The Ghost of Trayvon Martin



ImageGORDONVILLE – There may not be an American old enough to understand who does not have an opinion on the George Zimmerman verdict in the killing of Trayvon Martin, and now is not the time to mute discourse because we are “tired of it.”

After the verdict, I immediately tried to put myself in the place of a black American who is the parent of a teen, or pre-teen, and wondering what – in the wake of the not guilty verdict – I could possibly say to my child about simple things, like walking down the street to or from the store, that would make sense.

I came up empty.

Instead, Ifollowed a path to try and connect the dots and make sense of it.

I went back to the recent July 4th weekend, when the discussion with my friends for life drifted from each of the four major sports teams in town to the television show “Freaks and Geeks,” the critical acclaim of which could not push it past one season.

It sparked a spirited debate.

Were we more like the class-cutting, music-loving “freaks” or the un-athletic, oft-bullied “geeks?”

We probably weren’t as cool or free-spirited as the “freaks” or as pathetically nerdy and neurotic as the “geeks” (only one friend saw us that way, which may say more about how he sees himself) but it was an interesting drill.

The truth is that we were neither back in the day.

In the early 1980s – the setting of “Freaks and Geeks” — we were just kids.

I am no sociologist (my uncle Oscar was, though, if that counts), but my unscientific analysis views that time period like this: About 5 percent of the kids were too good to be true.  Angels on earth, they rarely got less than an A on their report cards, helped old ladies cross the street and spent their spare time volunteering at the hospital or church.

Another 5 percent were completely incorrigible devils who probably should have been locked up early to avoid the rush.

The rest of us, the other 90 percent, were – to varying degrees – somewhere in the middle.

If we were at-risk, it was for being most likely to fall through the cracks.

Temporarily lost, we usually managed to find ourselves later along life’s crazy path, but high school was a time to be a ghost.

We all had scrapes with disciplinarians in school, earning detentions and suspensions for silly transgressions like having a Sony Walkman in the hall or going up the down staircase, but we had no juvenile records or anything of that magnitude.

Like most, I wore the standard uniform of the time – beat-up jeans and one of my concert shirts (the ones where the sleeves came three-quarters of the way down the arm).

I had wild and crazy hair that, outside of school, often had a bandana buried in it (I couldn’t quite bring myself to try the Steve Van Zandt look).

For a mental picture, try a thinner Juan Epstein with a Led Zeppelin or Rush or Yes concert shirt.

We spent our weekend nights – and some days when attending school didn’t seem to make sense, for a variety of incongruent reasons – on the streets of Northeast Philly. You could find us  in the local record store, debating the merits of vinyl versus cassette (CDs were looming, but not yet in hand). Later at night, when the Roosevelt Mall closed, we would be ducking in and out of the shadows of back alleys and what passed for urban woods.

I don’t mean to over-romanticize it or make it sound like fodder for a Springsteen song. It was, more or less, pathetic.

Mostly, we staked out these concrete havens to drink beer – and other stuff – and then we dispersed, usually at or around whatever curfew was, and made our way home in separate directions.

I’m sure, while walking alone, we each appeared aimless; as if we were up to “no good.” Surely, people peered out of their windows with a suspicious eye. A few times, we each interfaced with police. It seemed like a stroke of bad luck if an officer – likely smelling alcohol (or something) – reminded us of the time of night and took down our names and addresses.

It likely never progressed beyond that because, well, these officers were trained professionals. They had “cop’s eyes,” and could tell if someone was really a menace to society or just another kid on his way home – more or less a ghost — on another Friday night.

There was one thing working in our favor, too. We all had white skin. That surely stopped any wannabe cops – any Charles Bronson types – from taking the law into their hands in what then was an all-white working class ’hood.

It may have saved our lives so that we can reflect, more than 30 years later, about whether we were “freaks” or “geeks” and laugh about it.

By contrast, we didn’t have the experience relayed by President Obama the other day about his teen years 35 years ago.

He, like us, lived to tell the tale.

Trayvon Martin was not so fortunate on the night of Feb. 26, 2012.

For him, there will be no chance for hindsight about a semi-misbegotten youth, a time when it is a natural instinct to challenge authority on some level and to have a fight-or-flight response that is not fully formed.

As we all know, Martin was in a townhouse development as an invited guest of a resident – the fiancé of his father – walking alone.

Like a lot of teens, he probably wanted to be somewhere else. And if he were somewhere else, he probably wouldn’t want to be there, either.

He was wearing the uniform of his generation – a hoodie — and dared to not walk on the sidewalk and cut between houses. And topping it off, he was not affected by the rain.

Consult any Psychology 101 textbook and it will tell how teens feel invincible from greater dangers than some water falling from the sky. A trained professional, not a wannabe cop like George Zimmerman, might have known that.

And let’s say, for the sheer sake of argument, the 17-year-old Martin was “up to no good.”

Is a sudden death sentence, without a trial, the proper punishment – in America or any other civilized nation – for crimes such as vandalism or petty theft?

Zimmerman, playing judge and jury, seemed to think so.

No one really knows exactly what happened right before Zimmerman shot Martin through the heart at close range, but we can deduce that he – thinking he was standing in as an officer of the law – was profiling Martin because of his skin color and perceived menacing appearance. For lack of a better term,  Zimmerman“stalked” him for it.

Martin felt a need to defend himself against a man who did not identify himself as a police officer. He got the better of Zimmerman in the ensuing physical struggle, and it cost him his life.

He was the one who was unarmed in the encounter. He was the one who ended up dead. Zimmerman is the one found not guilty.

Not guilty?

It may not have been second degree murder, but it sure seems like a clear-cut case of manslaughter.

This is a quirk in the system, not only judicial, but in workplaces and schoolyards and taverns.

Someone (Martin) is sufficiently baited by another (Zimmerman) and justifiably responds. They are then vilified, after the fact, because they had the temerity to adequately defend themselves.

Of all that was considered as court fodder – like Martin breaking some oft-bent rules in school and Zimmerman doing the same when he tussled with a cop and had a PFA filed against him by his former fiancé – the fact that Martin was whipping his profiler’s butt seemed, to me, not as relevant as the cause-and-effect of the original interaction between them.

Saying Zimmerman acted in self-defense and calling it a day, well, it just doesn’t fit.

And if it doesn’t fit, you can’t acquit.

But the jury did anyway, pretty much killing Trayvon Martin all over again, and turning him into a ghost who now haunts the nation as it sleeps.

2 thoughts on “The Ghost of Trayvon Martin

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