Maple Street, U.S.A. Late summer. A tree-lined little world of front porch gliders, barbecues, the laughter of children and the bell of an ice cream vendor. This is Maple Street on a late Saturday afternoon. Maple Street...in the last calm and reflective moment...before the monsters came.
If you have been politically polarized by the tragic misunderstanding between George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin, please stop reading here and carry the opinion you are entitled to away with you. If you are open to considering a slightly less one-sided view, read on.
First: How did the jury acquit George Zimmerman? The answer is simple; the judge told the jury this: If a “reasonable” person would have feared for his life in George Zimmerman’s situation, you must vote to acquit him. And they did.
If I learned anything in law school (and I learned a great deal in a short amount of time, let me tell you), I learned that cases are not decided on passion. Cases must be decided based on the law at hand. In Florida, this is the law at hand—like it, love it, hate it, shake a fist at it, it is the law, and a jury—whether it’s made up of primarily white women or primarily green men—has a duty to base a judgment on the law as it stands.
But as I see it, the problem in this whole controversy should not center on whether or not Zimmerman was determined by the law in his state to be culpable. The problem is much, much deeper than that. And it stems from the fact that poor George Zimmerman did fear for his life. But so did Trayvon Martin.
Both men were frightened. Both reacted as they did out of fear. For Trayvon Martin, acting on his fear of George Zimmerman cost him his life. And, if we are compassionate… and I know we are, in our hearts… acting on his fear of Trayvon Martin cost George Zimmerman the life he knew. Because he can never go back to the privacy of anonymity, never feel safe again while others threaten his life, and if a civil suit is brought against him, he will most assuredly be found culpable there… and will spend the good part of the rest of his life paying for his stubborn decision to follow a boy he deemed suspicious.
Why? Because we live in a culture of fear. And yes, that fear is race-based. OK, calm down, I’m not calling anyone a racist. I know how we hate that word.
But can we just be perfectly honest? We have been living with this build-up of racial tension for a long time. It’s not my imagination. It’s not me “pulling the race card” to point the blame one way or another. It is the truth that I know because I have seen and experienced it.
I grew up during the civil rights movement of the 1960’s. I saw the March on Washington… and the Watts Rebellion. I was encouraged by the signing of the Civil Rights Act… and defeated by the race riot that occurred at my own high school in 1969. In my adulthood, I have had the unique experience of living life as a white woman while raising black children. If you are a white person who believes “racism” at its core no longer exists in this country, forgive me, but you are simply naïve.
Racism is still pervasive in this land of diversity. It just wears a different set of clothes. Gone are the white robes, the placards held high with racial epithets boldly emblazoned. White people tend to think of “racists” as white supremacists who spew hate and refer to non-whites in derogatory terms. The truth is, whenever a person makes a judgment about a set of people, predicting a specific action or behavior based on race, that person is guilty of race-ism. Thus, the young black man who calls a radio talk show to say, ‘I could have told you Zimmerman would be acquitted—as soon as I heard the jury was all white women, I knew it’ is just as guilty of race-ism as the middle-aged white man who says, ‘If they don’t want to be treated like criminals, they shouldn’t dress like criminals,’ a reference to the hip-hop music inspired fashion of wearing hooded shirts.
None of us want to be thought of as racist. Racists aren’t nice people. And we all want to be thought of as nice people—proper, appropriate, good people. And “good” I think most of us are. Just… frightened.
The social climate we’ve been living in for some time now has been much like that depicted in the old Twilight Zone episode, “TheMonsters Are Due on Maple Street,” named by Time magazine as one of the top ten best Twilight Zone episodes, by the way. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend a quick viewing via YouTube or Netflix. (It’s episode 22 of the first season of the original TZ.) Because… there we all are. An incident occurs which is somewhat frightening to the folks on Maple Street because they don’t know what really happened, don’t understand what’s going on. Their fear leads them to arm themselves… and the next thing you know, one man kills his neighbor… which of course, only adds to the escalating hysteria.
And that escalating hysteria is what I see on the news right now. People are terrified of vigilante justice—on both sides. Trayvon Martin’s family is entreating the country to move forward peacefully… just as Rodney King once did.
The thing is, we can’t do that as long as we fear each other. As Rod Serling said, “There are weapons that are simply thoughts, attitudes, prejudices—to be found only in the minds of men.”
The truth is, we will never have peace until we see each other as individuals, not black or white or privileged or poor. Just… people who share the same needs, who just want to make it to our next destination unscathed.