I've been angry since I first heard the name "Trayvon Martin." So have you.
And why wouldn't we be? You can pick from a nearly limitless number of reasons to be angry, a veritable kaleidoscope of rage-inducing awfulness. Some are easy to spot, starting with the fucked-up nature of our culture and our criminal justice system where when it sees a person of color, it automatically assumes "criminal." That's the obvious issue that EVERYONE is talking about — and rightly so. That is not something we can afford to ignore.
But there's another issue we're NOT discussing, and frankly, we can't afford to ignore it any more than we can the racial implications of this case. We're talking a lot about guilty vs. not guilty, but we're not talking about something a friend of mine titled "vigilant vs. vigilante." He wrote a long Facebook thing about this, but ultimately the core of it was this paragraph:
"Just because someone has a license to carry in defense does NOT make them a cop. It does NOT mean they have a right, duty or some other obligation to go looking for trouble and injecting themselves intentionally in a potentially bad or dangerous situation. In fact, it means you have to be even more conscious and aware of where you go and how you conduct your business...I only have a right to defend myself if attacked, not to go out and play police officer."
It's not enough to say, "if Trayvon Martin were white, he'd be alive today" without also saying, "if George Zimmerman didn't have delusions of cophood, Trayvon Martin would still be alive today." You can't stop after the former and say "discussion over, problem solved," because it will NEVER be solved if you don't also discuss the second problem. We live in a culture that not only empowered Zimmerman's racial profiling, but validated his belief in himself as King Badass, Savior of the Gated Community. We gave a man who had no idea how to use guns responsibly easy access to firearms and empowered him to use them to validate his own ego. It's one thing to be vigilant in self-defense. It is something ENTIRELY different to pursue someone because you think it's your responsibility to do the work of trained law enforcement personnel — to be a vigilante. Especially when the only evidence you have that someone might be up to no good is "he's black and he's wearing a hoodie."
Trayvon Martin wasn't a criminal because of the color of his skin, just as George Zimmerman and everyone defending him aren't awful because of their color, but because they use the power and privilege given to them by that color to inflict tragedy on the powerless. The problem isn't "this group of people are bad because they are this color." The problem is how people with power treat those without it, and the fact that in America, white people are the only racial collective with power. The problem is stupidity, ignorance, and hatred. The problem is that we've set up a culture that encourages vigilantism at the expense of innocent life. The problem is that our criminal justice system sees black skin and assumes "well, they must be guilty of something." The problem is that when a case like this happens, a lot of white people automatically leap to the defense of the white person because they think the black person "must've done something wrong," and they have no capacity to confront the privilege that causes them to feel that way.
ALL of these things are problems, and to ignore any one of them is to fail to do justice to Trayvon Martin. If we want this to not happen again, we can't afford to talk about one issue at the expense of all others. We can't afford to pretend that there's just one terrible angle to the whole thing. We have to unwrap the entire package, no matter how much it might hurt to do so.
There were a lot of brilliant tweets about this — Jay Smooth, Teju Cole, Neil deGrasse Tyson, all of them had really important things to say, along with countless others. But one tweet hit me harder than any other:
How cool would it be, indeed.