Last week I was in Stockholm for a Conference. I didn’t stay at the Conference Hotel. I stayed at a less expensive place that was a reasonable distance from the event but it wasn’t on any major bus or subway stops. There was a banquet on the second night of the conference. I walked from the hotel and it was nearly midnight by the time the banquet ended. Although it was late and I was alone, I decided to walk home. There just isn’t the same culture of taking cabs in Sweden and it would have taken me ages to get there on mass transit. So, I put in my earbuds, plugged the hotel into Maps, hit navigate, and let the GPS guide me. There seemed to be no one on the street but many of the windows in the apartment buildings I passed were well-lit. I marveled that even Stockholm seems to have that quiet, empty feeling that I tend to associate with Sweden.
About 12 minutes into my 20-minute walk I was crossing the street at the corner. As soon as I stepped into the street, two black guys came around the corner. We might have walked right into each other if I had been 5 seconds later or had not been crossing. My heart jumped in my chest. Yes, there was the surprise of folks seeming to appear out of nowhere around a blind turn. Yes, there was also the sudden close proximity to folks on a walk where I had seen no one. But there was also the immediate sense of risk I felt as a woman alone on the street with two black guys. I kept walking and so did they. We were headed in opposite directions but even in the despair with which I considered my own knee-jerk racism, I fearfully glanced back over my shoulder every now and then until I arrived back at the hotel.
Last night Tim Wise, one of my favorite anti-racist activists and writers, distributed his essay on the Trayvon Martin murder. Although I hope there are few who have not heard the news of the Martin murder, here are some of the details.
On February 26 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was gunned down while returning from a trip to 7-11 for snacks. He was observed and followed by an armed 20-something-year-old man by the name of George Zimmerman. George had taken it upon himself to keep the neighborhood safe. He thought Trayvon looked suspicious, he called the police to report his presence. The police said they would send someone and asked Zimmerman to stand down. Instead Zimmerman followed the boy who was talking to a friend on the phone and reported that he was being followed. She advised him to run. He said he would walk faster but he would not run. Minutes later Martin was dead from a gunshot to the chest and in the days that followed Zimmerman’s claim to be acting in self-defense has been sufficient to keep him a free man.
Wise’s essay begins with the details of the case and by talking about how Zimmerman is one of “those guys.” I get the motivation. When I think about the fact that this person, who didn’t care a whit for his own safety in following and approaching someone he suspected was dangerous but claims he had no choice but to shoot the boy to protect himself, is going to get away with murder, I feel sick. Nauseous. Enraged.
But, really, you have to take it further than demonizing Zimmerman and this is what Wise does in the conclusion of his essay. In response to a suggestion that we should start showing support for justice in this case by wearing “I am Trayvon Martin” buttons, Wise writes
I feel that perhaps we who are white should remind ourselves… that unfortunately, we are much less like Trayvon Martin and much more like George Zimmerman.
And that is the problem.
Wise has it right. I have never had a gun but when I lived on a predominantly not-black university campus on the predominantly black Southside of Chicago, the university gave us whistles to have on our key chains. We were supposed to blow them while running from trouble or while running toward someone else in trouble. People also talked about how to hold your keys in your fist so that they could be a weapon. On many after-dark walks home from the library and trips out of what the University Police had instructed us constituted the bounds of our safe zone I walked with keys in my hand in case I needed to call for help with the whistle or fend off attackers. If I had my keys the other night in Stockholm, I am quite sure that I would have automatically reached for them when those two black guys rounded the corner.
I am George Zimmerman and, sadly, I do not share Wise’s optimism regarding the chances that my mind and the millions of other captive minds will ever be rehabilitated. Our laws should protect people like Trayvon Martin from people like me. I should not have guns or other weapons that allow me to kill with such speed that my rational thoughts do not have time to rein in my automatic and irrational ones. I should not be enabled and encouraged by laws that ignore it when I recklessly pursue people I fear. I should not be encouraged in my biases by a media that plays off my stereotypes, privileged perspective and irrational fears.
Trayvon Martin is dead because we pretend that George Zimmermans are a rare breed. It is time to stop pretending.