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Posts Tagged ‘racial issues and justice’

            The pain is palpable.  Feelings are raw and exposed.  Here in Florida the aftermath of the trial of George Zimmerman has brought no resolutions, only a hardening of the two narratives formed around the case.  The narratives are parallel and in some ways mutually exclusive. You either see the racial tensions revolving around Martin’s death and Zimmerman’s acquittal, or you ignore them.  It either raises the specter of racial profiling, or it doesn’t, depending on which narrative of the story you accept.

One narrative goes something like this.  Zimmerman was a concerned citizen living in a neighborhood experiencing a run of thefts.  He saw a suspicious, unknown person walking in the neighborhood.  This suspicious person had followed a car into the gated neighborhood through the car gate as opposed to the pedestrian entrance.  Zimmerman followed him for a bit, and called the police.  The police told him they were sending someone and he did not have to follow that person any more.  That person, Trayvon Martin, turned out to be a juvenile delinquent with a growing record, who had been suspended from his school in Miami for possessing drugs.  Martin, on the phone with his girlfriend when he realized someone was following him, referred to Zimmerman as a “creepy cracker.”  Being prone to violence; rather than going into his father’s girlfriend’s home, which he was visiting, turned and violently attacked Zimmerman.  He pushed him to the ground and pummeled him, until Zimmerman, fearing for his life, pulled his gun and shot Martin.

This narrative also interprets the aftermath of the events as follows.  While not a racially motivated killing, the media sensationalized it into one.  First NBC doctored the recording of Zimmerman’s 911 call to create the impression that he was racist.  Second, the media brought in a constant discussion of the “Stand Your Ground” law, even though the defense never used it as a basis for their defense of Zimmerman.  Race baiters around the country turned Martin from a nascent criminal into an innocent angel.  This narrative places the blame squarely on Martin, and while not saying he deserved to die, sees his series of actions as suspicious, violent, and the real reason he was killed.  Zimmerman is just an innocent citizen, doing his civic duty to the neighborhood.

Now for the second narrative:  Zimmerman was a police wannabe.  Having been rejected from a law enforcement program, he went on to start a Neighborhood Watch in his community.  He had a habit of calling the police, making dozes of calls in the few years before the run in with Trayvon Martin.  That night, he saw a young black male wearing a hoodie.  His 911 call to the police demonstrated his disdain through his comment, “These (expletive) they always get away.”  His trailing of Martin, a troubled young person from a split family, scared Martin, who expressed his fear to his girlfriend on the phone.  Martin had been doing nothing but walking back to the house he was staying in after buying some Skittles and an ice tea at a convenience store.  Zimmerman’s suspicions were based on the fact Martin was black and wearing a hoodie – that is he profiled him based on race and dress.  Martin panicked and attacked Zimmerman because Zimmerman was following him.  This narrative sees racism in attempts to turn the deceased from a victim into the perpetrator.

I have now spent time with the Dream Defenders – the group of young people, primarily but not exclusively, people of color; who are staging a non-violent protest in the governor’s office at the Florida state capital.  I have listened to their fears, concerns and most important – their stories.  Their protest is not really about Trayvon Martin, but a larger context.  They see the constant singling out of black males placed under suspect, and all fear either for themselves or friends and relatives.  They do not wish to walk the streets in fear for their lives.  They want to see the stream of young black males that leads right from the schools to the prisons be addressed.  They see a context that includes the racism demonstrated after Marc Anthony sang “God Bless America” at the All-Star game in July (check out the tweets calling Anthony who is a first generation American of Puerto Rican parents, a Mexican, non American, a travesty – those were the nicer comments).  They see the failure of Republicans in the House of Representatives to take fair immigration reform seriously.  They see a Fox interview with Reza Aslan in which his qualifications to write a book about Jesus are questioned solely because he is Moslem.  They see a swath of America that refuses to acknowledge the open prejudice that is exhibited every day.  They see a part of America that denigrates the poor as unworthy instead of unfortunate.  They are trying to work within the democratic process to begin the process of change here in Florida.  They are searching for justice, a justice with some heart.

This week’s parashah is Shoftim, which means “judges.”  We are instructed to create a system of courts that treats everyone with equal respect and consideration.  No deference is to be shown to either the wealthy and powerful, or the weak and poor.  It contains one of the most famous lines in the Torah, tzedek, tzedek tirdof, which we generally translate as “Justice, justice shall you pursue.” (Deuteronomy 16:20) One of the most important aspects of God’s instructions is that they charge us with the responsibility to do this.  Human action is required to construct the justice system.  Once that system is up and operating; it is fair to ask if it is commensurate with the legal and moral expectations that God requires of us.

That is what the Dream Defenders are doing.  They are questioning both the technical details of the law (e.g. is “Stand Your Ground” necessary) as well as the morality behind a circumstance that leads to the death of a young black male who was headed back to the house he was visiting after buying Skittles and ice tea.  One can accept the idea that a “not guilty” verdict for Zimmerman was the only possible one the jury could render under Florida law.  But “not guilty” does not mean innocent.  Zimmerman’s suspicions of a young man dressed in a hoodie who turned out to be black, his initial pursuit, and the attitude he must have projected that evening all contributed to the tragedy.  On the other hand, Martin went in the wrong gate and decided not to just hurry home after seeing he was being followed.  We will never really know if in the 3 minute gap between the end of Zimmerman’s 911 call, and the first of the neighbor’s 911 calls, if Zimmerman decided to continue pursuit or Martin doubled back to assault him.  What we can say with certainty is that Trayvon Martin was a troubled, struggling teenager – a kid – who made some dumb decisions.  He should not have had to die for them.

Finally, the word tzedek not only means “justice,” but “righteous” as well (see the use in Isaiah 11:4).  We can read Deuteronomy 16:20 not only as “justice, justice shall you pursue,” but “righteousness, righteousness you shall pursue” as well.  The Dream Defenders are merely asking where is the righteousness within this justice?  I wish I had the answer.

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