< as bad as this prosecutor” (Ibid.).
And there were a number of cases when young black men attacked white or Hispanic men in retaliation for what they saw as the miscarriage of justice. This happened in Baltimore, in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, and in Washington, D.C. In each case there was a shout “This is for Trayvon Martin!” or “This is for Trayvon!”
In the case in Wisconsin, the man who was assaulted said that he was saved from the assailants by a young African-American couple who came to his rescue” (Ibid.). White people are not interchangeable, one for another; black people are not interchangeable, one for another. Such reactions come out of rage and hate that may feel justified but cannot be justified.
Each person has his or her own individual worth and dignity. None of us can reasonably be reduced to just one aspect of our identity: we are all more than that. Perhaps that’s obvious. To persons gripped by the conviction that they have been robbed of justice, there may be no room for reason.
Trayvon, I want to share an experience with you– a personal experience and what I learned from it. It happened about twenty years ago, now, though it seems a lot more recent. I was walking home from a friend’s house in the Jamaica Plain section of Boston where I lived at the time.
It was about midnight and there were few people on the street. I turned the corner from Centre Street onto Burroughs St. and was just passing Today’s Bread, the business that used to be on that corner. I crossed paths with two young black men wearing hooded nylon jackets– insignias of NFL teams were on the hoods. I said “Hi” and nodded as I passed. One of them said “Hello.”
I had walked about 50 feet when I heard footsteps running up to me. I turned around quickly as the two men approached me. I yelled for help loudly, twice. We were just 100 feet from the main street, but no one was around and no one responded to my call. One or both of the men lifted their jackets to show me their holstered guns. I shut up pretty quick. They demanded my wallet. Reluctantly, I gave it to them.
They took my pocket change as well and demanded my other wallet, which was confusing since there was no other wallet. One tentatively tapped my back pocket. That’s my handkerchief, I said. I wondered why he was so tentative if he had a gun. Maybe my eyes had deceived me. I was taking no chances, though, and did not resist. They turned their backs to me and walked leisurely into the parking lot where they got into a car and drove away.
I ran after the car, trying to memorize the license plate number, but I was too shocked by the incident to retain any information. I ran back to my apartment & called the police, but I had little information to share. I called the companies that had issued me credit cards and reported them stolen. Then, I tried to go to sleep. There are different things that you can learn from such experiences.
You can over-generalize and see trouble every time you see a young black man with a hooded jacket, but that is, essentially, a lesson that makes no sense. Not only black people rob; not only black people rob while wearing hoods to protect them from being identified; not every person wearing a hooded jacket is a potential robber.
The lesson I learned was: When you hear footsteps behind you at night when there are few people around, make sure to stop and look around and let the person know they’ve been noticed. Occasionally, I’ll stand in a doorway and wait till the person passes. It’s been a helpful lesson, I’m sure.
Now, I’ll tell you one more story and then I’ll stop. I tell this story to illustrate how complicated city living has become, considering our history of racial relations and how further complicated living in Boston has become since the bombing near the marathon finish line last year.
During my visit to Boston over the summer, I spent some time with my friend of many years, Dick Monks. We decided to take the orange line subway into the city from Forest Hills Station in order to visit a few spots downtown. The Forest Hills neighborhood is pretty well integrated these days.
I don’t know that there has been much racial tension there: Latinos, African Americans and white people intermingle pretty thoroughly and pretty well, but on the train there were few white folks. My guess is that fewer blacks & Latinos can afford to own cars; I think statistics would back that up.
It was a warm, sunny day and we had no demands on our schedule, so we were feeling pretty relaxed, chatting about various topics of mutual interest. Across from us and a few feet down was a young black man in a corner seat, using his backpack as a back rest; a radio in it or near it was playing rap music, but it was not too loud. How old was he? Twenty-five, maybe, not so young.
At some point my eyes and his met. I nodded, as a matter of respect, but did not get any response. But, that’s all right; you don’t always get a response.
At a certain moment, he got up from his seat and started using the hanging strap as a punching bag– one of those small bags, where you move your fists in a circular rhythm, creating a flurry. He did this for ten seconds or so, then blew out air from his mouth. It looked like he was burning off some nervous energy and I wondered what he had on his mind. After a while, he sat down.
Our eyes met again for a fraction of a second. He looked away. Then, our eyes met again. He took out a cell phone and made a call. The call lasted a few minutes. He sat down again and looked at me again. Dick did not notice any of this. He was engrossed in our conversation. The train stopped, the doors opened, someone got out, a couple of folks came on board.
The young man took out his phone again. He made a call, then looked at his watch. As we approached the next station, he got up and stood at the door, his hands on either side of the double doors. I said to Dick “He left his backpack on the bench. The radio is still playing.”
“Should we tell him?” Dick asked.
“People don’t forget their backpacks,” I said. “He may be leaving it there on purpose. We might have to get ready to leave the train quickly and to advise other people to do that, too.”
My heart was beating faster now as I thought of all the things we might have just a few seconds to do. The man leaned forward towards the doors. The train pulled to a stop. Before the doors opened, I said to the young man “Are you forgetting your backpack?” He looked back at me and said “I’m not getting off.”
A young black couple looked at him, then looked at me. The eyes of the man of the couple expressed concern and fear. What was happening? The train stopped. The doors opened. A pretty young woman smiled at the young man as he greeted her at the open doors. He escorted her back to his seat.
The other man looked at me and smiled in relief. His female companion also smiled. They realized at almost the same moment that an incident of considerable danger might be confronting us and that the danger was past.
I know what it is to be 25 years old and looking forward to meeting a woman and being nervous and expressing that nervousness in some kind of physical way. But, I also know what it is to be the victim of violence, and I know that being ready is the best safeguard.
Would I have been a hero if I had warned a trainload of people about a bomb left behind in a backpack? Should I be ashamed now for suspecting an innocent man whose only crime was looking forward in anticipation to meeting a pretty girl?
The world is as it is. We need to be vigilant, and we need to be open and engaging. It is not always easy to be both. But, the complexity of life in these states at this time demands that we be both.
I don’t know precisely what happened in that gated community in Sanford, Florida, on the evening of February 26, 2012, but to some extent, I don’t need to know. It might be that an injustice was done to Trayvon Martin.
Certainly an unarmed 17-year-old should not have died in those circumstances; certainly neighborhood watch volunteers are often an asset to the community– without needing to carry guns. But, even if the events of that night were caused by confusion and distrust, they are tragic. And I believe Chief Lee: that if George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin could act with the benefit of hindsight, they would have made other choices. We need to act differently.
This is meant to be an invitation to begin a conversation about race in America, so I won’t speak to social policy or political policy or even the inequality of income distribution today. Today, I ask you to just look at your own behavior.
Do you engage with persons of another race when you cross paths in the community or do you look away? Do you carry suspicions about persons of another race? Are you aware of your prejudices? Do you examine them? Do you own them? Can you speak about them? Can you manage to be both vigilant and open to engagement at the same time?
It depends on cultivating a sense of mindfulness– awareness of our thoughts as well as our actions, how they may be received as well as misperceived.
Dear Trayvon Martin, it is my sincere hope that your death was not without purpose. It is my sincere hope that together, we will hold uppermost in our minds at all times the humanity of one another. That is where we are united. That is what holds us together. When we hold that in our hearts and minds in daily life, our society will hold together better, too and what a wonderful world that would be.
- “Shooting of Trayvon Martin.” Wikipedia. Accessed: September 7, 2013.
- Robert Mackey, “Bloggers Cherry-pick from Social Media to Cast Trayvon Martin as a Menace.” New York Times, March 29, 2012.