Zimmerman and the Cost of Non-Engagement

Trayvon Martin
The victim

There are innumerable commentaries circulating in the wake of George Zimmerman’s acquittal. Charles Pierce (here and here) is worth reading, as is Ta-Nehisi Coates (here and here), as is David Simon. There are wise men and women trying to cope with the staggering injustice of the verdict, trying to figure out what the next step is, trying to face our new reality, one in which it is now feasible for an aggrieved non-black person to shoot and kill an unarmed black teenager and walk away. I don’t know that I have anything to offer in the way of political or legal insight. What I have are some thoughts about critical thinking, and about stories.

It’s hard to actively engage with a story, be it fiction or non-. It requires effort, effort that we can’t always muster after a hard work week, or a hard week looking for work. It’s easier to let a television show or a movie or a news report wash over us, like a river running downstream over rocks and mud, stirring up silty emotions and making the flotsam of the psyche dance but leaving the larger stones intact. I’ve been reading a lot about feminism lately, as part of my long march towards not being so much of a self-centered prick, and there are days where I get home and encounter a perspective I’m unfamiliar with, or some personal testimony that makes me uncomfortable, and find myself unable to engage it. There are nights where I am only able to ensconce myself in the familiar, unable to extend my consciousness and empathy beyond the borders of my own mind, where everyone else’s shoes pinch too much to take more than a few faltering steps beyond my door. The older I grow, the fewer of these nights I have, which I am grateful for, because in the Zimmerman verdict we see the cost of those nights all too plainly.

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If we fail to engage with the stories we are told, if we fail to measure them against our own experience, then we risk having those stories supplant our experience. If most of what you know of young black men comes from television and from news reports about gang violence, then of course young black men will make you nervous. Of course you will see them as a threat. The advances being made in civil liberties for LGBT folk have been possible in large part because the cultural invisibility of that community has been supplanted by media portrayals and by personal experience, as more and more people come to know gay and lesbian individuals personally (or to come to know that they know them, as it were). But one specific negative characterization of the black experience has a long history in our popular media, stretching back to Birth of a Nation, and it is these ugly and narrow images that crowd our subconscious when we walk down a dark street and see a dark young man coming toward us. He could be ready to draw a knife or a gun, yes, anyone could. On the night in question, he did not. I don’t presume to know George Zimmerman’s thoughts on the night in question, but given what we know about Trayvon Martin I would venture to say that if the stories Zimmerman had been told led him to expect a criminal, then those stories failed him.

Stories can fail us. They can be beautiful, and captivating, and comforting, all without having relevance, or accuracy, or truth. We hunger for stories, and in our hunger we’ll set upon anything that looks like it will fill us, even if that fulfillment comes without nourishment. A charismatic speaker or a brilliant writer, or both, working in tandem, can make us feel things, believe things, that it might not serve us to believe. It’s up to us to make that extra leap and question, gently but firmly, what we are being told, to measure it against our own experience. When someone tells you, as we were told during the trial, that weed in Trayvon’s system may have made him more violent, it is incumbent on us to reflect on what effect marijuana actually has on people. When we are told that Zimmerman is the victim of circumstance in all of this, we should point out that Zimmerman was the author of that circumstance by leaving his vehicle and pursuing Trayvon with a lethal weapon.

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I am told by the media that young black men are dangerous and violent and to be feared, but my own experience with the young black men I have known has been nothing but positive. When my thinking is dulled, when I am tired and run-down, it’s easy to forget these experiences when I’m on a lonely train and a young black man gets on. I have been trained by my country to be aware of him, not as a person but as an object, a threat, a dangerous animal. If I clutch my phone a little tighter or check my wallet, I have been told I am justified in this, this singular paranoia, but everything I have known of black men as people is my life is contradictory to this image. The men I have known have been funny, talented, driven, positive people. I would be appalled if I saw someone cross to the other side of the street to avoid one of them, or saw someone shove their phone deep into their pocket at the sight of one of them, or saw a man with a gun step out of his car and stop one of them on the street, demanding that they justify their presence.

But even this misses the point, which is that any of these young black men I have known should be measured not against other black men, but against me, and you, and everyone. I shouldn’t even have to make that point, but I, like all who cry out for true equality and justice, am fighting the cruel weight of the Thug Story, the Gangster Story, the Nigger Story. He is less than you. He is to be feared. He is other. We thrill at the pantomime violence of dark-skinned hooligans in the safety of our homes or in the theatres, but we owe it to ourselves, and to the world we share, to examine those stories in the light of day, and to make sure they accord with what we know of our worlds. Even the best art cannot hold a candle to the truth of your neighbor’s eyes, their heart, their smiles and laughter, and their real, true hopes. This is not to say that the art we strive to create is meaningless; the best art is a doorway into another person’s world, into their consciousness, taking us down the pathways of their experience, expressing some truth about them, but the highest artistic creations, the greatest mannered fictions are but pale simulacra next to that poor, dead boy and the senselessness of his end.

If you create, if you tell stories, make sure they’re true. Make sure they lead us to a better place, or that they help us expunge our pain instead of making it fester. And if you hear a story, think about it. Question it. Taste it, and if that taste is wrong, spit it out and move on, to find something that not only fills, but feeds, because unconsciously accepting the Nigger Story has led us to this grief.