On February 26th, 2012, George Zimmerman fatally shot Trayvon Martin. Trayvon was walking from the convenience store to his father’s house inside a gated community, and George was the member of the neighborhood watch patrolling that night. George claims that the shooting was in self-defense; that was good enough for the police, and no charges were filed. Trayvon’s parents pressed for a deeper investigation, and their crusade was picked up by the media. The outrage built for weeks until Zimmerman was charged on April 11th.
Between Trayvon’s shooting and George’s arrest, everyone formed an opinion on what happened and spoke about it. Loudly. Some people said that Zimmerman’s only apparent reason for shooting Trayvon was the fact that he was a black man wearing a hoodie in a place where that was unusual. Others countered with Zimmerman’s claim that Trayvon was attacking him, and they bolster that claim by painting him as a troubled kid with a history of drug problems. Still other people are focusing on the controversial “Stand Your Ground” law that allowed Zimmerman to walk free in the first place, and that whole line of the argument comes with a ton of baggage. There was a similar “Stand Your Ground” situation where a black man shot a white man and is now serving life in prison, leading to accusations that the law is selectively applied — to put it mildly. Zimmerman got away with it, in other words, because Trayvon was black and he was not.
The arguments raging back and forth are certainly interesting, but what really rivets me is the undercurrent in the discussion. Everyone with a stake in this argument speaks out like a victim of an unjust society, and their outrage is the only means they have of fighting back. The black community, obviously, links Trayvon’s shooting to the fact that so many people view black males as suspicious entities, and whenever they’re away from inner-city ghettos they’re up to no good. The people who defend Zimmerman claim that he’s a martyr of political correctness; we’ve developed a hyper-sensitivity to racial issues that makes it impossible for fairness to be applied to incidents that have a racial component. To them, Zimmerman is the victim of a minority group that’s hijacked the national discourse to their own ends. By identifying with him, they share his victimization.
Gun-rights advocates feel like they’re protecting the freedoms given to them in the Constitution against a society that seeks to repress them. Gun safety advocates feel like this is a justification for their perspective — that if someone carries a gun with them all the time, it’s only a matter of time until they use it. But no one listened to them, and now Trayvon is a victim of a society that prizes an individual’s right to bear arms over an individual’s right to be able to walk somewhere without being shot for being suspicious.
In all the noise about who the real victims are, we’ve forgotten the people at the center of this story. Trayvon Martin is no longer a black kid who may or may not have been targeted for vigilante justice. He’s a symbol, appropriated by people who desperately want to use his death to bolster their feelings of being victimized. There’s a reason that his parents wanted to trademark “I Am Trayvon”, and that photo of the Miami Heat in hoodies, head bowed, is so powerful. Trayvon is an extreme example of a reality for just about every black male, including myself. If you dress in the wrong clothes, or go to the wrong neighborhood, you will be viewed with fear or distrust.
It’s something that needs to be talked about, but it’s terrible that Trayvon Martin had to die for us to do it. It’s also terrible that George Zimmerman had to shoot someone for a closer examination of the “Stand Your Ground” law to gain traction. And it’s awful, at least to me, that so many of us are using either of them to justify ourselves as self-described victims.
Groups portraying themselves as beleaguered — regardless of the reality of the situation — has become a worryingly common thing in our social and political discourse these days. There are countless causes, occupations and organizations that love to think of themselves as victims who are having their rights impeded by the tyranny of the majority. Never mind that some of them would tyrannize others if they had their way — that’s irrelevant to the fact that they aren’t allowed to say or do whatever they believe, without challenge.
We tell ourselves these stories, of all the ways that we’re victimized by the people around us, or by a monolithic society where the people in charge aren’t looking out for our best interests. It’s a myth we’re weaving into the fabric of our increasingly fragmented, disconnected society. And it’s something that’s destroying the melting-pot potential of our country. We see ourselves as a bunch of people without power, forced to defend our interests from a hostile environment. That story is poisoning us against the society we live in. We have to stop believing it. We have to stop repeating it. But in order to do that, we need to understand it. That means knowing the nature of the story, knowing the emotions that drive it, and knowing the ways we can better use those emotions to build something positive. It’s not an easy thing to do, but I think it’s absolutely necessary if we’re going to stop screaming at each other in this country and start talking to one another.