Cornelius Walker knows how it feels to be judged for being a black kid in a white neighborhood.
Editor’s note: This post was written in response to a comment made by “Rum” on Jackie Summers’ Good Feed Blog Post about the killing of an unarmed teenager by a neighborhood watch member. Rum’s comments can be read here.
The story of Trayvon Martin is nothing short of a tragedy. Growing up as a young person of color, it wasn’t until I was sent to live with my grandmother —at the tender age of 10—that I came to understand how my race affected how I was treated. In some ways growing up in a predominantly poor, predominantly black neighborhood felt “safer” than the one I joined as an outsider.
In the neighborhood of my youth there was a code. You knew what could catch you a beating, or in extreme cases, a bullet. Even when the drug trade picked up, and gangs with guns grew ever more visible, we knew how to stay safe. But in the “safe,” mostly white suburb where my grandmother lived, things were less certain. Store clerks had always kept an eye out when I was young, but these clerks seemed more nervous than wary. My uncle warned me to keep my eyes open and my mouth shut so as not give anyone an opportunity to make a bad decision.
The situation Trayvon found himself in turned out to be far more dangerous than the streets where I grew up.
I’ve always suspected that the people who chose to live in gated communities were ruled more by fear than by rationality. This senseless taking of a life has only served to bolster my prejudice—a prejudice towards the white, nervous faces I see peeking out from behind their curtains.
From what we can tell, George Zimmerman sought out a confrontation with the teen that turned deadly. After calling in suspicious activity to the police (and Walking While Black is surely cause for suspicion these days), Zimmerman followed him in his SUV which let to an altercation. After that we have only Zimmerman’s word for how Trayvon ended up with a 9mm slug in his chest. Police declined to arrest Zimmerman citing his “squeaky clean record,” a consideration I doubt few black men would have been afforded. (As it later was discovered, there is a considerable blot on Zimmerman’s escutcheon.)
Attempts to frame this story as an issue of property rights or the law misses the point. At one time it was “legal” to beat a colored girl for “crowding” a white woman in a grocery store. Surely whether or not the actions are legally defensible does not dampen our sense of outrage at this killing. But consider this: acting in self-defense has always been admissible against charges of manslaughter, one that a jury might consider mitigating circumstances in a prosecution. At what point does a claim of self-defense preclude an arrest? When is the last time you heard of an arresting officer letting a black guy go because he claimed to have shot someone in self-defense?
There is little doubt in my mind that this was motivated in part by race. None of my fair-skinned friends tell stories of being stopped for “Driving While White.” None of my white friends have been arrested for the crime of shopping for a gift for their partners. I racked my brain to think of stories of unarmed white men shot by police. If there is a story of the caucasian Sean Bell I haven’t heard it, and neither has anyone else I know. But when I ask my black friends there is scarcely a pause before the names of Amidou Diallo, Patrick Dorismond, Derrick Jones, and Oscar Grant come up. Of these, only the Grant has resulted in any jail time for the killer.
But Trayvon wasn’t killed by a police officer who, because of his position, we allow to go free while the shooting is investigated. Instead we have a neighborhood vigilante with a gun shooting a kid packing Skittles. Rather than being arrested on suspicion of manslaughter (which those of us with darker skin no doubt would have been, accompanied by the obligatory beating for “resisting arrest”), Trayvon’s killer is allowed to walk free apparently based on his assertion of self-defense.
To the extent that we might consider the law, the question I would pose is far more broad. Why do we have laws allowing for—perhaps encouraging even—the use of deadly force to protect property? At what point does protecting stuff rise to the level of kill or be killed? And what do these laws mean in a society where the suspects you see on TV are overwhelmingly black and male? Sam Harris on his blog makes clear how we should act in such cases:
Whatever your training, you should view any invitation to violence as an opportunity to die—or to be sent to prison for killing another human being. Violence must truly be the last resort. Thus, if someone sticks a gun in your face and demands your wallet, you should hand it over without hesitation—and run.
If you look out your kitchen window and see a group of youths destroying your car, you should remain inside and call the police. It doesn’t matter if you happen to be a Navy Seal who keeps a loaded shotgun by the front door. You don’t want to kill a teenager for vandalism, and you don’t want to get shot by one for hesitating to pull the trigger. Unless you or another person is being physically harmed, or an attack seems imminent, avoiding violence should be your only concern.
Only George Zimmerman wasn’t sent to prison for killing another human being. Harris assumes that we’d have a problem killing a black youth, but history has shown otherwise. That has me afraid that I might one day leave home in a light rain wearing a dark hoodie and some vigilante’s fear will make my wife a widow.
Email the Sanford chief of police with your thoughts on the issue: firstname.lastname@example.org
Photo courtesy of Hello Turkey Toe