to death walking down the street.

And if I haven’t made it clear, my position on this is: NO KID deserves to be shot to death walking down the street.

There is no good to come out of the death of a 17 year old.  So, I won’t try to wrap this up neatly.  I’ll just be checking my own mind and prejudices and heart a little closer tonight.

And I hope any people who hear Trayvon Martin’s story do the same.  It’s just so horribly, horribly angering and sad.

-Beth

For more on this story:

Charles Blow, NYTimes – ultimately, a dad’s perspective.

The 911 tapes

Mediaite, an author recognizes “This is America’s problem.”

The Martin Family on the 911 Tapes


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