What Trayvon Martin Taught Me About Perspective (Mine, Yours & Ours)

I have been watching and reading from afar about the case and verdict in the Trayvon Martin case. The story is so sad, so tragic and so divisive in what it represents to many and what it should represent to more.

It’s interesting that I first read about the verdict on Facebook. A couple of posts by some old friends/classmates from back in my days at Moody Bible Institute (Chicago, IL) who are now working in ministry and living amongst some of the “least of these” in Coconut Grove, Florida. The implication of their posts was of sadness and the feeling that justice was not served in the verdict of Zimmerman. The other posting I saw was from another former classmate of mine, from Moody who is African-American; he posted the crime scene picture of Trayvon as his profile pic followed by a strong statement of shock from Michael Moore regarding the obvious racially biased verdict. Then as I posted my support of these feelings, I received a few responses and noticed other posts, talking about how ridiculous it is to think the “not guilty” verdict was showing racial prejudiced or lamenting people who believed this whole issue had to do with race must be “ignorant of the facts”.

I sat back and here is what I noticed quickly; those expressing sadness and anger towards the verdict were either African American themselves, were deeply invested in the African American community specifically or were very involved in the social services/social justice side of society. Those expressing resentment and indignation against the audacity of those to cry “racial injustice”, were Caucasians who all “work and play” in the comfortable middle class of America and probably have had very little exposure to people “like Trayvon Martin”. Now before everyone goes nuts at my generalization, I appreciate that it IS a generalization, but this is what I saw in the immediate aftermath of the verdict and I do think it speaks volumes.

Those who walk in the shoes and live side by side with people of other races and socio-economic backgrounds, usually have a much broader perspective and empathetic heart. When something happens like what did to Trayvon, they are less likely to say things like “Well, he did drugs anyway and did you SEE his Twitter account?? He was obviously looking for trouble…but of course it’s a sad loss.” I’ve read a lot of “It’s a tragic story, but….” As if talking about the failures or shortcomings of Trayvon, meant what happened to him was justified. As if pointing out that he DID fit the description of other people responsible for break-ins in the neighbourhood, which meant Zimmerman was obviously defending himself against the possibility of “another” black male causing harm.

My friends that live and work and love and serve endlessly alongside people “like Trayvon” I imagine, are more concerned with the big picture and the bottom line, that a young man died because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time…A life that was seemingly being lived in teenage rebellion, was cut short before he even had time to grow out of it or meet someone who could encourage him in another way….An African-American boy was shot and killed and rather than taking responsibility and accepting the consequences of such an action, against what ended up being an innocent boy walking home, excuses are made and a perpetrator walks free…A mother, who was trying to remove her son from the situation of drugs and bad influences so sent her son away for a time, will now live her life with a heavy heart and certainly some regret and a lot of motherly guilt. She was trying and someone who didn’t care about her son as a whole person came in and took him away.

I imagine people that are saying this case was certainly not racially motivated aren’t looking at the big picture. I imagine most aren’t living beside so many who have been brought up and have such a different picture of life and a totally different perspective of justice…so many who really believe that justice does not exist for them as a community and if any of “us” took the time to really listen and ask why, we might understand and not be so quick to make excuses. Our perspective might suddenly become foolish, ignorant, one that only has credibility if you live with a certain amount of denial.

The real issue is not what Zimmerman’s intentions were that night because none of us will ever know. The real issue is that, he acted impulsively and had his own history that would very possibly make him “prone” to wanting to “be a hero” and prove himself as a man. He was told to stay in his car and at that point, when he didn’t listen, I believe he became fully responsible for everything that took place after that. People point to his condition when the police arrived, bloody nose and a bashed head as proof that he was defending himself. However, I think the simple question to ask is “What lead to that?” How would you or I respond to someone following us, stalking us??? How would a young, black male who is probably/possibly used to being “profiled” and assumed the worst of, respond to a heavy set man, following him in the dark??? What parent would not have advised their child that in THAT situation, you fight back, maybe even get the first punch in so you can survive?? Instead, because Zimmerman had injuries and it was a young, black youth who apparently caused them, then obviously he was defending himself and unfortunately that kid got what he deserved in that unfortunate moment. The message being sent is, that it probably shouldn’t have happened and sure Zimmerman made mistakes, but it’s just another black boy who appeared to be a “thug” anyway, killed. No need for any consequences, compensation or justice.

When I heard this story and kept reading about it and saw the different comments, blogs and posts, I flashed back to my time at Moody. While I was there, I remember some of our young men getting into big trouble because (and my memory is shaky on the details so forgive me), they had made a fake weapon of sorts…a stick or something out of cardboard and paper…and on it they wrote “Nigger Beater”. They then proceeded to hit people with it and I believe they started with an African American student….thinking it was funny….a game. I am not sure who said what, but someone went to the Dean over it and it became a very big deal. I remember the buzz around campus and I remember most of the white student’s attitudes were “They messed up, but they didn’t mean it! Where is the Christian love and forgiveness…?” I was torn, because I knew the guys involved who had made and used the stick and from memory, they were good and decent guys and I doubt in their hearts they were true racists (whatever that even means, because I don’t understand to this day why they thought what they were doing was appropriate). I remember going to the dorm room of one of my RA’s, an African-American girl and there were 2-3 other African-American girls there. I came in and my heart was breaking because I could see they were so upset…sad and angry over what had happened and the school’s hesitancy to pass down firm consequences (I believe at this time, no one knew what the punishment for the boys would be). I walked in and I started asking them to explain it to me…I wanted them to tell me why this hurt so much that they couldn’t “let it go”….that they couldn’t just “forgive and forget”….I remember my heart truly crying out to understand the depth of their pain. And my friends did explain it to me and the more they shared, the more I “got it”…the more I felt true empathy.

At one point when we were talking about forgiveness and loving the boys who did this one of my friends said, “God loved Adam and Eve all the way out of the Garden of Eden!” Hearing that made it “click”….these girls did not wish harm to their white classmates or feel malice, they wanted justice, they wanted a wrong to be righted and they wanted their hurt to be validated. And I understood….I felt like my eyes were opened to why racial prejudice is still so serious and something those who follow Christ especially, need to strive to understand more and bring justice to. I left that room and knew what “side” I fell on. I cared about those boys and wished them no harm, but in order for their fellow African-American classmates to feel valued and like they were just as important to the school as their white counterparts, the leadership could not hesitate in handing out true justice….justice that would make a statement that what happened was not okay and it hurt people’s souls. It ended up that the boys were suspended for I believe the rest of the year, pending possible expulsion. I don’t remember what happened after that, but I do remember that whenever it came up, I remembered what my African-American friends relayed to me and I shared it in my response to why I think justice needed to be done and it had been.

What happened in the killing of Trayvon Martin and the subsequent “not guilty” verdict for the man who caused his death makes the statement that Trayvon didn’t matter. The justice system has succeeded in handing out a verdict that shows a total lack of respect and empathy to a whole community of people who have been wounded by the event of that fateful evening. This is not the first time that the death of a black youth has been trivialized and justified away….and the “not guilty” verdict, makes sure most definitely it will not be the last. This is not the first time that the white community which is SO big on people taking responsibility and facing consequences for their actions (you know, like limiting welfare to mothers who keep having babies, regardless of THEIR intent), suddenly lose all sense of true justice, simply because many have never cared enough to “get it” or even try to. Many have never even bothered to sit down with a person of color and ask them, their perspective on life in general but especially their thoughts and feelings when a young man is killed and no one is expected to face consequences. I am not saying that our response should be one of hate or vengeance towards George Zimmerman, but feel the white community needs to rise up and call this what it is and it is INJUSTICE.

I am not an expert on empathy nor do I claim to not face my own prejudices that fly into my head, assumptions I make based on what someone looks like, where they are from, who their parents are, etc. Heck, I work at a high school so I pretty much “profile” daily. It doesn’t make it okay though and it certainly isn’t right when it keeps you, me, us from digging deeper. I have worked with a lot of kids that would be considered “marginalized”…that would be viewed in the same light that Trayvon has been, ever since his Twitter account was dissected and examined to find his every flaw (as if he’s the only teenager smoking pot and running out for a snack!). It is SO easy to look at anyone going through something you have not or who was born into a different skin (literally and figuratively) than you and talk about what YOU would do differently to make their life better and make every mistake they have made, not happen. What’s harder is to look at people who are living a totally different existence to you or have been brought up to do so and ask them the real questions…the tough ones that you sit back and think you know the answers to, but you have no freaking idea.

Right before my husband and I started dating again and headed towards marriage, I had an 18+ month relationship with an African-American guy from North East, Washington D.C. If you want to imagine what his life was like, just imagine an after school special, with every single stereotype of the inner city black community, mixed into one show and THAT was his life. He was/is a single dad and was part of a family that was caught up with drugs and violence. It is a very long, complicated story (with many lessons) and not one I share often, because it was a tough part of my life where many mistakes were made. However, I think today is a good time to share some of it….

This young man was caught up in his family’s very own version of “a thug life” and I watched him fight hard to stay out of the drug trade that many of his family members were in. I watched him hold down two minimum wage jobs (no health insurance provided of course) while trying to raise his young son. I looked on as once he had to decide to spend money to take his boy to the doctor and get antibiotics for an ear infection OR use the money to buy groceries. And I saw how quickly white society will cast judgement, when one night, along with two of his brothers, he was the victim of a shooting. He had done nothing wrong and it was determined the shooting was in retaliation of a “drug deal gone bad” with his younger brother earlier in the day. Nothing he was a part of, but he got caught up in it just by being at the wrong place at the wrong time and nearly paid with his life. Ten minutes earlier and I would have been there too; it was even speculated later that the shooters might have waited ‘til I left so as not to bring on more police interest or “heat” by having a “white girl” injured in the attack. How sad, that those young men knew from experience that if a white, suburban girl was hurt, justice would be sought, but if it was just a couple of black dudes from “the ghetto”, very little would be done. And they were right, no one was ever charged. I also remember hearing people tell me that I was my boyfriend’s “meal ticket”…that of course he loved me and wanted me because I could be his “way out”. I remember being asked why he didn’t do more to get out of the situation he was in, because apparently working two jobs full time and raising his son, after having gotten a miserable and totally inadequate education in the D.C. school system, wasn’t enough…didn’t prove he had what it takes to be welcome or sucessful in white, middle-class society.

I say all this not because it makes me an expert on the black community or what they are going through now, but because that experience, gave me the most solid dose of true empathy and the most enlightening perspective of a different way of life, that I had ever had then and even up to this point. The black community is still struggling and fighting hard and in many ways they are doing it on their own. They are being told that they do nothing to help themselves and bring violence upon them, while not many outside of their race, are really willing to do the hard yards with them. I truly believe you can never really have a clear understanding of someone else’s perspective until you have willingly put yourself in the shoes of that person or made them your neighbour, so you end up seeing their life unfold before you. We need to be talking about Trayvon Martin and why so many people have been hurt by the verdict. We need to talk and listen until the community that has been hurt, says it is enough. We need to be asking God to take away this need to justify and protect a man who killed an unarmed youth, simply because we feel indignant that the fact the boy was black, has even come up! We need to be looking for African-American neighbours, co-workers and friends to sit down and talk with them and ask them “Why did the Zimmerman verdict hurt you so bad? What has been your experience?” We need to ask because we think we know…but we have no idea!