“Mommy, I’m not black. I’m white like Maya”, is what my 5 year old son said standing at the base of the Martin Luther King Jr. monument. His mother had just given him the cliff notes explanation of the civil rights movement. “Why is that?” his mom asked. “Because if they are going to beat me up for going to a restaurant, I don’t want to be black”.
I laughed when she told me this story, and then had a follow up conversation with both of my kids about what was beautiful about being black. It was easy reiterating what their mother said, that what had happened to freedom riders, protesters and sit-in participants was a thing of the past. That it was great to be proud of the color of your skin whether it was dark like Grandmother Barbara Jean and my whole side of the family from South Carolina, or like Maya (my sons name for their maternal grandmother) and her family from Cape Verde (and for the record she is black, she’ll fight you tooth and nail if you tell her otherwise). His mom and I both had proud moments of self satisfaction and thankfulness about everything Dr. King and the millions of us, black and white, that have created a world where my children don’t have to worry about the color of their skin. That is what I thought the teachable moment was. But now, after being obsessed with this Trayvon Martin case, I’m not sure if I was telling him the truth anymore.
It’s been four weeks, and every major news organization (except Fox News) has finally picked up on the tale of Trayvon Martin’s unfortunate end at the hands of George
Zimmerman, and the attempted cover up by the Sanford City Police Department lead by Chief of Police Bill Lee. Whether or not you have a definitive opinion on the case or not, almost everyone agrees that we have not reached the bottom of this case. I cannot fathom a jury finding him not guilty of manslaughter at the least, all the way up to 2nd degree murder. There was no reason for Mr. Zimmerman to pursue Trayvon after he did his neighborhood watch duty (no matter how racist or age discriminatory his assumptions were) by calling the police. The police dispatcher even specifically told him not to follow the teen. The details of this case have been explained in countless journalist reports, opinion editorials and blogs, and isn’t what I’m interested in discussing here right now. (At the time I’m writing this we’ve discovered that Zimmerman calls Trayvon a “fucking coon” under his breath on the 911 call. I can’t even keep up with the developments anymore).
When tragedies like this happen, I look for the teachable moment. You know Trayvon. Quite literally. If you’ve met over 50 African American men in your life you’ve met a Trayvon, or a Travon, or Travaughn, or Treyvon. I know at least 3, from wanna be junior thugs to brilliant literary artists. What can I tell the young people I know that would help them avoid this situation? I can’t think of one. Unless George Zimmerman is at least brought to trial to explain his actions in front of a jury of his peers, the only lesson I can teach black teenagers is that any man, at any time, has the right to stop you for being suspicious. Or is the lesson that you cannot, under any circumstances, wear hooded sweatshirts? Despite the weather or even your own personal inclination for hoodies? Or is it, when you are walking in an unfamiliar neighborhood make sure you properly identify yourself to the neighborhood watch commander upon arriving? Or at least make sure you have your freedom papers on you in case they stop you? Sarcasm aside, what could Trayvon have done to not have been killed that night? The only teachable moment so far is that Zimmerman and vigilantes like him can take the law into their own hands with impunity.
It would seem as if George Zimmerman misunderstood a basic element of police power. It’s not the will to serve, the “bravery” or the gun that makes someone police. It is the
BADGE and the UNIFORM! What made him think he could stop/question/detain/subdue a young man without a badge? People comply with the cops because they know there are thousands of city, county, state and federal law enforcement officers they have to deal with if they get violent. Trayvon was completely within his rights to ignore Zimmerman, run from Zimmerman, or kick Zimmerman’s ass for trying to stop him from getting to his destination. Zimmerman could’ve at least shown the teen that he had a gun before the confrontation started. He obviously tried to stop him physically and got his face busted and his head kicked in. Then, like a punk, Zimmerman pulled out a gun and shot him. In the end, without even an indictment or a trial forcing Zimmerman to publicly defend his actions, the only lesson is that young black men walking are guilty until proven innocent, and are subject to judge-jury-executioner by any untrained wannabe law enforcement officer with a gun.
The only other lesson we seem to be learning from this situation is that “We the People” do not get to decide with a fair trial what happened that night. The self-defense laws in Florida state that a person can use deadly force when “force is so great that the person reasonably believes that he or she is in imminent danger of death or great bodily harm and that he or she has exhausted every reasonable means to escape such danger other than the use of force which is likely to cause death or great bodily harm to the assailant,”. The most important part of this is “reasonable”. Why can’t “We the People”, a jury of Zimmerman’s
peers, decide what is reasonable? If it was reasonable, 12 other people should be able to hear the story as laid out factually, and come to the same conclusion. We don’t even have to use his unreasonable forty-six (46) calls to the police in the last year as evidence against him. We could simply listen to the 911 calls from that night. This is what Bill Lee and the rest of the Sanford Police Department has robbed the American people of!
I’m tired of being told to raise my sons to beware of their own blackness, but I would be negligent sending them into this cruel world unprepared. I’ve been told by a friend to make sure my sons know that there are separate rules for them. I scoffed at that notion. My sons have blatantly African names, with the distinct purpose of throwing their blackness in any future employer or admission directors face. But this case has brought the reality of this country back to the forefront. So I’ve realized what the teachable moment is. My sons and students need to know that the fight isn’t over or the same. Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Dubois and Dr. King all fought for our rights under different circumstances. In 2012 we have a black president, so we have been lulled into a false sense of security. It’s not the same fight as our grandfathers, but it’s a brawl just the same. I am a proud part in this struggle, with millions of people of different races and backgrounds fighting with us. This country has never had a problem being racist, it’s always had a problem appearing racist, and the 500,000 + people on social media have pulled up the rug and shown all the dirt the Sanford police department has tried to sweep away. The murder of Trayvon Martin showed me the dark side of this world, but the response of the people has made me so proud to be a part of this battle. I’ll teach my sons to pick up this torch, and hope that it will prepare them for the fight their generation has to wage.