Trayvon, Creating ‘The Other’ and the Cover of the Rolling Stone

[It has taken me a while to find the mindspace to write coherently about this. I've been talking to a lot of people about this, and while I don't think my thoughts are anywhere near fully evolved on this yet, I think I need to take some time to write about it, if I am going to be able to push my own thinking. Thanks to Jose Vilson and Bob Dillon for being early readers of this, and thanks to the summer tech girls at SLA for talking through some of these ideas with me.]

I, like many of us, been thinking a lot about Trayvon Martin lately. One of the quotes that resonated more deeply than any other was the priest who said, “I want to live in a world where George Zimmerman offered Trayvon Martin a ride home.”

That’s the world I want to live in too. To do that, Zimmerman would have had to have seen Trayvon as a young man out in the rain, not as a threat. He would have had to seen his humanity first and foremost. He would have had to have been willing to see the young black man in a hoodie as something different than a threat… something different than “the other.” He clearly didn’t, and in my opinion, George Zimmerman’s unwillingness to see the shared humanity between two people – regardless of race – set in ┬ámotion the tragic — and yes, in my mind, criminal — events that unfolded that night.

I also have been thinking a lot about the Rolling Stone cover story about the young men who are responsible for the Boston Marathon bombings. More than anything else, what I think is perhaps truly troublesome to me about the story — and about the events of that tragic day — is that this was American terrorism. These two brothers were American kids. They had, in their upbringing, as much — if not more — in common with Timothy McVie as they did with the 9/11 bombers.

What happened to them? Why did a young man who grew up in Cambridge, MA as a seemingly ‘normal’ American teenager become a bomber? What happened such that he turned against the only country he really knew? When did he stop believing in the American Dream for himself and his family? And why? And how could he believe that a radical terrorist act, mere miles from his home, was the right thing to do?

And let me be clear here – the Boston Marathon bombers are no more a victim than George Zimmerman was. Both took a lens on the world that allowed them to see people they did not know as “other” and that allowed them to commit horrible acts. The Boston Marathon bombers made a decision that “American” meant that any runner in that Boston Marathon was guilty of crimes against the Muslim world and therefore deserved anything they got. George Zimmerman believed that “Young, Black Male” meant Trayvon Martin was up to no good, and therefore had to be stopped. Both need to be held accountable for their actions.

Both George Zimmerman and the Boston Marathon bombers felt justified in their actions because they refused to see the fundamental humanity of the people their actions would impact. Both George Zimmerman and the Tsarnaev brothers showed no empathy for people who were different than they were.

Both were powerfully and tragically wrong.

If we, as a nation, do not start to do a better job of bridging the divide between peoples… if we do not do a better job of enfranchising the disenfranchised… if we do not re-invest in ensuring that the American Dream is inclusive rather than “I got mine,” we will see more and more Jahars and we will see more Zimmermans. And while I believe that both Jahar and Zimmerman need to be punished for the actions that they undertook that caused the loss of life, I also believe we need to ask ourselves what kind of society we live in that creates the conditions that allows people to ignore the fundamental humanity of those around them, and instead reach for violence.

For me, that happens when, as a society, we too often react with fear and abandon hope.

And where this really has been resonating with me is this… as a society, are we teaching fear, lack of empathy and loss of hope?

Think of all the young African-American men and women who are learning a powerful lesson from the Trayvon Martin case — that the United States justice system will not serve them, and ask if they are learning the next lesson — that the United States will not take care of them.

Think of the young men and women who have come to this country, brought by parents before the children could choose, and think of the vitriolic rhetoric against the DREAM Act where US Congressmen state that “For every valedictorian, there are 100 drug dealers,” and ask yourself whether those young men and women believe that this country will take care of them.

Think of the young men and women in rural America who have seen their local economies dry up as we have not replaced the working-class jobs that once existed, and think of the political rhetoric that suggests that they must “defend” what they have against those who would take it away, and ask yourself whether those young men and women seeing a nation that is taking care of them.

Think of the many young men and women who are working at a minimum wage that, according to McDonalds, is a living wage as long as you are willing to work 75 hours a week, forego heating, and find health insurance for less than $20 / month.

Think about a generation that is growing up where 80% of the population fears joblessness, and the divide between rich and poor grows wider and wider.

Think of all the kids in our cities who go to under-funded schools, who watch their parents struggle to survive on sub-standard wages… think about how many indignities our children suffer…

And now ask… are we creating the next-generation of home-grown terrorists?

Are we creating a generation of kids who do not believe that America believes in them? And if so, what will some of them do? And how many Trayvon Martins have to die, how many Boston Marathon-style bombings do we have to endure before we ask ourselves what are the systems at work in our society that are creating this kind of fear, hatred and disenfranchisement?

I have been thinking a lot about MLK lately… thinking that we need both sides of his message right now… we need to increase the amount of love *and* the amount of justice in this world… and we need to understand that if we don’t, people from across the wide spectrum of America are going to get their needs met…

By any means necessary.

16 thoughts on “Trayvon, Creating ‘The Other’ and the Cover of the Rolling Stone

  1. As always, very profound words to make one think. Now the next question should be “What can I do to change this perception that our young people are developing?”

  2. As the mother of a 14yo boy, I worry about the future that lies ahead for him. We live in a community where he is not valued, but moving isn’t an option for us. I worry that while I am off to work “saving the world” in another school if he is getting what he needs to believe in himself and the possibilities that await him. I wonder if I am doing enough at home. I have no idea.

    My parents did what they could for my brother and he chose a life of crime, living a reputation that we did not have.

    I worry about my own son following in the footsteps of his uncles on both sides, becoming what Zimmerman feared. Of course, these thoughts were a part of my psyche before Trayvon innocently walked home that night.

    Now, my worry has a face…one that changes between Trayvon and Khalil, my son.

  3. Well, maybe you hang out in different crowds than I do. But “High School Principal Likens Foolish Man Acting in Self-Defense to Multiple Murderers”, murderers who put a bomb right next to a child, strikes me as something tough to explain.

    Even if you think it’s a justifiable equivalency (I do not, and find it repugnant), it’s politically pretty dumb, even if right now your circle of friends cheer you on.

    • I wouldn’t say that he’s equating the two, per se. It is clear that the Boston Marathon bombings injured and killed more people than Zimmerman’s bullet. These were separate actions with different consequences that occurred, seemingly, worlds apart. That is not to say, however, that the actions of Zimmerman and the Tsarnaev brothers were not encouraged by the same broken system. What (I think) Chris is trying to say here is not that their crimes are equal, but that the institutions and ideas that prompted these actions are. And it is this foundation of inequality, intolerance and injustice that we must address.

    • Taylor already answered this well but I thought I would comment as well. There is no question that the actions are different, as evidenced by the fact that the crimes each is charged with are different. And there is no question which was the more violent crime. But it strikes me that among the root causes of each crime is a willingness to ignore the humanity of the victims.

      George Zimmerman saw “Young black male in a hoodie” and only saw a threat – and one Zimmerman believed society as represented by the police had ignored. The Boston bombers saw the participants and spectators of the marathon only as examples of a society they rejected – and apparently one they felt had rejected them. The result of both of those actions resulted in tragedy. And I worry that if we continue to create the conditions where it is too easy to ignore our shared humanity that more of these tragedies will occur.

      I hope we could agree that examining the root causes of these senseless deaths – and the attitudes of those who caused them – so that fewer tragedies like this occur is a worthwhile endeavor.

    • And for the record, I don’t think George Zimmerman acted in self-defense. I think he stalked Trayvon Martin and killed him. If one picks a fight with another human being, one doesn’t get the right to shoot them just because one think he might lose.

      • Chris, with all due respect, you are tipping your hand here. You are saying that you have a clear view of what really happened, even though it is different from what the jury saw. That would be the jury that has actually be presented with all of the evidence and considered it fully. You are deigning to decide Zimmerman’s motives based on – what, exactly? Can you honestly say that this comment of yours is an objective position, or is it a view based on your personal view of the case as a whole?
        As an educator, would you present this case to your students through this prism? Do you believe that Jesse Jackson is correct in comparing this case to Selma? Zimmerman may be guilty of bad judgement, but to presume more than that and to press that view on impressionable children may not be responsible education.

        • Hi Rabbi Ross,

          I would say that this is definitely based on my personal view of the case, unquestionably. I admit as much when I said, “In my mind…” I do wish the jury had come back with a guilty of manslaughter verdict, because I do believe that was what this was. If a student asks me as much, I’m comfortable saying, “Here’s what I think. You don’t have to agree with me, but here’s what I think. What do you think about the verdict?” We can acknowledge that it was incredibly controversial and that thoughtful, caring people can believe different things about it.

          And that leads to the second question – I think the most important thing I can do with my students is listen. You know how much I believe in asking the question, “What do you think?” And when I listened to students, I heard so much anger at the verdict. I heard so many students feel that they could be Trayvon and wonder who would speak for them? And when I listened to students talk about the Boston Bombings, what I heard students ask was “What made the Tsarnaev brothers do that?” And all I could think of was that they no longer saw their victims as people. Their anger and hate — for reasons beyond my understanding — overrode their humanity – their empathy.

          And in the end, that’s what kept coming out of several conversations I’ve been having with people across a spectrum of the people I know, was a need for more empathy. That was the only thing that I could come up with to make some little bit of sense of these two tragedies.

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  5. I respect you a great deal as a visionary educator and have read and reread your posting and comments. I find the equation of the killing of Trayvon with the Boston Marathon bombing to be morally repugnant. I think it is WAY out of line.

    You can say that both were “encouraged by the same broken system” (although I would like you to provide proof for this assertion) but both had a choice. The system did not make the wrong choices. They did.

    George Zimmerman chose to follow Trayvon, a poor decision, which led to his tragic killing. While this may or may not have been criminal (the jury decided it was not), this certainly was not a premeditated act. He did not plan to kill Trayvon on that evening. The killing resulted from a series of tragic errors. The Tsarnaev brothers planned and plotted the cold blooded murder and mutilation of hundreds of people. They terrorized an entire city (and country) in the process. I remember a few days later at the Israel Day Parade in NYC constantly looking over my shoulders for people with backpacks who might be plotting to cause harm.

    I think it is very poor education to make any equation between these two events. Mass murders are in a totally different category and we need to be very careful not to belittle them by justifying them in any way or creating faulty analogies. This only muddies the waters for our students who are looking for our guidance in navigating these tragic events.

    • Thanks for writing. I think there’s a point where we diverge in our thinking. While I understand that your experience at the Israel Day Parade gives you empathy for Mr. Zimmerman, I hope you would also understand that my experience listening to many of my students and colleagues talk about their experiences as African-American men has created empathy in my mind for Trayvon Martin as well.

      Beyond that, I agree completely that both Zimmerman and the Tsarnaev brothers both made their decisions — and that their decisions led to very, very different outcomes. And yes, I agree with you that Mr. Zimmerman did not set out to kill Trayvon that night. My point is that for Mr. Zimmerman to make the choices he made, he had to look past or ignore Trayvon Martin’s basic humanity and see him only as a threat. And to engage in the destructive acts that the Tsarnaev brothers did, they had to ignore the humanity of the people they killed and injured.

      But this isn’t about equating the two acts. They are not equal in their outcomes. It’s about examining root causes of two tragedies of our American life, and trying to make some sense of it all. And for me, what I could not get out of my head… what drove me to write… was the idea that both these tragedies were avoidable if we were better at empathy than we are.

      In the end, it is my hope that a call for greater empathy would be a idea around which we all could come together.

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  7. Chris, your post is exactly the post students will need to discuss when school resumes. It answers questions that are begging for answers while raising red flags for your readers. Why has empathy gone awry? Why is questioning a system of justice a slap to one’s credibility? Who failed in regards to why a horrific act can land the alleged perp on the cover of RS mag? Thank you for taking a bold stance and not sweeping it under the carpet. Your students should be made aware that as educators, we have opinions and as students, they do too. These comments inspire a cross section of thoughts, ideas, arguments and most importantly, questions that will be debated for some time to come.