Thursday, May 24, 2012

The complicated shadows of George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin

Due to recent changes in my life, I haven't had time to post. But I want to change that, starting now. Between the upcoming election, the Trayvon Martin case and Anders Behring Breivik's trial, there's been a lot to think about, and I need to start writing more. In light of recent revelations about George Zimmerman, where he was recorded last year criticizing the Sanford police, and the "Prelude to a Shooting" article, I have formed a very elementary opinion about what may have happened that fateful night. Zimmerman joined the neighborhood watch after an ill-tempered dog terrorized him and his wife, and was urged by a police officer to get a gun to protect himself. He then became very active in the organization. In 2011, there had been a series of break-ins in the neighborhood, and witnesses pinned the crimes on a group of young black men. With this information, Zimmerman saw a young black man walking down the street one night, and, after another "suspect" had gotten away from him while waiting for the police, did not take the time to follow proper protocol. In his eyes, Trayvon Martin was a potential suspect, and he didn't want another one to get away. So he took matters into his own hands, with disastrous consequences. George Zimmerman is not the racist early reports and activists painted him as, but an overzealous vigilante. As for what happened that night, it appears that Zimmerman saw Martin walking home, and pegged him as suspicious, due to his resemblance to the break-in suspects. The rest of this is pure speculation. Zimmerman approached Martin, and Martin, annoyed at Zimmerman's interrogation, started getting angry. This led to a fight, with Zimmerman trying to subdue who he thought was a beligerent suspect. He didn't want to wait for the police, after what had happened with his previous suspect, and, if his critique of local law enforcement is any indication, this was a man who didn't have much faith in the police. During the course of the fight, Zimmerman pulled out his gun and fired. Whether this was self-defense or murder (just how angry Martin got and whether Zimmerman's response was appropriate) is for a court to decide. I don't have enough evidence to make a call either way. But I don't believe this was a case of racial profiling (not consciously, at least). As tragic as it is, it appears that Trayvon Martin was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Another big question is how this murky case of vigilantism turned into a cornerstone of discussion of race in American society. The press, either misinformed or deliberately exaggerating and simplifying in the quest for a story, had a big part, as did the activists like Al Sharpton (desperately looking to recover his shattered credibility) who latched onto the case. Even President Obama weighed in on the race issue when he probably shouldn't have. However mishandled the coverage of the Zimmerman/Martin story was, it ultimately became a symbol for everyone in America who sees examples of racism every day. While George Zimmerman may not have been motivated by racism, there are many Trayvon Martins in this country, targeted by police and civilians based on the color of their skin. People heard about Martin's death, the shooting of an unarmed young black man by a vigilante who thought he might be a criminal based on his appearance, and saw similar situations that had happened to friends or themselves. As much as we want to believe otherwise, racism, in many forms, still exists in this country, and those who say so are often shouted down by those who want to deny it because "things are better than they used to be." Trayvon Martin, or the initial perception of his death, was proof of the racism that some of us saw, but some of didn't want to see. While this case has turned out to be far less black and white, the discussion around it brought up issues that need to be faced. When I saw Bruce Springsteen perform back in April, he performed "41 Shots," which was written about a similar case in New York a few years ago. That one was a little less complicated; if the shooting was self-defense, as the police officer claimed, why did he shoot the unarmed teenager 41 times? Springsteen may have been performing the song with Trayvon Martin in mind. But, with lines about taking "the law into your hands" and "you should've never been playing with a gun in those complicated shadows," a more appropriate song for this messy situation is Elvis Costello's "Complicated Shadows."

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