One of the burdens of being a black male is carrying the heavy weight of other people’s suspicions. One minute you’re going about your life, the next you could be pleading for it, if you’re lucky. And far too many aren’t. That’s why the Feb.
27 26 killing of Trayvon Martin has black parents around the country clutching their sons a little closer.
By all accounts, Trayvon was a good kid. He helped his father coach Little League. He had dreams of becoming a pilot. He was good at math.
The Orlando Sentinel said that Trayvon’s English teacher described him “as an A and B student who majored in cheerfulness.” And now he’s gone because, as Charles Blow wrote on Saturday, “a man with a gun and an itchy finger” found Trayvon “suspicious.”
What we know is that the 17-year-old, visiting relatives in a gated community in Sanford, Fla., was on his way back to their house from 7-Eleven with an iced tea and a bag of Skittles. That’s when he caught the eye of George Zimmerman, a crime watch volunteer who called 911. Listening to that call made my blood run cold.
“Hey, we’ve had some break-ins in my neighborhood and there’s a real suspicious guy,” Zimmerman tells police before giving the address of where he is. “This guy looks like he’s up to no good or he’s on drugs or something.”
“These [expletive], they always get away,” Zimmerman says before getting out of his car to pursue Trayvon.
“Are you following him?” the police ask.
“Yes,” Zimmerman says. The officer on the phone tells him, “We don’t need you to do that.” But he did. In another 911 call, you can hear screaming for help and the fatal gunshot. Zimmerman brought a 9 mm handgun to the altercation. A scuffle ensued. Trayvon was fatally shot in the chest. His mother told the Associated Press yesterday, “(Zimmerman) was chasing him, he was following him, and my son was afraid. He didn’t know who this stranger was.”
You’ve heard me talk about the conversation my mom had with me before my first day at a predominantly white school. Reading about Trayvon reminded me of the list of the “don’ts” I received after my sheltered existence in Hazlet, N.J., was replaced with the reality of Newark when my mother remarried in the 1980s.
“Don’t run in public.” Lest someone think you’re suspicious.
“Don’t run while carrying anything in your hands.” Lest someone think you stole something.
“Don’t talk back to the police.” Lest you give them a reason to take you to jail or worse
There was also being mindful that you are being watched in stores. Watched turned to followed as I got older. To this day, if a sales person is overly attentive to what I might be looking for I leave the store. Never to return. And then there was keeping a distance of deniability from white women when walking on the street. Lest you be accused of any number of offenses, from trying to snatch her purse to sexual assault.
In the early 1990s, I saw a T-shirt for sale on Canal Street in New York that neatly and bluntly summed up my frustration with this situation: “No white lady I don't want your purse.”
All this might seem paranoid. After all, I was taught these things almost 20 years after Jim Crow by African Americans who experienced its soul-crushing force first hand. And this is 2012. So much has changed for the better since then. But then comes along a Trayvon Martin to remind us that the burden of suspicion is still ours to bear. And the cost for taking our lives might be none.
So far, no charges have been filed against Zimmerman, who has moved out of his home due to death threats. According to the Orlando Sentinel, police “turned the case over to the State Attorney’s Office, saying they did not have evidence to justify George Zimmerman’s arrest on a charge of manslaughter.” Yet, Blow asked a series of questions in his column that should have at least warranted taking Zimmerman into custody to get answers.
Why did Zimmerman find Trayvon suspicious? Why did he pursue the boy when the 911 operator instructed him not to? Why did he get out of the car, and why did he take his gun when he did? How is it self-defense when you are the one in pursuit? Who initiated the altercation? Who cried for help? Did Trayvon’s body show evidence of a struggle? What moved Zimmerman to use lethal force?
Lord knows when we’ll get those answers. Zimmerman is not only not in custody but, according to his father, the police advised him not to talk publicly. Trayvon, his grieving parents and shocked people everywhere deserve better than this.