An hour ago, the criminal justice system in Seminole County exonerated George Zimmerman for killing Trayvon Martin. Right this moment, I’m trying my best to do the same.
I’d been following the case with more than a little interest. As an off-white Jew married to an African American woman and the father of two “mixed race” kids (the eldest, a boy, only a few years from his teens), this was no mere abstraction, and more than just another tragic headline. The second I saw Trayvon’s photo in the newspaper, I saw my son there in his stead. And as the awful details of the doomed boy’s final hours emerged in news accounts, I couldn’t stop myself from imagining my beautiful boy profiled, harassed, confronted, and ultimately shot to death by a homicidal racist bully three times his size and twice his age.
(Even as I write these words, it’s hard not to cry.)
As a native New Yorker, a scholar of American culture and a staunch advocate for civil liberties, I’m hardly naïve about our nation’s racist past and present. I’ve witnessed hatred and bias, both banal and violent, institutional and personal, throughout my life. And though those who haven’t lived it firsthand can never fully appreciate the disquieting effects of racism on the intimate lives of African Americans, I’ve heard and seen enough through the ears and eyes of my wife and her relations to get a sense of its insidious persistence.
Yet, despite all this, I was shocked at my own reaction as my wife, my sister, my nephew and I watched the video feed from Zimmerman’s trial tonight. Though the verdict itself was a bitter disappointment and a bit of a surprise, it was hardly a bolt from the blue; that the six carefully vetted women (five of them white) on the jury would fail to find Zimmerman guilty beyond a reasonable doubt was all too predictable an outcome. Rationally speaking, I was prepared for that. What I didn’t expect was the clammy fist that would wrap itself around my heart and the wave of nausea and exhaustion that would flood my body the moment I heard the words “not guilty.”
Even now, after some intense conversation, a dip in my father’s hot tub, a brisk shower, a few cans of cold seltzer and a few paragraphs of carefully crafted self-inquiry, I’m still barely able to cobble my thoughts together. It’s as though my emotional ice caps, holding vast reserves of frozen anger, fear and resentment, suddenly melted and dumped their toxic load into my bloodstream. To put it as plainly as I can: the anger is so acute and painful I can barely think.
But I’m trying my best. I have to.
My three tweets, immediately following the announcement of the verdict:
Let’s deal with those one at a time. First of all, Fuck you, George Zimmerman. Fuck you, Florida jury. Fuck you, Florida. Fuck you, America. Fuck you, world. I am angry and ashamed and disgusted by you. Why can’t you be better? Why must the strong destroy the weak? Why must ugliness prevail over beauty? Why must deceit prevail over truth? Why, as someone once said after a similar incident, can’t we all just get along? Why? Why? Why?
I don’t know. Nobody knows. Philosophers call it “the problem of evil.” There are millennia’s worth of writings on this subject, and as far as I know, none of them actually get around to answering the question definitively, or even adequately defining the problem. Maybe it’s original sin. Maybe it’s thetans. Maybe evil is a social construct. I’m not even going to follow that rabbit hole any further.
Second: violence tends to beget violence, and from what I’ve heard it’s a hot, sticky night down in Florida right now. Millions of people are very, very upset. The newspapers are all warning about the possibility of “riots.” As I told my wife in the hot tub a little while back, it’s hard to imagine being black and not wanting to take to the streets to protest this country’s racism problem, to voice my anger at being stalked and slaughtered like hunters’ prey, to join together with my fellow oppressed and share my pain for all the world to see. Why the fuck not riot? She looked at me like I was an idiot, and patiently explained that a lifetime of being black in America, plus conscientious parenting, helps teach you to pick your battles wisely and to fight them constructively. Introduce yourself to the police before they harass or arrest you, my father-in-law taught her. Be polite, but never subservient. Assert your rights, but don’t use them to justify wrongs. Fix the foundations, don’t break windows.
Still, not everyone shares that perspective. From Nat Turner’s rebellion to the LA riots, untold numbers of black Americans have resorted to violence to fight for freedom or vent their rage. Sometimes there are positive outcomes, and people gain new freedoms and achieve a better standard of living. More often, innocents are hurt, rebellions are crushed, demonstrators are jailed, businesses are bankrupted, windows stay broken. My wife and her family lived in the South Bronx in the 1970s. They saw firsthand what happens when a community turns against itself, and when a system bound to protect it turns its back. They saw the malignant intentions of “benign neglect.” They fled for the greener pastures of northern New Jersey in the mid-‘80s. Our children probably owe their existence to that decision.
I really hope nobody gets killed tonight. Not in Trayvon’s name.
Finally, we get to the crux of the matter. What am I going to do with my black kids in this racist country? In this sad and stupid world? I can try to avoid visiting Florida and the 23 other states with similar “stand your ground” laws. That might be tough, especially given the fact that my folks have a little condo in Palm Beach and the kids love to visit them there. I can try to avoid moving outside of the northeast and California, those islands of relative tolerance. That might be tough, too; I’m an academic without tenure, and my career requires a certain degree of latitude in my choice of longitude. I could flee to another country. Scandinavia is nice if you can tolerate the monotony of winter and the monochromy of the general populace. China’s an up-and-coming world power with plenty of opportunity, but in terms of civil liberties, they’re the fire to our frying pan. Ditto the UK, with its “ring of steel” and its Irish Problem. The truth is, even if we found utopia, our home is here, and I feel a certain responsibility to stay and try to make things better.
(I’m not even sure what “making things better” means, by the way. My career is already devoted to the challenge of defining and defending civil liberties, albeit in the context of digital media and communications. I already attend rallies and meetups and write articles and books exhorting policy makers to respect their citizenry. I keep feeling like I should do more. I feel like we, as a generation, as a nation, are failing our children on so many fronts that it’s profoundly dispiriting. But what do I do? Do I “connect the dots” and develop a Grand Theory of Everything that deftly weaves together institutional racism and income disparity and ecological turmoil and globalization etc. etc. etc.? Or do I create an organization or a tool or a method that fixes something tangibly? Or do I just stick to what I’m good at, which is research and advocacy, and keep picking away at my little corner of the problem?)
So we stay, and I try my best to be “part of the solution.” I raise my kids in America – Obama’s America, but also Trayvon’s. An America in which doctors treat black patients as though they have a higher threshold for pain than white ones. An America in which school teachers treat darker students with stricter discipline than lighter ones. An America in which a 250-pound olive-skinned adult can shoot and kill a scrawny black teenager and walk away scot-free, but where the same situation with the colors reversed would be unthinkable.
So what do I tell my son? What do I say to him about this tomorrow, and next week, and next year? How do my wife and I raise him to be proud, hopeful and independent, but canny and cautious at the same time? He’s a very sensitive guy. Telling him to clean his room is enough to set off a persecution complex. He frequently frets about imaginary dangers. How can I explain to him that his life is actually under a very real threat, and that the people and institutions that are supposed to protect us are at best ineffectual and at worst antagonistic? How can I look into his big, soft eyes and tell him that, in the eyes of the justice system, he looks like a criminal? How can I tell him that the punishment for wearing a hoodie might be death?
I hate being put in this position. For better and for worse, I don’t have the emotional resilience and strategic sophistication of someone born black in this country. I have to figure this stuff out now, so I can help my kids the way my wife’s parents helped her and her brothers. I have to figure this stuff out now, so that I can live without despair.
Here’s the thing, the hideous truth. I think I understand what made Zimmerman call the cops, stop his car, and confront Trayvon. I’m not saying I sympathize with him, or that I agree with the decisions he made or the opinions he seems to hold. I’m saying I think I understand those decisions and opinions.
The truth is, growing up in Brooklyn in the 1980s, I learned to fear black teens. (There, I’ve said it.) Sure, some of my friends fell into that category, but, then again, so did some of my enemies. Who robbed me at knifepoint at the Fulton Mall? A couple of black teens. Who beat up my mom and stole her purse less than a block from my house? A black teen. Who crashed my 16th birthday party and wrecked my dad’s apartment? Well, you get the picture. Between the ages of 12 and 15, I was beaten up and bullied by a fair number of Koreans, Puerto Ricans, Chinese, Ukrainians, Italians, Dominicans, Levantines and assorted white folks, but almost anything that went above and beyond schoolyard mischief tended to conform to the pattern. As a consequence, unfamiliar black boys and men aged 14-20 were instantly suspect, potential threats to be assessed and mitigated according to a complex and largely unconscious algorithm that I carried around in my poor, traumatized, racist skull. I suspect that many other white and off-white skulls carry around similar burdens, with or without the knowledge and consent of their owners.
I’m not sure how or when I managed to shed this awful baggage. Part of it was the benefit of living in a diverse and progressive community, where I had plenty of counter-examples (Who saved me from the knife wielders and watch thieves? Mostly black men, both known and unknown). Part of it was growing up and getting out, moving to a small college campus where violence was rare and mostly committed by white “townies.” Part of it was achieving some historical and social perspective, learning to see violence committed by blacks as an epiphenomenon of the structural (and corporeal) violence committed against them. And, given the emotional cocktail my body released into my bloodstream earlier this evening, it seems likely that a good portion of my fear and vengeance simply ossified, waiting inert in the freezer section of my mind until events such as today’s dislodged them and sent them oozing back into my consciousness. At any rate, by the time I met my wife in my early 20s, I was no longer aware of any particular bias, and, if anything, actively sought the company of black friends and racially diverse communities.
I don’t know anything about George Zimmerman as a person other than what’s been reported in the press. He seems to me like a guy who was spoiling for a fight, a gun-carrying vigilante killer along the lines of Dirty Harry or Bernhard Goetz. Not someone I’d ever want to meet, let alone on a dark street at night. But I have a feeling that we share something in common – a seed of racist panic, a negrophobic impulse with a deadly valence, borne of mistrust, misunderstanding, and misplaced anger. While I was fortunate enough to expunge that seed from my heart, maybe he wasn’t. Maybe he chose to nurse it, to grow it into a “poison tree,” as Blake once wrote. Or maybe it just sat there festering inside of him like an undiagnosed cancer, until the day when it metastasized, changed his life and ended Trayvon’s. Either way, I feel sorry for him.
Yes, sorry. I pity George Zimmerman. I pity him because I have to. Because I can’t be angry any more. Because I can’t be scared any more. Because I can’t condemn him and claim not to share in his guilt, in his dilemma. We all do. Racism, hatred and violence didn’t start with George Zimmerman, and they wouldn’t be expunged even if he were convicted and put to death. They certainly won’t if a vigilante’s bullet brings him to the same sad end that he spelled for Trayvon.
I choose to forgive George Zimmerman, and the judge and jury at his trial, and the state of Florida, and the legislators who enacted “stand your ground” laws, and while I’m at it, I forgive the poor illiterate kid who attacked my mom and the desperate schmuck who was willing to slice me open for $11 at the Fulton Mall. I forgive everybody because the hatred doesn’t belong to them any more than it belongs to me. And, more than anything, I need to forgive myself.
People have been fearing and killing one another since the beginning (Cain and Abel, or Gilgamesh, or Arjuna, depending on which myths you choose to believe), and the only way I know to stop the violence is to find it in your own heart and pluck it out like any other malignant growth. I have to believe that we, as individuals, communities, and nations, can exist without it – that we are better off, and more authentically ourselves, without it. I need to forgive not just for my own sake, but for the sake of my children. I must forgive, because if I don’t, my son could easily become the next Trayvon Martin – or the next George Zimmerman.