tt stern-enzi


I didn’t want to write about the George Zimmerman verdict. To be honest, I didn’t even want to talk about it in the immediate aftermath, late Saturday night. I wanted to exercise my right to remain silent because I knew that anything I said would be used against me. I didn’t need an attorney to tell me that because as a socially and culturally engaged black man in his early 40s I know more than a little something about the law and how the system works. I’ve read some books, watched the news, and lived (nuff said).

But living as I’ve lived means that my experiences, I’d liken them to a big old balloon leaking air from a thousand tiny little pin pricks. It feels like there’s a new one every day, yet every once in a while, someone comes along and just hauls off and stabs with all their might with a hunting knife like they can’t stand the sight of this little bubble of mine. The passion and aggression behind their action lets me know that they want me and my experience to disappear, emphatically so.

That was what the moment felt like, when my wife read the headline off the Internet and I switched the cable channel to MSNBC for their commentary. I was silent, struggling to maintain that silence, but definitely not surprised. I hadn’t watched any of the trial, but I had no sense that any other verdict would come back. My wife and my 14 year old daughter, they were the ones seemingly filled with shock and dismay and questions about how something like this could happen. The legal system to them is theoretical and abstract, still an arcane ideal, that hasn’t let them down. And they are ideological; my daughter is a budding liberal, caught up in the learning and questioning phase.

I suppose I should mention that we are of different races. To do so though means that this discussion will change, it will evolve into a one-sided polemic that you’ve heard before – I heard you twice the first time, thank you – but you will hang in there just to be polite. So maybe this isn’t for readers at all. Maybe these thoughts that I’m laying down here now are really more for me. This is my chance to get some things off my chest.

I’ve got no alternative.

When I finally broke down Saturday night and raised my voice about the verdict, I did so after listening to the back and forth between my wife and daughter, a panel of commentators, and initial reactions from the prosecutors, the defense team, and lawyers for the Martin family. So much had been said. From a prosecuting team that could not convince a jury to find a man guilty for actions that resulted in the death of an unarmed teenager who had committed no crime, yet could expertly present a case that would lead to conviction of a black woman who fired a warning shot at the ceiling to hold off her abusive husband. From a defense team that was offended by the notion that their client would even be arrested and charged in a situation  that resulted in the loss of life. From lawyers who had to get behind a stalled legal system and push it for more than a month to take a man in custody who had been involved in the death of another person. From a commentator that felt that they needed to remind viewers that black families, this night, would hold their children tighter to their breasts out of fear that something similar could happen to them and the system would not be moved to seek the truth or some semblance of justice.

Of the many things I said that night, the one thing that keeps coming back to me is a comment I made to my daughter soon after that commentator referred to black families and their children. I pointed out to my daughter that it was sad that we (her mother and I) didn’t necessarily have to hold her any tighter based on that fear, but I hoped that she realized that maybe she should actually consider thinking about me in this light. There is a stark and frustrating reality that something like what happened to Trayvon Martin could (still) happen to me, at the hands of a police officer or a neighborhood watch volunteer or any random person caught up in a moment of fear for their safety.

So often, with these hot button issues, people who are not directly impacted can only achieve the necessary indignation when someone they know and love confronts the issue. I don’t like what this says about the current state of humanity and the rule of law in our democracy. What ever happened to being able to ‘walk a mile’ in the shoes of another person? As a man, am I unable to appreciate the inequality and bias of sexism? Can I not see how it is wrong to deny any two people in love to celebrate their love and take advantage of all the same rights and privileges I enjoy with my wife? Should it be my mission to prevent someone from being able to pursue an efficient pathway to citizenship in this country or hinder their ability to secure equal employment rights and practices in their chosen workplace?

I think of these questions in relation to the six-person jury that heard and passed judgment in the Zimmerman trial. I cannot rise to the level of outrage over the idea of six white women being empaneled because what they were being asked to do was to “hear” the case and make a determination beyond reasonable doubt. To assume or question their motivations means that we must reflect upon our own sense of justice and whether or not it is truly justice that we seek. How many of us have done that in the wake of this verdict?

If only George Zimmerman had been able to do this as he was sitting in his car watching Trayvon Martin walking along in his hoodie with his pocketful of Skittles. If he had limited himself to watching and waiting (as he had been instructed to do by the 911 operator who took his call), maybe he would have realized that this young man wasn’t the threat he assumed. If only people didn’t have the right to carry guns and fire them whenever they feel threatened. If only there was some uniform way to define what we mean when we speak of “threats.” If only we weren’t encumbered by our history. If only we all had the privilege to forget what we find offensive. It is not ignorance that is blissful; it is the willful and aggressive embrace of such ignorance, which allows us to isolate ourselves from all but our self-serving insularity. If only we could see that such wanton disregard is dangerous. The Zimmerman case, if nothing else, is another example of that.

We are all biased; we bear the weight of our own experiences and expectations, but what is supposed to happen, on some elemental level, is that we place ourselves in certain moments, to see and experience them as best we can with the information given to us and seek the truth beyond our bias.

To acknowledge that this so rarely happens doesn’t mean that we should stop striving to achieve the goal (even in the face of seemingly insurmountable proof of the power and impact of our ingrained social and cultural biases).

To accomplish this means we need to examine these flash points, to remember the specifics of each and every one that occurs. To never forget. To learn our history, especially the dark aspects that we would much rather ignore. To listen to the experiences of others. To share our experiences.

Maybe all of us, white and people of color, should teach our children how to act in the face of potentially reckless authority and while we’re at it, we should all hug each other tighter. If only we could all act as if we had no (other) alternative.