If You’re Scared Enough, You Can Get Away With Killing

pistol:bullets

George Zimmerman is not guilty because the jury decided that black kids are scary

I sat down at my computer with the intent of writing two pieces about the Trayvon Martin verdict; one article for a guilty verdict and one article for not guilty. I didn’t write those. I wrote this. Whatever happens, we’ve been arguing for about a year-and-a-half over whether black boys can be killed with impunity. To some, that may not seem like the case presented, but that’s what has transpired. We’ve been riveted because we want to know if killing a black kid is as illegal as killing someone else, even if you think that kid might be dangerous.

There are a lot of particulars to this case, but they’re unimportant to what I want to discuss. The thrust is this: Trayvon Martin is dead because of the time he met George Zimmerman. Zimmerman killed Martin because he was afraid of him; I know this because people are afraid of me sometimes.

I write poems. Poems, for God’s sake; there’s not much more disarming than a poet. I watch superhero cartoons and teen television with square-jawed vampires (I’m not proud of this). Also, I don’t wear clothes that obscure my face: no hoodies, no baseball caps pulled down. I never have because I know that scares some people. When I was in college, I would find myself walking (stumbling) around campus long after I should have been asleep. The campuses of large state schools never quite go to sleep, so I would often have company on the sidewalks. On the occasions that I ended up behind a woman (especially, a white woman), I would cross the street. I would get as far away from her as possible because I was worried that she might be afraid of me. I still do this; if I find myself running down a sidewalk (running for exercise, mind you) and approaching a woman, I will run in the street or cross to a different sidewalk. I’m 6’1’ (6’2” with my hair) and about 180 pounds; depending on your point of view, that’s rangy runner physique or lean predator build.

I’ve always avoided being behind women on the street, especially at night, because I know I’m no threat but they don’t. I know that I can cut a scary picture. I have reasons for thinking this:

Alabama is hot. In the summer, Alabama is very hot. Right now, at 11:01 PM CST, in Tuscaloosa, the temperature is 84 degrees. For a runner, early morning and nighttime are the only respites to be found in the Deep South. So, I’m running along the University of Alabama campus around ten o’clock at night when I see headlights. I don’t know who’s behind me, I only see the shine of the lights stretching my shadow. At that moment, I don’t think that the person behind me thinks I’m scary, I’m scared of him. He’s in a car, and I’m half-naked four miles from my apartment. I turn a corner. He does, too. Now, until this moment, I’m thinking this is all just a coincidence; maybe he’s rolling along at a 9-minute mile pace looking for an address. Now, I’m worried. I feign checking an intersection to glance at my pursuer; it’s a cop. I relax considerably (I grew up in the suburbs). That policeman follows me for another block or so before he turns his squad car onto the main road.

To some degree, that policeman was afraid of me or what I was capable of. He was nowhere near as frightened as I was, though he probably didn’t realize that. He thought I was something I’m not, a criminal or a predator. He had no reason to believe that; I don’t think many criminals flee their capers shirtless, in running shoes, and 1.5-inch inseam running shorts.

Is this the same as being followed by a vigilante and then shot in the street? No. Though, I do understand why Trayvon may have responded to George Zimmerman with force. He was probably scared. I’ve been scared before, and only because someone else thought I was scary. In the mirror, I see a poet with a Bachelor’s degree in Film and a love for comic books and gummy bears (Market Pantry then Haribo then all of the inferior gummied caniformia ursidae). Other people see a predator. The problem with seeing me as a threat is that I’m not; I don’t have a violent man’s sensibilities or his tendencies. Young black males are seen as dangerous, and so they’re treated as such. People like Zimmerman think they’re using due diligence by carrying a gun to approach a 17-year old.

From all that we know, Trayvon Martin was not a predator. He was treated as such, and he was probably scared. He wasn’t a predator, he was a kid. Now, we’re waiting to see if killing kids is illegal, even if you think they might be dangerous.

We’ve been told that he beat George Zimmerman so efficiently that Zimmerman rightly feared for his life. Have you ever been followed by a man carrying a gun? Would you have responded differently? What about if that man thought you were a threat to him? To me, it seems that fear of the other was the only thing that Martin and Zimmerman had in common. The question is, who was right to be afraid?

UPDATE: The verdict is in and Zimmerman is not guilty. So, I guess the jury thought that Zimmerman was justified in his fear and justified in his killing. I’ll continue on in my life assuming that people are afraid of me. Hopefully, I don’t meet anyone who is so frightened of me that he shoots me.

Photo— Flickr/ Ken

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About Christian Coleman

Christian Coleman studies poetry at the University of New Orleans. He makes life decisions by asking himself 'What Would Batman Do?'

Comments

  1. Mostly_123 says:

    Christian, thank-you very much for sharing your story.
    I know I’ve said this before (and I’m sure other people have too), but what you wrote really underscores it to me: It’s a terrible thing to have someone ELSE’S fear projected ONTO you. Our understanding of ‘fear’ is premised on the idea that the ‘feared’ have the power (and therefore the control), and the ‘fearful,’ the ones projecting & externalizing their fears onto others, have no control (and therefore, no power, or responsibility for how they use that power, or culpability). 

    But this turns it on its head: The person who is (mis)perceived as ‘fearsome’ doesn’t really have that control at all; there’s only so much that they can do (let alone reasonably be expected to do, or obligated to do) to assuage someone else’s fear. It’s the person PROJECTING their fears onto others that has the power; though they don’t recognize it as such.

    It’s hard to modulate the power inherent to one’s own fear when they can’t see it, or feel it. Certainly, a person in a (genuine) state of fear does not ‘feel’ powerful- but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they aren’t. A person may or may not be ‘right’ to be afraid; but either way, what will they do with that fear (and that power) they hold, when they hold it? It’s the nature of the expression of that fear that seems to be the divider. 

    One last general thought: Fear, (like hate) does corrosive damage to what it is poured upon, as well as the vessel that held it; both immediately, and slowly over time as well. That’s a lose-lose game. If we can’t all come to better understand & temper our fears for altruistic reasons, then maybe we can at least do it for pragmatic reasons.

  2. One of the things that fascinates me about this case is the impact and meaning of clothing. Rightly or wrongly, we make all sorts of associations and assumptions about someone’s character based on the clothing they wear. (This article about “protective clothing” also struck me this week: http://www.npr.org/blogs/codeswitch/2013/07/14/201946194/with-fla-verdict-is-protective-clothing-still-required)
    But I’m especially curious about clothing that “obscures” the face, which Christian mentions specifically. A hoodie sweatshirt; a burka; a monk’s hooded robe; a ski mask; a bandana – all examples of clothing that obscures the face, but do they invoke the same associations and assumptions? Does it vary based on the body language and posture and stature of the person? Does race and age and gender trump? Are we instinctively suspicious of someone who’s face is hidden? Is there some evolutionary impulse that makes the face a particularly important clue about predators? I wonder.

  3. ogwriter says:

    Christian Chris Matthews said on his show recently-the Chris Matthew’s Show-that he didn’t realize that his black friends were being stopped and harassed by police.His black friends,like himself are well educated,well dressed middle aged folks who are successful.I was shocked and somewhat appalled at his ignorance.He is the author of many books and knows American history quite well and has a resume in politics that spans pre and post civil rights. Any lawyer knows that if a jury can’t relate to someone there is no chance they will identify with them.Middle-aged white women typically don’t relate to young blackmen.I think that fact, more than dress or anything else, doomed this case. As you wrote- I do the same thing-you will go out of your way to make these women feel safe,but that is wrong because you and I are internalizing her fear.These women,like Chris Matthews,are being willfully ignorant of the world they live in because they can be.So,their fear, privilege and ignorance are the problems.

Trackbacks

  1. […] it’s absurd to believe that Trayvon Martin was killed because the color of his skin made him scary. In this neverland, Trayvon was killed because he was threatening, or dressed wrongly, or out too […]

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