During the late 70s, when I moved to Brooklyn, the Park Slope neighborhood I settled in was a tough place, very different from the gentrified community it is now. There was a long row of abandoned buildings along 7th Avenue south of 9th Street. There were abandoned buildings on Garfield Place between 7th and 6th Avenue. And 2nd Street between 4th and 5th Avenue looked like a block in East New York or the South Bronx, with only three apartment buildings left standing amidst vacant rubble-filled lots.
There were tough, working class kids all over, mostly white, some Black and Latino. Muggings, break-ins, and car thefts were common. The street that I moved to — 6th Street between 8th and the Park, which had a mixture of old residents and artists and hip professionals — had a block association. I was soon recruited to help organize a security committee to protect block residents — especially senior citizens, who were especially vulnerable, from young people seeking trouble.
For this purpose, I kept a large, metal bat near my door. When a group of tough looking kids whom I didn’t recognize came on the block, I would come out of the house with my bat. If looked like they might begin vandalizing cars or threatening people (or bombarding them with eggs on Halloween!), I would come up to confront them directly. In all of those confrontations, never once did I have to use my weapon. A couple of times I had to bang my bat on the sidewalk to remind them that I was serious, and potentially dangerous, but my most effective weapon was, ironically, the respect with which I addressed them.
“Gentlemen” I would begin every encounter, “how may I help you?” I would then go on to explain that I lived on the block, had been assigned the task of making sure it was safe, and was there to tell them that they were welcome to come on the block any time so long as they treated its residents with the same respect they would want someone to treat them
To a surprising degree, these young people, of whatever racial background, responded extremely well to this approach. I was never cursed out, never attacked, and no encounter escalated into something that led to anyone being hurt. Perhaps the bat had something to do with this, perhaps not. But what I think made the biggest impression was that I tried to let them know that I was someone who would welcome talking to them, getting to know them, and perhaps coaching them if they joined some of the sports organizations that I was hoping to create in the neighborhood.
Given this experience, it is utterly astonishing to me that a George Zimmerman, a so-called “block captain” murdered — that’s right, murdered — a young man he was questioning because he didn’t know him. We are talking about one, slightly built 17-year-old, being confronted by a very large full-grwon man. For the confrontation to escalate to the point it did, the older man’s behavior must have been extraordinarily confrontational and insulting and, from my perspective, truly irrational.
As someone who repeatedly confronted four or five young men significantly larger than Trayvon Martin, the level of paranoia that George Zimmerman brought to the encounter with this poor child is terrifying and reflects on his neighbors’ judgment as well as his. Only a madman, or someone overcome with rage and fear, could act the way George Zimmerman did. His neighbors must have known something about his personality. How could they have let him assume this role in their community, much less carry a gun?
If you are involved in Block Security, the main trait you want to have is the ability to stay calm under pressure, talk to people sincerely and honestly, and convey no fear. George Zimmerman failed all those simple tests. There is no excuse for what he did. None.
He is clearly a sick, tormented man, but that his neighbors put him in that position suggests deep-seated problems on their part as well. In this country, racism can reach the level of a sickness. It provides the only possible explanation for George Zimmerman’s murderous behavior, and the excuses made for it by so many white Americans.
With a Brooklyn Accent