This is a story about the stories we tell ourselves every time we turn on the television, and every time we leave our homes. They’re the stories we tell whenever we see someone and assume we know who they are, what they’re about, before we’ve met them, before we’ve heard the actual stories that make them who they are.
The Zimmerman trial ended a week ago, and there’s been a strong reaction to the verdict. I haven’t watched the closing arguments or poured over the court transcripts. What I have done is read articles by people who have, namely this one, and this one. That’s where I’m getting my information from. Here’s my two cents.
To begin with, I think that this tragedy (that’s what we call it when some one is killed) was preventable. I think that’s what stings so much about it all. It’s not that the jury didn’t enforce the law as it was written; from what I can tell, they did.
What then do we draw from the court’s decision? What precedent does it set for us as a society? In my opinion, the social precedent set by this legal verdict is that if you’re afraid of me, you can act out of this fear towards me, and possibly not be punished if somehow something happens to me during whatever results of that fear-based confrontation. Now say I do something, say something, that makes you afraid for your safety. In that case, I think you would be justified in responding to that fear in order to protect yourself, but from what I’ve read, Zimmerman’s case is not an instance this. More on that later.
I think that the takeaway from this is that we are all, at the end of the day, responsible for our fears. I think that we often believe that we have the right to be afraid. We believe we should be able to clutch our purses next to us when we see someone who scares us walking on the other side of the street. We should be able to stockpile weapons, “just in case” there’s ever a need for some extra firepower. To be fair, I don’t think there’s anything “wrong” with either of these things. What I do think is that, even though we have the right to do these things, with these rights comes a great sense of responsibility in how we choose to react to them.
You may be worried about a minority wearing a hoody walking down your street. But if that person is walking along, minding their own business, then your fear is your problem, not the problem of the kid wearing the hoody. The same applies if you think that some creepy pervert is following you down the street on your way home from the liquor store. Just because you think they’re stalking you doesn’t mean it’s the best thing to confront that person based off of your fear for what they could possibly do.
Another angle to look at this idea of fear and responsibility is through the lens of law enforcement. I heard a story recently about an officer in a rough city plagued by both gang violence and police brutality scandals. The scandals have made the department very strict about how the police interact with suspects and their families or accomplices. This specific officer was charged with watching a family while the other officers searched the home for drugs the son was allegedly storing and selling. In the version of the story I heard, the drugs were found and the son was arrested. While this officer was waiting with the family, the father of the son, proceeded to verbally assault this officer. He indirectly threatened this officer’s family and questioned the officer’s sexuality. In other words, the father gave this officer a reason to feel at least a small sense of fear for their personal well-being. As the story was told, the officer didn’t react. Rather, they waited for the other officers to complete the search and make the ensuing arrest.
I tell this story because it’s an example for me of the responsible management of fear in a tension charged situation. The officer in this story, as a human being, had every right to be afraid and upset with the verbal pummeling they were receiving from this angry and potentially dangerous man. And yet, if this officer had chosen to react out of this fear, whether verbally or physically, the situation would have most likely escalated to something worse than what it already was. By responsibly managing fear, this officer prevented another potential scandal for their department. No one died, no one was hurt, and the officers left when they had finished doing their jobs.
This is what that night in Sanford could have looked like between Martin and Zimmerman. If Zimmerman had called the police (which he did) and left it at that, Trayvon would have kept walking and have been at home enjoying his Skittles and Arizona Iced Tea by the time a patrol car showed up to look into the potential burglar on the loose. If Martin had not confronted Zimmerman, but chose to keep walking, Zimmerman would have most likely ended up being the paranoid person that he is, and Martin would have, again, been at home drinking his iced tea and enjoying his pack of Skittles.
Unfortunately, we do not live in a world where coulds or woulds ever matter after the fact. In the world we inhabit, Trayvon is dead, and George was found not guilty. All that to to say, the stories we tell ourselves about the people around us are extremely important. It’s not simply about your right to think what you want. With rights come responsibilities. And I think that in this case, both parties were egregiously irresponsible in the management of their fear.
Justin Campbell is a Graduate Teaching Fellow studying Creative Writing at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, Ca. He is the winner of the 2013 Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright Foundation Award for African American College Writers. His work has been published or is forthcoming in The Conium Review, The Faircloth Review, Margins, The Wide Net Literary Magazine, and Elephant Tree Literary Magazine. He lives with his wife and son in Whittier, CA.