On February 26, 2012, in a gated community in Sanford, Florida, a 17-year-old named Trayvon Martin got in a scuffle with a 28-year-old neighborhood watch member named George Zimmerman. A single shot was fired, and the teenager died. The circumstances of the shooting--the apparent racial profiling of a teenager who was visiting relatives in the mostly-white community, the "stand your ground" aspects of the incident, Zimmerman's pursuit of Martin, and the Sanford police department's initial decision to release Zimmerman without charges--turned it into a national news story. Zimmerman was ultimately charged with and, last week, acquitted of second degree murder in the shooting. In the wake of that decision, there have been demonstrations across the United States. Some have rightly wondered why this story continues to be special when Martin was just one of 85 children killed by firearms every day in 2012. Others have complained that his skin color gave him some kind of special victim status, that a white teenager killed by a black man would not get similar media attention. Still others have protested that the gun used to kill Martin was legally carried by Zimmerman, who had a concealed weapon permit.
All of this is true, tragically, horribly true. Every young life lost to violence is a crime against humanity, whether that life was taken by a bullet, an overdose, an abusive parent, or a reckless driver. The tragedy is compounded in this case by an apparent miscarriage of justice, but it shares that distinction with many similar incidents not cursed with national media attention.
A month and a half ago, I wrote about an experience I had with the criminal justice system nearly two decades ago. The victim in that case was an 80-year-old man named Newt Aschim. He died as the result of a home invasion by an intoxicated man who was probably about the same age as George Zimmerman. The perpetrator was not acquitted--he was convicted of first-degree manslaughter, and sentenced to nineteen years in prison--but Newt's family wanted very badly to hear the word "murder" in the verdict. Many lives were shattered by the crime. Newt's church, of which I was the pastor, was never the same without him.
As for me, I was put on a reflective path which ultimately led me to question much of what I believed about God. I understood the problems of placing earthly justice in human hands, that any system of justice is to some extent a compromise, that no amount of human retribution can make up for the psychic wound of a crime that maims or bereaves; and to those understandings, I have had the growing sense in the intervening years that Chaos rules human affairs more decisively than any Supreme Being. But that is all a sidebar.
There were racial overtones to Newt's death: the perpetrator was of Hispanic descent. I'm not sure whether he was a legal immigrant or an American citizen, though I suspect that, had he been an immigrant, he would've been deported after this crime. I heard only one comment about this at the time, when, while Newt was still lingering in the hospital with a coma, his wife remarked that "He'll never trust the Mexicans now." I had only known Newt for a few months when this happened, and I'd never heard him make a disparaging remark about anyone, let alone a racist comment, so I couldn't speak to its truth, but it does bring me back to the most troubling aspect of the Martin killing, one that has been commented upon by both the President and male African-American friends of mine.
Trayvon Martin was no angel--according to Wikipedia, he'd been suspended from school three times, and while he didn't have a juvenile record apart from that, he was far from a model teenager. None of that is relevant to what happened to him. He made a mistake that has cost many young black men their lives, particularly in southern states: walking through a white neighborhood. He had every right to be there, but just by virtue of being a young black man, he made George Zimmerman nervous, and wound up dead.
Black men entering department stores are routinely followed by security officers. Black men driving nice cars are routinely pulled over by police officers. Black men walking through white neighborhoods are routinely confronted by people like George Zimmerman. The message they receive, over and over again, is that they have no right to be where they are, whether it is shopping at Neiman Marcus or behind the wheel of a Lexus.
This also happens, I must add, to young men whose appearance suggests they are of Hispanic or Arab extraction, and while the source of this prejudicial treatment is likely to be different, the effect is the same: convicted for the crime of being a young man of color in the wrong place at the wrong time.
I hope I don't have to argue that, in a true democracy, there should be no "wrong place" or "wrong time" to be black, Mexican, Iraqi, gay, female, or any other characteristic that may be used as justification, either explicit or implicit, for unwanted special attention. And I'll go a little further here: it could be argued that Newt Aschim, by confronting the man who broke into his house, committed a similar error; that the right place for him to have been was on the phone, calling the police, and barricading the door until they came.
The chaotic reality here is that, in our culture, people are judged by the color of their skin, the sound of their speech patterns, their manner of dress, their faith, their gender identity, as much as they are by the content of their characters. Americans are a diverse people. At our best, we draw strength from that diversity, fusing disparate elements into art, music, cuisine, crafting a political system that protects the voice of the minority from the oppressive will of the majority. But we are also a fiercely individualistic people, who use all those distinctions as reasons for building walls that ultimately divide us into tiny enclaves, private city-states with just a single resident. This is the driving force behind so many acts of violence, tragedy that compounds daily.
The United States was founded on the principle E Pluribus Unum: out of many, one. The tree of American liberty has, as Jefferson said, been watered by the blood of patriots, but also by the blood of the victims of patriots. Countless slaves and indentured servants died constructing this nation. Countless indigenous peoples died making way for that construction. There have been times when those deaths were partially transcended by a national watershed: the sweeping civil rights gains made in the 1960s, the march toward marriage equality we are experiencing now. But for every one of these victories there have been dozens of opportunities lost, tragedies that could have laid the groundwork for true social progress, but were trumped by some other news item seizing the national attention.
In the wake of the Zimmerman acquittal, America finds itself yet again at a crossroad. Chances are these demonstrations, like those of Occupy Wall Street just a few years ago, will fade from the headlines, supplanted by news of a royal baby, another fiscal cliff, or a senator sexting an intern. If that happens, the tragedy of this young life lost, this young man sent to his grave simply for walking down the wrong street on the wrong night, will be compounded by the far greater tragedy of an opportunity missed, a road not taken, a lesson left unlearned, a nation still unwilling to grow up and let people be people, regardless of color, class, or creed.
If that happens, we will probably point fingers at our leaders: the President who, some insist, waited too long to speak out; the senators and representatives who couldn't come to a compromise on immigration; the state legislators who stuck to their figurative and literal guns on defending the rights of the armed against the safety of the defenseless; the lobbyists ladling money into campaigns that cancel each other out. These are, of course, the wrong people to blame, because in a nation of individuals, real change must begin with the individual.
That's you and me, brothers and sisters. That's each of us being intentionally gracious and accepting in our attitudes and actions toward others. That's each of us speaking up in opposition to petty acts of profiling and bigotry whenever they happen. Every time we act in this way, we build a small corner of progress. Build enough of them and they'll meet up, merge, grow into a groundswell of change like that which has been happening for the GLBT community. And with that, we will move that much farther toward growing the tree of liberty for all people, everywhere, so that these dead, young, old, or somewhere in between, will not have died in vain.
Altogether now: It starts with me.