Scene of the Crime

I didn’t post anything last week, my apologies.  I was visiting family in Florida, didn’t bring my laptop, thinking I’d try to post from my smart phone.  Fail.   Specifically, I was in Seminole County, which was still recovering from the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin trial. I wanted to get a feel for the place before I wrote about the verdict.  Opinions there are as divided as anywhere but the map is not the territory, so here are a few impressions from the territory.

The Central Florida pedestrian is a rare sight. Maybe it’s because it’s August with searing heat and choking humidity. Mr. Martin was murdered in February when weather is more conducive to outdoor activity.  Still, sidewalks are few, many neighborhoods – like the one in which Mr. Martin died – are gated, thoroughfares have multiple lanes of speeding traffic in each direction.

People there without cars are somehow suspect.  Too poor?  Up to no good?  On other visits, I’ve tried walking places (because I like to walk and because I hate driving in Florida).  It was no fun, walking on gravel and litter at the edge of the roadway as the cars swept past.  A ten-minute excursion by foot and I was already looking for shortcuts.

Although Mr. Martin’s murder is shot through with racism – the obvious kind – we shouldn’t let that blind us to the equally insidious economic bigotry.  If Mr. Martin had been in a car (something modest, let’s say a 2002 Nissan Sentra) that night, he’d be alive today.  Drivers are often assumed to have legitimacy pedestrians lack.

Maybe “economic bigotry” is imprecise.  “Economic prejudice” is better, although it’s a prejudice fed by racism and bigotry.  George Zimmerman decided, in advance, that a young African-American man, walking hood up through the soft late winter Florida evening rain was a threat, one that he had to address even before the police he’d summoned arrived.

Then there’s the gun issue.  Mr. Zimmerman was legally carrying the handgun he used to murder Mr. Martin, but unlike recent gun tragedies in Colorado and Connecticut, I didn’t hear Wayne LaPierre (or anyone else at the NRA) arguing Mr. Martin should have been armed for his own protection against gun-jumping vigilantes like Mr. Zimmerman.

It’s not the argument I’d advocate, but why didn’t we hear it?  I think I know why and I’ll bet you do too.  Many NRA members are happy to call for arming teachers and pilots and putting armed guards at every door in America (some shooters were eager to snap up targets based on Mr. Martin’s image in the last moments of his life), but they’re not particularly enthusiastic about the Second Amendment rights of young black men.  I think the Black Panthers demonstrated that convincingly in the 1960s.

Change – whether for individuals, groups or society  – cannot begin in the penultimate moment before the crisis.  We can’t deal with racism in America if the moment we choose to intervene is when the armed George Zimmermans have already stepped out of their vehicles.  By then, it’s too late.  Stereotypes, willful blindness and wrongheaded ingrained notions were seeds of Trayvon’s death and that’s where our work begins.

© Mark Floegel, 2013

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