I am not Trayvon Martin

Last updated 09:54 17/07/2013

Even when it dawned on me a week before the trial ended that the prosecution had not demonstrated that George Zimmerman was on top in the fight when he fired his gun, or that he'd set out specifically to kill Trayvon Martin, I still had a perverse hope that he'd be found guilty, through some feat of vengeful jury-rigging.

Manslaughter, murder or whatever you want to call it, Zimmerman engineered the death of a 17-year-old boy, through wrongheaded racial profiling and his own misguided paranoia. If Martin had taken another way home he'd still be alive. That an extremely permissive gun culture, liberal self-defence laws and ingrained racial codes helped Zimmerman walk free from that courtroom, making it OK legally for him to have armed himself and consequences-be-damned chased down Martin in his neighbourhood, makes it all much worse.

TM1I'm typing this with the sound of helicopters overhead. Four of them have been circling for four hours now as a large protest has wound through Oakland. It has given this whole evening a terse edge. I sympathise with the anger on display out there but it is hard to directly relate to. It would be insincere for me to say that I have any way of closely understanding how offensive and terrifying this whole story is for the black community in America.

I am white. It is odd to write that as a declarative sentence. My Dad's favourite bands growing up were Pavarotti and Enya and my Mum listened to Simon and Garfunkel.  There's nothing urban about me. I went to private schools with mandatory blazers as part of the uniform, arcane traditions and mostly other white kids. Because of my skin colour I was born at a systemic advantage. I have only ever reflected on that as an adult, but it's true. It was as much the things that were given to me as it was obstacles I never had to face. I was born into a system tilted in my favour.

I've thought about the following in the Trayvon Martin case. Racial stereotypes ensured that he was continually defamed after his death. He had traces of marijuana in his bloodstream. He had a macho, boorish Twitter page. He was suspended from school at the time. He was tall. There was talk of fights at schools. All of which was used out of context (for instance, Martin had been suspended for being constantly late to school) to slyly insinuate that Martin was a gang member of tomorrow who could have been acting within common form to attack Zimmerman for no reason.

If I were gunned down at 17 in similar circumstances and my blood was tested, traces of marijuana might have been detected. Teenagers experiment and drug use does not imply addiction, nor does it imply a coming life of crime. I wasn't on Twitter because it hadn't been invented yet, but I'm sure the general level of my dialogue over email and text and MSN Messenger (all the rage in 2001) could have been held against me in the court of public opinion. Hell, I know people twice Trayvon Martin's age today who put some bad stuff out there on social media. I had been in a fight by the time I was 17. I was smarter than my grades suggested, but I still got the marks I deserved. I acted in a whole lot of ways that give me pause and embarrassment now, but hey, I was 17. I was an over-eager idiot with the outline of a good person inside.

It scared me to see how successful people could be at insidiously painting a lanky teenager as a crazed Mr-T-with-a-vendetta. Zimmerman's own unlikely account of the evening, which reads to me as complete fantasy, paints Trayvon Martin in action movie clichés, spouting one-liners mid-struggle.   

TM2If it was my 17-year-old face in the media, the case against me, the subtle playing to entrenched racial fears to create doubt about my character, couldn't have happened.

If Trayvon Martin were white, he wouldn't have come to Zimmerman's attention and because he was black, he could then be tied posthumously into a  cliched gangster stereotype that didn't fit facts and have some of the blame for his own death dropped wrongly at his feet.

The last time Martin came up on this blog, one commenter referenced him as a "gangbanger". I was shocked.

I am not George Zimmerman, but I have more in common with him than I do Trayvon Martin. I know that's not the coolest thing to admit.

As a lighter-skinned man in a wealthy, gated community, Zimmerman benefited from an inherent racial advantage developed and entrenched over centuries and his purview had been set accordingly. At the seed of the whole tragedy is Zimmerman's ingrained perspective that Martin didn't belong in those surroundings. Whether he was an active racist is irrelevant because as soon as he saw Martin and dialled 911, race became a component.

What is unnerving to me is how easily people can be guilty of Zimmerman-esque thinking that wouldn't classify themselves as anything close to racist, but fall prey to a similar institutional advantage they might not be able to see straight away. 

We just moved to Oakland. We've talked about this. LP and I live in a city that has more black people living in it proportionately than anywhere I've ever lived before. There's also more crime than in any other city I've lived in. But A does not cause B. Walking about on the streets, it is hard to be aware and keep vigilant without wandering over into occasional bouts of profiling. Every assumption I make about somebody, every time I study a black face longer than a white one for signs of risk, I'm part of the problem. I'm not Zimmerman, but my actions are at the bottom end of a long scale that is topped by ones like his.

I am not Trayvon Martin. But that doesn't mean I can't be sad about what happened to him. He seemed a pretty good guy, if you go by the accounts of his teachers and friends over Fox News. He was just getting going, too. He had a lot taken from him. 

An event like this, I hope, has spurred soul-searching; an acknowledgment of a racial divide people too often pretend doesn't exist and how we can play our own small part in bridging that.  

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