With Heartbreak and Hope, Never Again

“Why would someone kill someone like that?” Those were the words spoken by one of the neighbors of George Zimmerman to a 911 dispatcher the night he killed another neighbor, Trayvon Martin.

My heart aches for the family and friends of Trayvon Martin, the 17-year old, unarmed, African American student who was shot to death by a volunteer on neighborhood watch. I was pretty committed to not contributing to the media frenzy over his death. Because there has been such a feverish response I went to the source to get a sense of what could have really happened, so that I might be able to tune out the commentators and read the bias as it creeps into the daily news. Ignorance would have been easier. There were a few things that went right the night of this young man’s death, and some that went profoundly wrong. The deeper lessons about our society and culture are simultaneously heartbreaking and hopeful, as Martin has conjured for me an apparition of Emmett Till.

While the police department of Sanford, FL, is under investigation by the Justice Department, and after a no confidence vote their chief has stepped down, kudos to the city officials for putting information about the investigation right on their home page. Racial history tells us that the official story of any event is not always the most reliable, but the official story is an important place to start. The FAQs outline the law that guided police action during the investigation of Martin’s death, and explain the department’s rationale for their decisons. Regardless of whether anyone finds the answers to the FAQs acceptable or reasonable, the act of answering them publicly is essential in seeking resolve, and understanding lessons to be learned.

Among the information about the case the city website contains the audio recordings of eight calls to 911 dispatch regarding the events surrounding Martin’s death. The first is from Zimmerman himself, as he sat in his truck watching Martin and began following him, before the altercation broke out. The subsequent calls are pretty damning for Zimmerman, especially call number three in which cries for help are audible until the gunshot 48 seconds into the call, and call number eight in which a boy saw a man laying on the ground and needed help, and was screaming until a loud sound, and then the screaming stopped. The most painful call was number seven, in which the caller, traumatized by the events, agonized, “I wish I could have done something for the person. . . When someone yells for help you wish you could have helped them. I don’t even have a gun or anything. . . Someone was getting hurt and I can’t believe someone would shoot someone.” It is unclear from the publicly available documents how the confrontation started or ensued. One officer observed wet grass on Zimmerman’s back and bleeding from his nose and the back of his hand; Martin was found face down.

911 worked the way it was supposed to, just not fast enough to save Martin’s life. At least seven different neighbors called in to report either the commotion or the gunshot. Big karma points for the dispatch operators who were all calm, professional, direct, and reassuring, helping the neighbors to feel safe in a moment of fear. Several officers were on the scene within minutes. An ambulance was dispatched immediately, though the officers and paramedics could not save Martin. I hope that I always have neighbors who are so alert and responsive. Had the gunshot wound not been at close range the paramedics dispatched by neighbors may not have had to declare Martin dead at the scene as officers tried to revive him.

I am sickened, however, that a neighborhood watch volunteer was carrying a weapon, a gun at that. Zimmerman has a legally issued concealed weapons permit, so it was perfectly acceptable for him to carry a gun with him that night, and to walk down the street with it as he followed Martin. Had it been a different kind of weapon, a bladed weapon or club, would Zimmerman still have followed Martin down the street? If he had, and even if an altercation broke out, would Martin have suffered fatal injuries? Better yet, what if Zimmerman had no obvious weapons within his reach that night and stayed in his truck while awaiting the police? The police were dispatched when Zimmerman called 911. They would have found Martin, stopped him and, hopefully, had a pleasant conversation and sent him home safely, or maybe even offered him a ride in the rain.

Pure and simple, there are too many guns. To those who argue, “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people,” I ask them to consider any event of a gun death, accidental or intentional, and contemplate how it might play out differently with any other weapon. Martin could have been killed by a kitchen knife, but it is hard to imagine that Zimmerman would have been so confident, or that he could have so easily plunged a knife into Martin’s chest just a few minutes after dispatching police. It is disturbing that the neighbor who wanted to help lamented not having a gun. To this day the UK police force does not carry guns. The riots of 2011 were ended peacefully without them. I would rather live in a community where the police force is armed with intelligent conflict resolution instead of lethal weapons.

The truly heartbreaking part of the story, though, is that it happened at all. Were Zimmerman unarmed, or had he remained in his vehicle, it would have been just as heartbreaking, though it would have never made the news. A young, black man walking home from the store in the rain after dark, talking on his telephone, is not a threat. On the phone he may not have walked a perfectly straight line, and in the rain he may have been in a hurry, as we all get sometimes. Who knows. Adding insult to injury, the law, as employed by the Sanford police, protected Zimmerman in his actions completely.

It is in this context that Emmett Till haunts me. The facts of the cases are different: 14-year old Till approached Carolyn Bryant that summer in 1955, and words were exchanged. It was days later that Bryant’s husband and brother-in-law kidnapped Till and pistol-whipped and tortured him, and finally killed him because he would neither cry out in fear nor submit his dignity, insisting he was as good as any white man until the moment of his death. Bryant and Milam acted out of anger and power, though evidence suggests that fear was underlying their actions and emotions. Till’s murderers, like Zimmerman, acknowledged what they did, though were arrested and tried. But also like Zimmerman, they were protected by the law as the jury acquitted them.

That was 57 years ago. As much as things have changed, how much really has? One big change is that seven neighbors, whose race is unknown, called emergency dispatch to help a young black man, some without even looking first to see the color of anyone’s skin. Dispatch did not exist in 1955 in Money, MS, the way it does now nationwide, but it is unlikely the local response would have been so concerned for an African American youth.

Sadly, there are enough parallels between the cases that suggest not everyone has let go of their assumptions and fears of young, African American men that were so prevalent more than a generation ago. The ongoing fear, and the way it manifests affects the daily lives of African American men in the U.S. Martin could not even walk through a neighborhood street after dark in the rain the same way I do all the time as a middle-aged white woman. No one calls the police or pursues me because I look suspicious. Zimmerman is a Latino man, which somehow makes the facts of the case that much more gut-wrenching. Zimmerman must have suffered experiences of discrimination throughout his life. Perhaps his own experiences as a person of color have been a source of his fear. Perhaps, Martin may have struck out in fear grown from his 17 short years as a young man of color living in a predominantly white value system. Those nuances may never be revealed.

The wisdom and compassion of Mamie Till-Mobley must be channeled to provide guidance in responding to Martin’s death. When her son’s bloated and disfigured body was found she insisted on an open-casket funeral, demonstrating for the world the cruel realities of life for African American youth, and then demonstrating mercy and kindness that fueled a revolt based on love. Till gave his life so that no one could take his dignity, and he was honored by the outrage that changed the laws, along with many hearts and minds, so that it might never happen again. Unfortunately, it did.

Cornel West cautions not to become well-adjusted to injustice. The law under which the Sanford police department carried out their investigation suggests we, as a nation, as a society, are accustomed to injustice. Without all the facts of the case, which may never be known, it is impossible to know what transpired that dark, rainy night in February, though shooting someone who was unarmed seems excessive in any imaginable circumstances. That does not matter, because the law put the burden of proof on Martin to demonstrate, after his death, that Zimmerman had no reason to be fearful of him. The backlash suggests that though injustice may be embedded in the law, a great share of our society will not stand for it. Hope, according to West, is in the struggle. Thank you, Trayvon Martin, for demonstrating that the struggle for justice, respect and peace among families and communities is alive and well. May we, together, seek justice through compassion and love that will dissolve the fear, anger and power that instigated your tragic and horrific death.

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