What news sources often paint as simple black-and-white, good-and-bad stories are rarely that, and Trayvon Martin’s murder reminds us of that.
With the trial of George Zimmerman getting underway on Monday, I thought of a recent headline that had come and gone in my newsfeed without much fanfare: “Black 14-year-old Carrying a Puppy Tackled and Choked by Police for Giving Them a ‘Dehumanizing Stare.’” I’m not accusing the media on cursory words or short coverage. In fact, I had begun a piece myself and before it was finished the news cycle moved on. So what did I do? I dropped it, public interest moved on and so did my life.
Unfortunately, what happened isn’t simple, just as my reasons for moving on aren’t so cut-and-dry either. If I just thought, “no one wants to read about another black kid getting hurt,” I never would have started a piece. The problem is that the story itself isn’t simple, which is what delayed my original writing and mirrors the racial issues underneath it all – everything is a bit more complicated than the headlines.
The facts are: a fourteen-year-old black kid named Tremaine McMillian was at the beach with his mother, his friends, and his new puppy. Two police officers, adults on ATVs, approached Tremaine and as Tremaine walked back to his mother, she videotaped the officers subduing her son with a choke hold until he pissed himself. The puppy was dropped, injured, and later had to be given to a new home that could pay the veterinary bills.
Of course, the police officers and the “dehumanizing” 14-year-old detail the events differently. One version of the story paints the picture of a youth aggressively horsing around with friends, outnumbered police officers who wanted to maintain the peace, and threatening body language. The other version of the story has at its center a child who believes that if he was an adult, “all my bones would be broken.”
Whether or not we have two stories that each have shades of truth, or one factual recounting of events and one lie, we can’t shy away because the issues – or our feelings towards, our understanding of the issues – are complex.
When I first sat down to write about this, I thought about The Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson, which I highly recommend to anyone who read Twilight and thought: “that was exactly as bad as I thought it would be.” Carson’s book is basically a slash fiction version of Hercules’ tenth labor and leaves the reader wondering what really happened, numbly asking, “But what happened to the dog?”
I immediately thought of Carson’s story when I read about Tremaine. In this story, though, we know what happens to the dog (it doesn’t die, it just goes to a new home), so we have nothing to distract us from what we are collectively inclined to avoid thinking about – that an African-American child was perceived as a threat to older, larger, lighter-skinned men who quickly resorted to establishing physical dominance, and that this is an abhorrently common, absurd event.
Can you or I say what happened exactly? Clearly, no, but we have an idea where this leads, stories of where this has lead before. In The Autobiography of Red, Carson shows you the path of lives twisted together, around—if not leading directly towards—the violence of a living volcano. How many times do we have to retell the complicated story, how many times does violence have to erupt before we find a different path?
Photo: Orlando Sentinel, Joe Burbank, Pool/AP