• Personal moment: the Trayvon Martin case

    I was set to write about health reform this morning. I’ll come back to that. I want to take a personal moment now to note something else. Many people have written brilliantly about the Trayvon Martin case, especially Ta-Nehisi Coates over at the Atlantic. I thought President Obama’s humane comments were doubly powerful because of their humane restraint and their obvious truth. I live in a predominantly African-American neighborhood. Trayvon Martin bears some superficial resemblance to the kids who use my own driveway basketball hoop.

    I’m still trying to wrap my head around what was in George Zimmerman’s head that led him to shoot a young high school student who posed zero threat to anyone.  I wonder if something happened to him that led him to this behavior. Zimmerman doesn’t strike me as an evil person. His life story does seem to contain more than the usual dollop of struggle and trouble: minor scrapes with the law, credit card and job problems, etc. The Trayvon Martin case wasn’t the first time Zimmerman was involved in impulsive violence committed under ambiguous circumstances. I wish Zimmerman had gotten whatever help he needed to have found a better path to personal accomplishment and recognition than to seek violent confrontations with real or imagined criminals.

    When I was not much older than Trayvon Martin, I was the victim of a scary beating in the New York subway. I was the victim of other crimes, as well. Around the same time, in the bad old days of high-crime New York, my gentle cousin was beaten to death by two teenage burglars he surprised in his home.

    For too many of my young adult years, I walked around with a lot of anger.  Because the perpetrators of these crimes were African-American, my anger included definite, albeit implicit and unarticulated racial overlays.When one carries such feelings of fearful grievance and humiliation, the mix is potentially explosive. I know something of the stereotype-reflexive flinch some people experience at the sight of a young black man buying Skittles and wearing a hoodie.

    Nothing ever exploded in my life, nothing even close. And at some point, I noticed that I wasn’t walking around with the same anger anymore. I no longer embraced or savored a sense of my own victimization. The scars had gradually healed, mainly because the rest of my life included much support and gratification.

    I never got much help from the medical care system. Not long after the original subway incident, I visited my doctor with the complaint that I was having headaches. It’s only a psychological thing, he assured me. On my first job, I visited my HMO, and was referred to a group therapy intervention. I never went. Our health care system is now more attentive to these issues.

    I still worry about people who fall through the cracks—not to mention the consequences for others when people carry such pain and fear around with them. My story probably has nothing to do with George Zimmerman’s. If it did, though, I wouldn’t be terribly surprised.


    • Thank you, Harold, for sharing that. In the Martin killing, the society we live in also matters,. Some context for Florida:

      re life sentences without possibility of parole for juvenile defendants

      “In Graham v. Florida (2010)…Justice Kennedy’s majority opinion noted the number of prisoners serving such sentences nationwide: 123, of which 77 were in Florida.”

      From p. 297, “The Collapse of American Criminal Justice” by William J. Stuntz


      • Yes–I was not in an environment that amplified my anger or encouraged me to go out and buy a gun, either.

    • I think its very important to separate someone’s behavior and the reasons for that behavior from the consequences one imposes on that behavior. My sense is that when the two are mixed up, one gets lots of trouble.

      So, its like in some of the police shows on television, if you shoot someone in the commission of your duties (or perhaps kill them), you need to be put into a particular category almost no matter what your circumstances, as hard as that might sound. If Zimmerman killed Trayvon, he needed to be taken for questioning at a minimum and with all the rest, puts him up several notches automatically. If I had killed a young man like that I hope noone would object to my being taken for questioning or arrested no matter what my motives.

      How one deals with that person after they get the standard, you crossed the line consequence depends on your situation and what happened. And with other behaviors, if you misbehave (according to some objective standard) you are treated as though you crossed the line no matter what the circumstances. The consequences, however, are different depending on the person.

      I think this is a horrible story but I think what’s most disturbing for the country is that no-one was held responsible. Additionally, if people want to be so permissive of gun ownership, at a minimum, insist that if someone uses a gun and it is used in the killing of an innocent person, they go to jail no matter what. That may face the lobby in favor of the killing of innocent people, but that lobby needs to be marginalized.

    • Mr. Pollack: That was probably one of the most thoughtful and insightful blog entries that has been published on this tragedy. You are to be commended for your compassion. Thanks.

    • “I’m still trying to wrap my head around what was in George Zimmerman’s head that led him to shoot a young high school student who posed zero threat to anyone. I wonder if something happened to him that led him to this behavior.”

      Well, yes. I think this would qualify: