By Spenser Hickey
In light of George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, I am reminded of an episode of the TV series “The West Wing.”
A Latino LAPD officer shot and killed a black teenager holding what turned out to be a fake gun, and one of the characters — a Latino presidential candidate — speaks to a black church congregation about the incident; I’ve included some of his words below.
I find myself on days like this casting about for someone to blame. I blame the kid, he stole a car. I blame the parents. Why couldn’t they teach him better? I blame the cop, did he need to fire? I blame every one I can think of and I am filled with rage.
And then I try and find compassion. Compassion for the people I blame, compassion for the people I do not understand, compassion. It doesn’t always work so well. I remember as a young man listening on the radio to Dr. King in 1968. He asked of us compassion, and we responded, not necessarily because we felt it but because he convinced us that if we could find compassion, if we could express compassion, that if we could just pretend compassion, it would heal us so much more than vengeance could. And he was right: it did but not enough. What we’ve learned this week is that more compassion is required of us and an even greater effort is required of us.
… I ask you today to dig down deep with me and find that compassion in your hearts, because it will keep us on the road. And we will walk together, and work together. And slowly, slowly, too slowly, things will get better.
To be fair, the similar details between the fictional case and the real-life tragedy of Trayvon Martin are superficial at best: a Hispanic man shoots and kills a black youth he thought was a threat to his life. Details aside, though, the message of the speech — compassion and the need for unity — still resonate at this dark hour.
Much of the national debate over the case centered on blame — what happened was Zimmerman’s fault for being a profiling wannabe cop; or, alternatively, Martin was a violent and possibly high punk who instigated the fight.
While I’m personally more inclined to see more validity to the first assertion than the second one — and I admit I hadn’t watched all of the trial’s nonstop coverage — the case was more than just two competing assertions.
Why did Zimmerman think Martin was suspicious? As far as I know, he hasn’t spoken to this, and many have asserted he was assuming Trayvon was a criminal because of his appearance — a black teen in a hoodie. The details of the altercation that left Trayvon dead and Zimmerman apparently bloodied were fiercely contested, but even if Martin did start the fight, as Zimmerman claims, I can appreciate why he would have done so.
Thinking of this reminds me of a time, not too long ago, when I was walking late at night and saw an unknown man following me, as Trayvon did that tragic night. It was the last night of fall semester, and I was with several friends going up the JAYwalk when we saw someone trying to pry open the doors to the Hamilton-Williams Campus Center. He saw us, stopped, and began to follow us. We grouped together, called Public Safety. He vanished as soon as they showed up, and that was the end of it.
I had the safety of numbers, and as a white man did not have a deeply ingrained and often justified mistrust of police, as many black men do. And yet I still remember the fear and adrenaline I felt that night, and how I became conscious of the glass bottle I held, and thought of how I might have had to use it had I been alone, had PS been elsewhere. And so even if Trayvon were the instigator of the fight, I have an understanding of why he would have done so, not knowing who this man was — Zimmerman had been following him for awhile, first in a vehicle and then on foot.
I don’t know why George Zimmerman did what he did, and I likely never will; none of us know what was in his mind as he approached Martin. And because the case is so muddled, I’m not surprised there was an acquittal. After all, the only man who saw everything and is still alive was the one on trial.
Despite the acquittal, I still see in this case some progress in how racially-charged killings are handled.
Had this happened several decades ago, Zimmerman would almost certainly have gone untried, and Trayvon Martin would be just one of the scores of black men who never had a chance at receiving justice.
Look at the cases of Emmett Till, Jimmie Lee Jackson, Medgar Evers and the dozens of other martyrs of the Civil Rights Movement. All were killed, either by members of the Klu Kulx Klan or police (or both), who were acquitted despite clear evidence of their guilt and of their racist motives.
In the Zimmerman trial — where the motive and evidence is nowhere near as cut-and-dry, but very muddled and disputed — the trial represented a legitimate attempt at prosecution, even if it was deeply contentious.
And so, I think back to the speech from “The West Wing,” and how relevant the lines on blame are; they could easily be adapted to fit this real tragedy. We can blame George Zimmerman for following Trayvon Martin; we can blame Trayvon Martin for starting the fight – if he did indeed do that – and we can blame George Zimmerman for shooting to kill. But blame will not bring Trayvon Martin back, and it will further divide us and may lead to even more violence, which none of us want.
I also think of the lines on compassion, and how it is my own community who needs to show compassion now, especially those of us who think that Zimmerman should have been acquitted, that the claims of racism were overblown.
Regardless of what we think of the specific details of this one case, all of us must, show compassion and solidarity for the black community, as they mourn the tragic loss of another one of their sons, and feel justice was withheld. They still struggle for equality, and we should support them.
My heart goes out to the Martin family and the black community, especially as I remember that this trial is not the sole example of racial strife present in today’s America.
There are many other issues that need to be acknowledged, but the coverage of the trial has pushed them out of the national consciousness.
The Supreme Court just gutted the Voting Rights Act, and now southern states rush to pass voter identification laws once blocked for being too discriminatory.
Urban police departments are defending their stop and frisk tactics, and people of color are much more likely to be convicted and incarcerated longer than whites accused of similar offenses.
The North Carolina NAACP has had to return to civil disobedience and stand-ins in their Moral Mondays protests; just in the past few weeks, there were reports of KKK fliers being distributed in several states.
These are just some of the more prominent examples of racial discord that continues to plague our nation.
Have we come a long way? Certainly.
But have we come far enough? Certainly not.