Imagine that you are one of the only witnesses in the death of your friend, testifying in front of a hungry audience. Imagine every time you spoke, someone made fun of you.
Let’s walk for a moment in Rachel’s shoes…
Imagine that you are an 18 year old girl in a small Florida town. You have a 17 year old friend, who cares about you. Your friend calls you. You chat. Suddenly, without warning, things change. Something is happening to your friend. You hear his desperate struggle over the phone. Later, you find out he’s been killed. You are the last person (besides his murderer) to speak to your friend before his tragic end. His mother, the police, the DA and dozens of others descend upon you to learn every detail you can remember about the night in question.
Everyone knows who killed your friend. Now the only question is can the killer use a law to justify the killing. This law requires the killer to say that he felt your friend, eating his Skittles and chatting with you, threatened his life. This legal maneuvering draws national attention to the case and focus upon what you heard over your cell phone that fateful night.
You are a star witness to a crime you never saw. The prosecution is depending on you. This means your testimony is invaluable. You feel the weight of not only wanting to see justice done for a friend but also justice done for his parents, who you know and see.
As this unfolds, a Mayor, of a large city in your country, responds, “I think we stop minorities too little and whites too much” when asked about the validity of a discriminatory “stop and frisk” program that has been proven to target minority youths disproportionately. For far too long your community has known that, in larger American society, the lives of their children are somehow not as valuable as the lives of other children. They see the death of your friend as another example of this horrible injustice and they are looking to you to help correct it.
As the national media produces many stories about you, celebrities (like Jolo Jones) tweet jokes poking fun at your appearance and demeanor by comparing you to Tyler Perry’s Madea persona. Total strangers question where you come from, what languages you speak and even propose, out loud, that you don’t have value. It is also a time in your country when a famous chef goes on television to wax nostalgically for the “good old days” of the Antebellum South where enslaved men in white dinner jackets and black bow ties served white wedding guests. A time when the Supreme Court declares that the Voting Rights Act has been too successful.
The trial process is hard too. The courtroom’s white administrators keep making derogatory references to your “black vernacular.” Defense attorneys grill you on whether you know cursive. They ask you to listen repeatedly to your best friend die. They try their best to rattle you by questioning if you heard what you heard, if you could be trusted or even have the mental capacity to understand what was going on.
Editorials appear that discredit you and your character. They label you a “hood rat.” These writers declare that you are an “awful representation of young blacks,” as if that is why you are asked to testify. They act as if it is your job to be the next Rosa Parks or Michelle Obama (which someday you may be) but right now your only job is to simply tell the truth. One damaging outcome of these remarks is that by labeling you a criminal or subhuman, by association, your lost friend, is easier to portray as a criminal and thus it is easier to argue that his killer was somehow justified, that terrible night, to take a young man’s life.
Regardless of the outcome of the trial, this will never be an easy thing in your life. For the rest of your life you will likely feel the burden, the loss, and the pain that this event caused and all that followed it.
These are some big shoes to walk in and most people would not walk this road with ease. So, I implore people to make this ordeal a little easier, if possible, for this young lady. Stop the remarks about color, gender, size, accent, and education and just ask that the truth be told. Perhaps even a kind word of condolence for the loss of a friend? Show some tolerance toward Ms. Jeantel, tolerance that was so lacking that awful night.