700 Miles To Sanford: On Being a White, Southern, Gun-Toting Leftist in the Age of Trayvon Martin
[EDIT: This article was written long before the juried trial of Zimmerman. I have only recently disseminated it widely because it might be relevant again with his exoneration.]
In order to understand how I was accused – by a black man and white woman simultaneously – of being a vigilante murderer in a grocery store checkout line, it will require a brief review not just of the violent times leading up to that moment, but of the cultural phenomenon surrounding the death of an unarmed black youth more than 700 miles from Richmond, VA, where I reside. By the end of that review, I will undoubtedly hold a diminished social standing with many of those I have built working relationships over the past years. I speak from a position of skin privilege, which I acknowledge from the start, and have endeavored to bear this in mind during the entirety of the writing process.
The Rallies Begin
The first time I heard about Trayvon Martin’s death was a week before the Richmond vigils that were being organized in his honor. At first glance, the story appeared to hold nothing new: another person shot unnecessarily. Tragic, as all death is, but nothing new.
As I began to investigate the circumstances of this case that was just beginning to grab hold of the collective consciousness, it became clear to me – or so I thought – the injustice that was provoking such a visceral response in so many communities across the country. (It turned out that I was mistaken.)
My amazement surfaced with the 911 call in which someone can be heard screaming for help for nearly 30 seconds before the single gunshot that ended Trayvon’s life. When compounded with the fact that the call was placed because of those cries, it is clear that they went on for at least 45 seconds, probably closer to a minute. That there had been no charges filed, and would therefore be no official investigation of whose voice was on that recording was simply astounding to me. How could this possibly be justified?
As a compulsive documentarian, I spent a good deal of time taking photographs and video at the first of two vigils I attended, and as someone who identifies as a radical (or at the very least a D.I.Y. leftist), I was especially drawn to the black community’s message of self reliance and self defense. I strung together a couple of speakers on this topic in a 2-minute video short of that first vigil. I thought the hoodies, bags of Skittles and cans of tea were an excellent visualization of why Trayvon never should have been suspected of wrongdoing the first place. Like everyone in my social groups, I was an open and enthusiastic supporter of “Justice for Trayvon!”, and by the second rally I was carrying a sign that said so.
But around that time, I started to suspect that what I meant by “justice” wasn’t what everyone else meant, a suspicion that was very soon confirmed. For me, “justice” meant an arrest, the filing of charges and a juried trial to determine who had attacked whom, and who had been screaming for help. For nearly everyone else I knew, “justice” meant that Zimmerman was obviously and without question a racist, that Trayvon had certainly been pursued and murdered in cold blood because of that fact and that it had been Trayvon calling for help on the 911 tape.
In brief, I wanted an arrest to figure out for sure what happened. It seemed like everyone else was absolutely sure they already knew. Frankly, it seemed like they wanted a lynching.
The Lens of Race
For any ideological group, including the American left, the world is usually viewed through one or more ideological “lenses”. The idea is that if we critique a social institution, entity or event with a specific, intentionally narrow focus, we can see things that lie beneath the surface and might have otherwise gone unnoticed. While, on the surface, reading celebrity and beauty magazines might appear to be a fun (if superficial) way to occupy one’s time, the “lens” of feminism provides us with a much more disturbing view: the commodification and objectification of women to sell an unrealistic, unreasonable and unhealthy body image with the intention of reaping profits for predominantly male-dominated industries. (There are many, many other valid critiques.) These lenses help us break through the assumed to the real, the root causes and their repercussion.
The lens invariably chosen to view the Trayvon Martin case through has obviously been race. It is completely unnecessary for me to elaborate on the way that race has been a central focus, in and outside of the leftist milieu. Though the politically active leftists in Richmond’s particular subculture tend to be young and white (like in a lot of places), they are acutely aware of the realities of privilege and racism. They know that the genocide and land theft of an entire people cannot be separated from the way in which modern Americans understand ourselves and our country. They know that the enslavement and subservience of another entire race – not so long ago – cannot be extricated from the lack of privilege, wealth and opportunity in communities of color today. They understand that white people who claim to have never profited from racism are deluded. These are the people I call my comrades and friends, and these are views that unite us.
But like all ideological processes, the exclusive use of such lenses contain their own risks. What happens when we have utilized a lens for so long that we know exactly what we will find before we even actually look? What happens when the conclusion is foregone, and we begin to map the tint of our lens onto reality, rather than perceiving reality through it? What happens when that tint no longer allows us to see anything – or even the possibility of anything – that does not fit our preconceptions? The American left, should know, because it is a frequent occurrence that results in wildly imaginative interpretations of the world that invariably fit a narrative of oppression and domination. It happens in all strains of leftist thought: feminism, queer theory, and here in the capitol of the south, where you can still walk the slave trails, it is especially visible in the discussion of race.
A few months ago, an acquaintance of mine noticed a man in possession of an expensive bicycle that had been stolen from one of his friends. Rather than get the police involved, or even take the cycle back by force, he bought it (at considerably reduced cost) from the man. He felt it would be wise to post a description of the individual through his social networks so that if the man was seen loitering around anyone else’s property, he might be closely watched or chased off. This is a common sort of thing to do in communities that are trying to avoid police presence and involvement in their lives, which nearly all of my friends are.
The description of the thief received a backlash of personal criticism. Because he had noted that the man was black, other leftists charged, he had engaged in the perpetuation of negative racist stereotypes. For the people making this critique, it did not matter that the man was, in fact, a person of color and had, in fact, stolen the bicycle. It did not matter that the person’s race was integrally important to identifying this person. Reality (and practicality) was to be subjugated to the abstract of political correctness.
This but one of many examples from the community of people who I care dearly for, obviously not because I agree with them, but because they have truly dedicated themselves to seeking out whatever hierarchies of power, modes of oppression and means of their perpetuation that they possibly can. Unfortunately, human beings will always see what they expect to see, both in the realm of the physical and in the social. What might we, as the American left, have expected to see in the Trayvon Martin case?
This image of the cover of Liberation magazine gives some indication. But one doesn’t have to take into consideration such a left-leaning publication to find overt examples of race-baiting.
Crafting Public Perception
As of this past week, a third NBC employee has been fired for selective editing of the 911 call that Zimmerman made to police minutes before Trayvon was shot. As you might expect, the edited parts of the call were not irrelevant, but were specifically eliminated to give the impression that Zimmerman found Trayvon suspicious because he was a black youth. The edited audio – one that was a major factor in the national dialogue – sounds like this:
Zimmerman: This guy looks like he’s up to no good. He looks black.
The actual audio sounded like this:
Dispatcher: Sanford Police Department. [indistinct]
Zimmerman: Hi. We’ve had some break-ins in my neighborhood and there’s a real suspicious guy. It’s Retreat View Circle. The best address I can give you is 111 Retreat View Circle. This guy looks like he’s up to no good or he’s on drugs or something. It’s raining and he’s just walking around looking about.
Dispatcher: OK, is he White, Black, or Hispanic?
Zimmerman: He looks black.
The important differences between these two versions hardly need to be elaborated on. What does bear note is the obviously deliberate nature of the changes.
During the first week of the case’s national presence, I repeatedly heard – both in personal and national conversation – people refer to Zimmerman as white. It did not initially occur to me that so many people getting something so wrong was the warning indicator of confirmation bias, or that few people passing judgement on the case had actually investigated it for themselves. Since that time, it has become readily accessible knowledge that Zimmerman is biracial, with Latino, African and white bloodlines. We now know that he “was raised in a racially integrated household and himself has black roots through an Afro-Peruvian great-grandfather”, ate meals and went to school as a child with two semi-adopted African-American girls and started a business with an African-American friend.[cit] But that was no thanks to a conflict-driven mainstream media who began salivating to capitalize on the emerging race angle that was being perpetuated by well-meaning, ill-informed spectators and grieving parents.
Of course, Zimmerman’s multiracial heritage does not rule out racism. But if we (for reasons yet unknown and unproven) accept racism as the cause or instigator of Trayvon’s death, it does mean that an entirely different sort of conversation about race should be going on: the conversation about racism between communities of color.
And let’s be honest with ourselves… I know several Latino/white biracial leftists who adamantly identify as people of color, primarily because they can be and are often visibly identified as fully Latino. Just like Zimmerman. I cannot think of any other leftist friends or acquaintances who would dare to suggest otherwise to them. But the introduction of this issue as racism between communities of color is absent not only from the national dialogue, but from any dialogue that I’ve ever heard surrounding the case. Some commentators and citizens still just choose to stick their head in the sand altogether and continue to pretend Zimmerman is white*, or could very easily pass for white.
*I realize that race is a social construction to begin with, and that “white” is more an idea than an objectively identifiable characteristic, but for the purposes of conversation, I cannot avoid the use of relatively simplistic terms.
Several local news channels showed up to the second Trayvon vigil I attended, interviewing people who had gathered with hoodies, skittles and tea. Among them was a Latina who claimed that the case made her afraid for herself and child as minorities, apparently unaware that Zimmerman was a bilingual member of her own cultural community.
I was interviewed for the same news segment. The questions were as boring and uninsightful as I have come to expect from local news channels, which consistently cover my community’s social justice activism in simplistic, skewed or intellectually bereft ways. When the inevitable question arose, “Do you think this is racism?”, I answered in the only way it seemed to me that anyone possibly could: “How can I say what is in a man’s heart?”
Not surprisingly, that didn’t make the segment.
Contributing to the notion that this case has been about race is the imagery of the two parties involved that are being used by the media. Upon viewing this image as the visual representation of Trayvon and Zimmerman respectively, who would say that there could be any reasonable doubt that the teen was no threat, and that his death must have been about something else?
Of course, this photo of Trayvon is more than 5 years old, and Zimmerman is wearing “county orange”, already suggesting criminality. Trayvon, on the night of the shooting, was 6 feet 2 inches tall, though I have yet to see a single recent photo of him widely disseminated in the media. If it doesn’t seem to you as though this image has anything to do with the case, consider what those looking through the lens of racial justice would say if the media had been pumping out comparative images like this instead.
Amidst all of this furor about race, well-meaning white leftists who are more than willing to acknowledge their skin privilege have toed the media/party line, acknowledging that no, they are not Trayvon Martin, and that such an incident would never have happened to them. I am particularly reminded of another op-ed article:
No matter how much the hoodie covers my face or how baggy my jeans are, I will never look out of place to you. I will never watch a taxicab pass me by to pick someone else up. I will never witness someone clutch their purse tightly against their body as they walk by me. I won’t have to worry about a police car following me for two miles, so they can “run my plates… I will never look suspicious to you, because of one thing and one thing only. The color of my skin. I was born White.
The first time I read this, I began to reflect on how very wrong this author is. I remembered back to the night that a neighborhood watch volunteer had called the police on me (de ja vu) because I was in their neighborhood – on the sidewalk, no less – in a black hoodie. The police did indeed follow me for miles after I got in my car, then proceeded to run my plates, pull me out of it, and insist that they were going to photograph me for their files. I resisted this last part to a degree that, if I didn’t have skin privilege, would probably have landed me in jail with a few cracked ribs. But I did so successfully.
I also thought of another white social justice activist who wore a hoodie into his bank on a rainy day and was regarded as a threat until the transaction was almost completed. At that time the teller explained that she had been afraid of him purely because of his hooded sweatshirt. The last person who had walked into the bank wearing one had robbed her.
Criminals like hoodies. They conceal identity from multiple angles. They are the garment of choice for ne’er-do-wells in countless works of visual fiction and have permeated our cultural consciousness in this way. That anyone wearing one should be profiled as a criminal is patently absurd, but these are facts we have to accept.
And finally, one has to approach the uncomfortable fact that Zimmerman may have had a good reason for being suspicious of loitering black youths in his neighborhood. Not because of the color of their skin, mind you, but because loitering black youths had committed a number of neighborhood crimes in the recent past. Not only the theft of Zimmerman’s property, which is not a terribly uncommon thing to happen in any neighborhood, but more than one actual home invasion that forced Zimmerman’s friend and neighbor to move away entirely out of fear, despite his reassurances that if she ever needed help she could call him. There was the episode of a young black male peering into the windows of a nearby home, prompting an earlier call to the police during which he can be heard to say to the dispatcher, “I don’t know what he’s doing. I don’t want to approach him, personally.” The young man fled and got away. (“These assholes, they always get away.”) Two young African-American men later burglarized the home of another resident nearby. When one of them was caught, it turned out to be the same young man that had been peering into windows earlier.
The history of the neighborhood, along with the aforementioned information regarding Zimmerman’s race and past has been researched and documented by journalists in a fascinating article titled “George Zimmerman: Prelude to a Shooting”.
And incredibly, all this is happening during a simultaneous investigation of one of the most flagrant, disturbing racist acts that I’ve heard of in years, during which police officers broke down the door of a disabled black veteran while calling him “nigger”, shot him with a taser, a bean bag gun, then shot him dead. All because he accidentally called for medical help. But the story of Kenneth Chamberlain is receiving almost no media attention.
Finally, if I could summarize what I wish to convey about race as it relates to this case, it is not that the death of Trayvon certainly had nothing to do with racism. Certainty is exactly what I think we should distance ourselves from. If I could convey one thing about race, it would be this:
– The fact that racism exists does not make every crime committed against racial minorities a racist crime. We must accept this.
– People of all races and ages, including black youths, commit violent crimes. We must accept this.
– If we are going to do what I refused to do for that local news reporter – claim to see into the heart of a man – we’d better have damn good reasons to back up our judgements.
Not a Defense
The one thing that has been most infuriating for me in the leadup to writing this piece has been the instantaneous accusation that the mere mention of facts that don’t fit the simplistic narrative offered up by mainstream media and leftist culture – which are conspicuously identical in this case – is itself a racist act. During one discussion about the case, I found myself summarizing by saying, “It’s a complicated issue.” An acquaintance (probably now an ex-acquaintance) immediately took issue with that claim, asserting that the issues of racism and guilt were clear cut, without any complications whatsoever. I later sent him a compassionately worded message online with links to the article cited above and facts that I hoped would introduce nuance where he hadn’t seen it.
He responded by telling me that by introducing those facts into the conversation, I was perpetuating the racist stereotypes of violent black youths. Facts were irrelevant. Context was irrelevant. Because that racist stereotype exists, we cannot accept even the possibility that a black youth would engage in violence. And perhaps most disappointingly, I was accused of “defending” Zimmerman.
This is what I fear has happened before, is happening now, and will happen again: The careless use of these lenses of social interpretation make us unable to distinguish between reserving judgement pending consideration of all possible evidence, and failing to use the lenses altogether. This attitude is the death of rational discussion. The end of any meaningful search for truth. The discarding of the principle of presumed innocence, which even our corrupted legal system is capable of preserving in some cases. The sacrifice of an accurate perception of reality in all its complicated nuance for something else of our own invention.
What I’m saying in this article has nothing to do with who is guilty of first physical contact. If Trayvon’s voice is on that recording, I won’t have been proved wrong, because I’m not making as assertion about guilt one way or the other. That’s the opposite of what I’m doing. I’m considering evidence that those who have made up their minds already are consciously ignoring. This is important.
An enormous part of what has spurred me to write this article has been the degree to which the people I surround myself with have been so wrong about the verifiable facts surrounding the night Trayvon was killed. I had assumed that people who were actually interested in the case would also have done cursory reading into it, but this has turned out not to be the case. Conversations with these friends and acquaintances has resulted in me beginning a lot of sentences with the phrase, “Well, actually…” Submitted for your approval, inaccurate things I have heard more than once, and the replies I have given.
Zimmerman chased down Trayvon!
Well, actually, he followed Trayvon to keep him in sight and direct police to the location, but failed to do so, as anyone who listened to the 911 call would know. After having lost sight of Trayvon, he made plans to meet with officers near his car to make his report. His testimony is that having lost Trayvon, he walked back to his car, and on the way was confronted and attacked, which witnesses have corroborated. (One other witness testimony has contradicted this.)
If Trayvon did attack Zimmerman, it was justified self defense!
Well, actually, following someone is completely legal, especially if you’re filing a police report. There is certainly no legal or ethical justification for attacking someone because they are watching or following you, especially after having stopped doing so, and it’s hard to imagine such a rationale being used in any other circumstance by the people who make this claim. Whoever instigated the first physical contact was legally and ethically in the wrong, and was not engaging in self defense.
Zimmerman wasn’t even arrested or interrogated!
Well, actually, after Zimmerman told a neighbor to call the police, waited for them to arrive and told them his story, he was taken in handcuffs to police headquarters where he was interrogated. When all available evidence matched his story, including one neighbor who said that he was indeed the one shouting for help, he was released. (To reiterate, this doesn’t change my opinion that when you have audio of someone screaming for help for a full minute, you must file charges so an investigation can take place to insure that the killer is the one who was crying out.)
Zimmerman didn’t even have the injuries that he claimed to have!
Well, actually, he did. Cell phone photographs of the injuries to the back of Zimmerman’s head have been time stamp verified as being taken three minutes after the shooting, and are consistent with Zimmerman’s testimony of being straddled while his head was smashed into the ground. (That aforementioned acquaintance responded to them – he somehow hadn’t known they existed – by suggesting they were fakes. Others have, incredibly, suggested that Zimmerman injured the back of his own head before police got there.)
They finally caught Zimmerman after filing charges!
Well, actually, he turned himself in, as he always said he would, if charges were filed.
This sort of thing happens all the time!
Well, actually, I don’t think anyone has even tried to cite bad statistics to suggest that there is some epidemic of black youths being shot by members of other racial groups, just because it’s so far from the truth that it would require incredible stretches of statistics and the imagination. We know that almost 95% of the murders of “blacks” are committed by other “blacks”. Racism has a great deal to do with that, but not in the way that many people are suggesting. (Again, race is more complicated than the use of the word “blacks” allows for, but limitations of time and space require oversimplification.)
Guns & Violence in the Capitol of the South
I live in a violent city. It’s not the most violent in the country, but it’s far from the least. More than 30 people were shot in Richmond, Virginia over the past month alone, and my neighborhood is exemplary of such violence. A housemate of mine was recently beaten and robbed outside of our front door. Two murders took place just down the street a couple of weeks ago, another shooting in a parking lot a few blocks away, another robbery at gunpoint just two streets over this week, and the list continues. A few weeks ago I was informed that the house I live in had been vacant for some time before I moved in because someone had been murdered here. The DJ at a party I hosted said he used to live a couple of blocks away, but moved after his back door was broken down twice. Even the traditionally “safe” areas of the city like the VCU campus are finding themselves under siege of violence, with the savage beating and robbery of a young woman, the armed robbery of a couple at gunpoint, the rape of another young woman at gunpoint – all on campus grounds – and this list continues as well.
It almost seemed that the violence here was mirrored by the rest of the country in April as 10 people were shot, seven killed at a Christian college in Oakland, CA. International media like Al-Jazeera found themselves, yet again, asking why gun control laws are not being enacted here in the states. Criminologists found themselves once again trying to explain to the world and to well-meaning but uninformed American liberals why gun control is not a reasonable (or even attainable) option.
I carry a 9mm Ruger handgun with me almost everywhere. Aside from the principle of self defense, the foundational human right upon which all other rights depend, I have also spent some time studying the statistical efficacy and wisdom of using firearms to protect life and property. It turns out that about 2.5 million people do so each year, and in more than 90% of those cases, no one is even injured. The gun is merely mentioned, brandished or a warning shot is fired to scare off the potential attacker. And it almost always works. At the time these studies were completed, almost 8% of those uses were in the prevention of a sexual assault. (The number of women and GLBTQ folks arming themselves, training with and carrying handguns has skyrocketed since that time, and it is reasonable to expect that sexual assault prevention rates have risen accordingly, though I do not have more recent statistics on hand.)
When it comes up in conversation, my decision to arm myself is nonetheless controversial among the leftists I associate with. Most of them have never handled a firearm in their lives, and have been the psychological subject of television and movie culture that is specifically designed to make the gun seem to be something other than it is – either a insanely volatile tool of the wicked or a dangerous manifestation of vigilante machismo. Whereas responsible gun ownership was once something almost every American, from home-bound mothers to very young boys, was engaged in, we now live in a world where, for most city-dwelling leftists, the idea of gun owners has been relegated to rednecks and right wing nuts. The most “liberal” of cities sometimes even attempt to ban toys in the shape of guns, though it should be noted that this is all directly contradictory to the notion of liberalism.
Thankfully, I live in one of the most gun-friendly states in the country. While the state conducts background checks to ensure that I’m not a felon, have no history of violent crime and have not been involuntarily committed, I do not actually require a permit to buy a gun. I can purchase a firearm from a friend without any paperwork or background check whatsoever. Being in an “open carry” state, I can even carry my pistol visibly (in a holster) down the street with no government interference. I also have a concealed carry permit, and while I often do opt to leave my shirt-tail hanging out to obscure my weapon, I don’t have to be concerned with whether the gun is visible or not. (I know this is hard for people from some states to imagine, but open carry is not actually that uncommon.)
I have had to place my hand on my firearm only once outside of my home: the night that I stumbled upon two people beating another person in an alley. I cried out to interrupt them, and they both began walking toward me. My fingers walked their way to the grip, but I had drilled into myself not to ever draw unless I absolutely had to. It turned out that I didn’t have to, and the situation was resolved with words.
I hope and pray that I never have to draw or use my firearm in any way. But if I am forced to protect myself or others, I plan to be able to do so.
I Am Zimmerman?
My gun was visibly holstered on the night I walked to the Market at Tobacco Row. The store lies at the foot of Church Hill, so named for the place of worship where Patrick Henry gave his “liberty or death” speech. It was dark outside, and the store would be closing soon. I picked up the single item I needed and walked to the register.
A young black man with neatly maintained dreads walked up behind me in line.
“Hey man, you a secret agent or something?” His tone was angry rather than joking.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“You a hero or something? Looks like you’re gonna shoot somebody. You gonna shoot somebody?” The tone was now accusatory.
“Naw, friend, just protecting myself.”
“Yeah, right.” He looked away in apparent disgust, and it suddenly occurred to me: he was thinking of Trayvon. He was calling me Zimmerman. I resisted the urge to engage in any controversial discussion that might get heated and just smiled. The girl behind the register hadn’t noticed the gun, and didn’t seem to be paying much attention to what we were talking about, but the white female bagger had been following the brief conversation. When the woman behind the register accidentally fumbled my pack of cigarettes and bent over to pick them up, the bag girl quipped in a sarcastic tone:
“Now you dropped his stuff and he’s got to shoot you in ‘self defense’.” She added air quotes around “self defense” with her index fingers to make sure the point was clear.
It took until I got out of the store for the shock to wear off. I had heard people make cruel comments about people’s weight to strangers. I had heard heterosexual men make seriously inappropriate comments to female bodied strangers. But I struggled to think of another context in which two strangers who didn’t even know each other had simultaneously attacked another stranger, not for some aspect of their appearance, but in accusation of intent. Murderous, pathological intent.
I would have risked my life to save either of these strangers, had the necessity arisen, and they had verbally assaulted me, together, as if reading from a script. The lynch mob culture surrounding the shooting of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman has, in fact, been that script. As a white southern boy with a gun, I was just an unwitting extra.
We should remind ourselves that the reasons why we believe what we do are of utmost importance, and that each brush stroke of assumption, generalization, uncritical assertion, rush to judgement and blind acquiescence to our cultural narratives paints a canvas that will one day – perhaps not too far in the future – become our new culture. We are literally creating our world, and we have to be very, very careful.