I’ve spent my adult life working with young black men, from all economic and social backgrounds, arming them with the rules I have learned to navigate the bi-polar United States that we live in. This world is a complicated matrix of social constructs and unjust laws, a matrix my peers and our elders thought we at least understood (though we haven’t mastered). We knew who the enemy was and how to avoid them. We recognized, painfully, that some were going to be casualties, collateral damage, in this struggle. Some would fall victim to the stray bullet in gang related drive by. Some would have their wallet mysteriously confused for a gun by police. That not withstanding, we knew what neighborhoods to tell them to avoid, what colors not to wear, and how to talk to a badge-carrying officer of the law. This complicated matrix was a math equation we taught in our schools, churches, and after school program. But now, just like “The Matrix” (the popular turn of the millennium movie) this equation we thought we had figured out has an Agent Smith. More accurately, an Agent Zimmerman.
You remember Agent Smith? Let me refresh your memory. Opening scene of The Matrix. Trinity is being attacked by a precincts worth of police offers. She doesn’t break a sweat, because she has trained for this moment. Trinity knows this matrix, and has been taught how to navigate it, and swats away her enemies like flies. Until, The Agents came. Its the most important moment in the movie, the instant you realize the power of her most dangerous enemy. You wonder what could possibly scare this seemingly invisible super heroine who had done away with an army of men, each twice her size. Then you realize that these agents defy the rules of The Matrix she is prepared to battle. Of all the gravity defying stunts the Agents could perform the most amazing and life threatening was their ability to inhabit the body of anyone plugged into The Matrix. If they recognized you as the enemy they could flip a switch and do a shape shifter-mind-body possession trick, and become that agent ready to hunt and kill.
This is what is scary about the Zimmerman trial. That no matter what rules and best practices we drill into the heads of our youth (what people to avoid, what words to use with known enemies like gangs, and frenemies like the police) nothing can save you from Agent Zimmerman. A man possessed with the urge to confront, detain and if necessary kill you because you fit a description of the prototypical criminal, and who has impunity to attack because they are protected by law. As Geraldo Rivera stated, of course Zimmerman was acquitted. The women in the jury would have shot Trayvon themselves, because black men had robbed that neighborhood.
We are now no longer in the matrix we thought we were in. We can no longer arm our children with the knowledge necessary to attempt to avoid lethal conflicts. We tell our sons now, that when you are approached by a police officer to cooperate, to turn your music to a less threatening station (smooth jazz or gospel). To keep hands visible because you have a gun in your hands unless proven otherwise. But now, anyone can be inhabited by this virus of being afraid of a young black man, and use it to pursue a black man in “self defense”.
Now there is an Agent Zimmerman among us. A mysterious spirit of fear mixed with aggression that can inhabit any neighbor, giving them the authority to kill our sons because our sons are an imminent threat. Zimmerman stated that black men had been committing burglaries in his community. Trayvon Martin? No, but as the court system has proved, it did not matter. A young black man was a consistent suspect, and that suspicion empowered Agent Zimmerman’s to behave with lethal violence on anyone fitting the most basic description. As much as the prosecution had impugned Trayvon character, it wasn’t his character that Zimmerman had judged because he knew nothing about it. It was his color.
In the matrix the good guys (those detached from the matrix to the point where they could see the game being played and defend themselves from the forces trying to enslave them) had but one recourse against Agent Smith and his cohorts o who could jump from one body to another. Run. They had learned how to look at the complicated numbers and symbols scrolling in front of them, and find ways to both stay alive, and find ways to free others from the system. Agent Zimmerman is our Agent Smith. The variable we have no recourse for, because he doesn’t fit any description we can prepare for. Just like in the movie, anyone plugged into this matrix, and swallowing the stories about the imminent danger the comes with a black mans presence, can act as judge jury and executioner.
As dysfunctional as this system is, we felt like we knew the parameters. For centuries any white man could kill a black man with impunity, maybe only having to compensate his owner. But Dr. King died thinking we had reached an age where at least the government would hold you accountable. I guarantee Trayvon knew the rules. He knew what to do if real police approached him. He had not been trained to deal with faux police like Agent Zimmerman. He tried to run, he tried to hide, he tried to fight, and he lost. But then we all lost, because our Matrix has refused to corral this rogue agent. A spirit freed by the justice system, to inhabit anyone who feels threatened by a young black man fleeing him or her. Agent Zimmerman is a glitch in the Matrix, or maybe more accurately a carefully designed program, we are not prepared for.