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O My America: Seventy Yards from Safety

July 17, 2013
by Lawrence Bush oHlO6Two life experiences have battled for my attention as I contemplate the killing of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of his killer on the grounds of self-defense. One is my experience as a white “block watcher” in a mostly black, gentrifying Brooklyn neighborhood where I lived in a collective house for three years in the early 1980s. Over the course of those three years, four of the six in our brownstone were “mugged,” accosted, and robbed of something, while walking the few blocks from the subway — my wife and I at gunpoint on own stoop. The muggers were always young black men, so that’s who our neighbors, both white and black, kept our eyes on, closely and obviously, when we sat on our stoops as block-watchers between 7 and 11 PM, with silver whistles hanging around our necks. We profiled people, because we knew who were the likeliest folks to snatch a purse or demand a wallet. My own profiling theories included: black teen with a backpack or packages, no problem; black teen group of guys and girls together, no problem; black teenage male alone, no problem, unless he’s sizing people up as they pass; black teenage males, two or more, together, heads up. I didn’t carry a gun, God, no — I wasn’t going to shoot anyone or get shot because of some stupid property crime — but I sure did fantasize it, in my fear, walking those blocks from the subway, and sometimes I put my hands in odd places to project the image: Maybe the guy’s packing a piece. I also never aggressively trailed people down the block while on “patrol,” though once I did run towards trouble when I heard someone yelling for help (and I thought, My God, what if we actually have to confront someone, and what if they’re armed?) It’s perfectly conceivable that a young man whom I was eyeballing might have stopped at my stoop and said, “What are you looking at?” It’s perfectly conceivable that, in running towards trouble, I would have ended up on the ground, straddled by a young mugger and having my head cracked once or twice against the pavement. George Zimmerman practiced “extreme” block-watching. He was an arrogant, angry fool who ignored police dispatcher instructions not to trail Trayvon Martin through the housing development. Zimmerman was intent on holding all young black men responsible for their supposed bad behavior, so he packed a gun and triggered a deadly confrontation. It seems to me that a manslaughter conviction would have been appropriate: his vigilante passion and racist judgment led directly to the death of human being. Even under Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, you’re not permitted simply to provoke a fight and then use your gun. Yet Trayvon Martin, whose body was found only 70 yards from safety in his father’s girlfriend’s house, seems to have been a pretty angry fool, too. At first, he ran for it to get away from the “creepy-ass cracker,” but on their second confrontation, Trayvon apparently punched Zimmerman in the nose and cracked his head against the pavement. Trayvon could have run 200 feet to safety. Instead, it seems, he started a fight and left Zimmerman no exit. Or so the preponderance of testimony indicated. TRAYVON_MARTIN_NEW_PHOTO_1My other life experience is as the concerned father of adult children, which has me feeling heartsick about Trayvon’s death. This morning, trying to find the courage to write honestly about the case, I found a Yiddish poem by Berta Kling (1907-1978), translated by our Mameloshn columnist, Barnett Zumoff, in his beautiful collection, Songs to a Moonstruck Lady: Women in Yiddish Poetry. BerthaWHEN THE DAY BEGINS When the day begins and my children, one by one, go out of the house to the dangers of the day, of the city, I stand at the door and pray to You: “Bring them, God, back to me, unhurt by the day, by the city.” And when the day is over and night comes, and You have brought my children back unhurt after the day, I thank you, God, for the wholeness of my every limb, for putting my mind to rest. There is fear and racism spilling all over us in America. It is a product of racism that white people regard every young black man as a problem first, a human being second. It is a product of racism that wearing a “hoodie” marks a young black man as a criminal and me as a quaint eccentric. It is a product of racism that silver whistles become loaded guns. It is a product of racism that “the conversation” between white parents and their teenagers is about sex while “the conversation” between black parents and their teenagers is about survival. It is a product of racism that the New York Police Department applies its stop and frisk policy to young men of color nearly four million times in ten years, with white people cheering them on. It is a product of racism that our glutted criminal justice system is hugely overloaded with young men of color, who are monitored and socially controlled through imprisonment like no other population in the world. It a product of racism that an all-white jury is considered an acceptable “jury of peers” in a case like this one. White people don’t like to think about racism, or even acknowledge it, for fear of having their veneer of virtue and innocence cracked. How could an all-white jury possibly have plumbed the deeper questions involved in this trial? But it is also a product of racism that Trayvon Martin felt compelled to “stand his ground” and start swinging rather than running 200 feet to safety. So far I can’t attend demonstrations, can’t expose my sense of sorrow to militancy and accusation (though in saying that, I’m probably stereotyping again). I fear polarizing our country even more into the “Stand Your Ground” and “No Justice, No Peace” camps. I don’t know what to do, besides reading Yiddish poems and asking readers to talk to me. Lawrence Bush is the editor of Jewish Currents.