Each Friday, LA Progressive presents a comment we editors find to be most profound, insightful, unusual, or even annoying-- we then highlight the comment in an effort to bring attention to the broad range of positions taken by our readers. This week, Reggie Brown comments on Sharon Kyle's "From Sally Hemings to Jaycee Lee Dugard and Trayvon Martin," and then he and Sharon carry on a conversation.
Reggie Brown's comments:
Thank you for a well written, insightful synopsis. I’ve been thinking a lot about the Trayvon Martin tragedy, and why so many people are polarized on this incident. I think it has to do partly with racial bias, but also because people tend to view situations with their own particular lens, and that perspective can be experientially based. Obviously the media is invested in keeping issues polarized so they can sell more, well, polarizing media. Many of us have been inundated with conflicting accounts and analysis. When I first saw Trayvon’s picture, I thought, “How could anyone kill that sweet kid.”
Then I heard that he was in his mid teens and over six feet tall, and I realized the picture supplied by the family made him look about 13. The original picture of Zimmerman made him look like a vicious thug. But other pictures of him have surfaced and he looks like a friendly neighbor. Then there are the conflicting statements by witnesses about the actual event. The Miami Heat put out a picture of the players in hoodies, and I realized that if I saw a big guy on the street with his face half hidden by a hood, I’d have a gut reaction of fear, or at least heightened awareness, whether he was black or white.
We live in a world where people hurt each other frequently, sometimes just to steal something from them. I was fishing the other day and saw a guy in a hood and a ball cap hovering near my gear and spare pole, and I had the same reaction: watch out, he looks like he’s casing my equipment to steal something. He was white. It made me think Zimmerman’s story could be plausible. Maybe he actually was following Martin because he saw him casing the neighborhood. Not that he should have had a gun with him, or that he should have gotten close, or that he was or wasn’t racist, but that sometimes we make assessments that are not just assumptions. They’re based on someone’s actions as well as their looks. What would I have done if I saw someone I thought was casing the neighborhood? White or black, I probably would have followed him, albeit at a safe distance.
How about if shortly after Dugard was found, the media began to report that she had gotten a D on her report card the month before she encountered Garrido. — This would never happen in this kind of case but in the case of Trayvon Martin, attempts to smear that child’s reputation were widely reported.
Getting a D is just not the same as getting kicked out of school. One suspension from school might be a mistake; three times indicates a serious problem. Is it smearing his reputation if people hear that he got into trouble? Or does it speak to his character and help people make sense of this tragedy? If he was suspended from school, if he actually looked different from the younger Trayvon picture flashed on TV and news articles for weeks, is it possible he may be quite different from how he’s been portrayed? Is it possible that he was an angry young man who reacted to someone acting like he thought he was casing the neighborhood. Maybe he WAS casing the neighborhood. Maybe Trayvon was a great kid, or maybe he was a punk gangbanger wannabe who went back to beat up the guy who had the nerve to follow him. We don’t know yet.
Maybe we’ll never know the truth. But what we have heard so far are statements like, “It’s not safe for an African-American kid to go to the store, he might get killed.” Is that the correct message? Or should we be seeking the truth so we can tell our kids how to avoid getting hurt. I’d like to think my that if my kid was looking at someone else’s house and a stranger followed him, he’d either run away or speak up, uncover his face and say, “Hi, can I help you with something? I’m new here or I’m visiting my dad over on such and such street.” Maybe the message should be that you can deescalate a situation if someone misinterprets your behavior. If Trayvon Martin had anything to do with the altercation, if it’s true that he came back and punched Zimmerman and smashed his skull against the sidewalk, then the message to other children shouldn’t be “Don’t go to the store,” it should be “Don’t be an aggressive jerk, because the other guy might have a gun.”
I’m not trying to blame the victim here, because we don’t know yet what actually transpired that night. But making this something that it’s not doesn’t help the situation. Let’s wait until we actually know what happened. And if it turns out that Trayvon Martin was the instigator of the physical conflict that made Zimmerman shoot him in self defense, then let’s let this example go and refocus on those kids who really were just innocent victims. The Sherrice Iverson and LaToyia Figueroa types of crimes need our attention more.
Sharon Kyle responds:
Thanks for the comment. It's clear you spent a considerable amount of time sharing your thoughts and we appreciate that. I want to reply to a couple of lines in your comment.
You said, "Then I heard that he was in his mid teens and over six feet tall, and I realized the picture supplied by the family made him look about 13."
I don't know how old Trayvon was in the pics that have been posted but I will say that if he takes after his parents, particularly his mother, he probably looked very much like the pictures we've seen. His own mother doesn't look much older than twenty. He appears to come from a youthful looking family. I doubt there was an effort, on the family's part, to send a misleading photo -- it's more likely they wanted to post a picture that looked like the Trayvon they knew and loved.
You said, "and I had the same reaction: watch out, he looks like he’s casing my equipment to steal something."
I don't know how you make a distinction between someone who is "looking at" your equipment and someone who is "casing" equipment, especially when you are talking about a complete stranger that you have no history with and have just encountered. You mention that the guy was wearing a baseball cap and hoodie. Are those indicators that someone is "casing" as opposed to "looking" or even "admiring"?
You said, " It made me think Zimmerman’s story could be plausible. Maybe he actually was following Martin because he saw him casing the neighborhood."
This is where it appears there is a leap to judgement. You went from stating that the white man "looks like he's casing my equipment" to maybe Zimmerman saw "him casing the neighborhood".
Zimmerman, like you, could not have witnessed anyone "casing" anything. Without more evidence indicating intent to steal -- what you call "casing" is nothing more than profiling. Simply wearing a baseball cap and a hood should not raise suspicion sufficient enough to warrant grabbing a gun and leaving your home to follow someone. The other matter you fail to note is that it was RAINING. If it is raining and I'm outdoors, I frequently wear a hood especially if I'm not carrying an umbrella. If it is raining and I see someone outdoors wearing a hood I don't think it is reasonable to assume that that person looks as if they are casing the neighborhood -- that is unless I already have a predisposed opinion about that person -- an opinion that has lead me to call the police countless times in the past.
Reggie Brown's Comment:
You make good points Sharon. The younger picture of Martin bothers me because the media continues to use it next to a mug shot type of picture of Zimmerman. The impression you get is big mean man versus little sweet boy. We don’t know what happened yet, but if a six foot tall 17 year old teenager is on top of you banging your head into the cement, you are at risk of death. If that actually happened, Zimmerman didn’t commit murder, even if he followed Martin because he profiled him. He might have caused the tragedy, he might be a terrible person, but if Martin actually came back to find him and beat him up, I want us to all learn from that mistake. Pretending something else happened, and using misleading images to create a false narrative in the public’s mind is dangerous for the rest of us.
The casing issue is more complicated. Have you ever seen anyone steal something from a store? You can sometimes tell they’re about to do something just from the way they’re looking around. I might have been wrong about the guy checking out my equipment. Maybe he was just curious about why kind of stuff I used. But then when I saw him look around nervously, it seemed like he was trying to see if anyone was watching him, you know? Haven’t you ever experienced that? Haven’t you ever walked down a street and something about someone coming toward you made you want to go to the other side of the street? Is that instinct, or if we could see a recording, would it show behaviors that clued us in? If so, I’d prefer to trust my instincts. I don’t know what Zimmerman saw that night. Maybe Martin was just deep in a phone conversation, which makes people act strange, sometimes waving their arms around or standing and staring. But listen to the recording of Zimmerman’s 911 call. It sounds like he really was concerned about Martin based on his actions, not his skin color. My guess is that he mistakenly thought Martin was doing something suspicious, watched him and reported it, and Martin didn’t like being followed so he responded with anger perhaps mixed with fear. Personally, if I was being followed by Zimmerman I would have high tailed it home. But like I said, we don’t know what really happened, and we might never know the truth.
The hoodie issue is also complicated. Obviously, wearing a hoodie doesn’t automatically make you look suspicious. But many criminals hide their identities with hoods and hats. It was raining that night, so it’s perfectly reasonable to be wearing a hood up. But we also have a culture that incorporates hoodies into a look that doesn’t foster good relations with others. We have music that encourages violence toward others, especially women. Personally, I think we could make some real progress in race relations if we acknowledged that stereotypes can be experientially learned, they’re not just taught. When we stubbornly cling to the worse parts of our culture and decide we not only have the right to keep them but that criticizing them is racist, we do no favors to our children. We have the power to change how others view us, so let’s do it. We might not be able to stop full blown racists from continuing their nonsensical, destructive beliefs, but perhaps we can stop perpetuating racist attitudes if we encourage youth to stop glorifying negative stereotypes themselves. That doesn’t mean giving up hoodies, but it might mean rejecting the attitudes and behaviors that hoodies can epitomize.
Reggie -- good comments and yes, I have seen someone steal something and I am familiar with the look you speak of. Thanks for reading and commenting. These aren't easy issues we're tackling. But I have hope that if we don't give up we can work together to improve race relations.
Reggie Brown concludes:
By the way, this is a pretty comprehensive article that looks at Florida Law with respect to the murder charge against George Zimmerman, including what legal defenses his attorneys could present:
In Florida, a judge can allow a jury to find him guilty of a lesser charge such as manslaughter if they don’t think the evidence shows he’s guilty of second degree murder.