Why Trayvon Martin (still) matters to the Black Community

I sat in the pew of a black Baptist church in Alabama.  It was here, during the most segregated hour in America, that I anxiously awaited the sermon with an unusually heavy heart.  This was no ordinary Sunday – it was the morning after George Zimmerman was found not guilty in the case of Trayvon Martin.

The Pastor was in the middle of a multi-week topical sermon series, but this morning his mission was different.  There would be no uplifting message on faith, no fire-and-brimstone sermon on holiness, no convicting message on love.  Not today. He knew the sadness, the sense of despair in his congregation, just as much as he felt it in his own heart.

On some days, the minister holds the office of consoler-in-chief.  This southern Baptist preacher knew his flock – it was certainly one of those days.

As he moved through his message, I was struck by the sheer humanity he expressed.  His own dismay at the verdict.  His own fear for his safety.  His own anger at the implications of it all.  I realized that I shared those emotions as well.

This incident resonates with me in my bones – the same way it resonates with so many in the black community, because I know what it is to be feared.  I’ve walked down the sidewalk in a pinstriped suit at noon on a sunny day, only to see a woman clutch her purse and step four feet sideways at the sight of me.

Sadly, these types of encounters are not uncommon, even for me – a guy who wears suits much more than hoodies (in fact, I avoid wearing hoodies – now more than ever).  I’ll admit – on one occasion, my frustration got the best of me when I addressed a fearful stranger, telling her that, “I don’t want your purse!”  Frankly, I’m fortunate to have never been harmed because of this fear.

Let’s be clear: Trayvon Martin’s death was a tragedy.  The precedent that one may disobey law enforcement to kill an innocent teenager without legal repercussions is a travesty. To the black community, however, neither of these events are a surprise.

This incident has underscored a great fear inside the black community, a fear that we’d rather forget than face. The fear is that the wheels of justice tend not to turn in our favor.

President Obama summed it up well when he spoke on this topic earlier this year:

…there is a history of racial disparities in the application of our criminal laws — everything from the death penalty to enforcement of our drug laws.

George Zimmerman’s family and friends have expressed (justifiable) concern that some random armed stranger may observe Zimmerman peacefully minding his own business one night, and decide to take the law into their own hands.

Not to minimize their plight, but black families have lived with that same fear for years. In fact, Trayvon’s family is living the nightmare of that dreaded fear coming true!  It’s the same fear my own grandmother has always expressed to me when I’m traveling, running errands, or especially when jogging at night: “Be careful, honey. People out there will do anything to you. You just be careful.”

In the court of public opinion, Zimmerman has been handed a lifetime sentence of looking over his shoulder.  Ironically, he will be in constant fear of the same violent death that he himself once visited upon an innocent teenager — a young man who should have been held innocent until proven guilty in a court of law.

I hope nothing at all happens to George Zimmerman – not a thing.  I hope no one attempts to harm a hair on his head.  I hope he never receives so much as a paper-cut in retaliation from anyone, ever. I hope he changes his name and lives a long, quiet life – never to be in the news again.

Violence is wrong. Period.  Violence is what got us here, and more of it will only deepen the cultural divide and spark increased tension – neither of which make this situation better.

That Sunday, the pastor urged his congregation to honor Trayvon’s legacy through peace. I was proud of that stance, and I agree. We ought not provide fodder for those who believe that black folks are prone to violent acts.

Let us make it right through collective action.  Let us prove them wrong with our peace.

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