The Hoodie Affair: Zimmerman, Martin, and the Impact of Violence and the Media in America
By Rachel Helie | Associate Editor Published: 07/16/2013 12:07 pm EST
The emotions surrounding the incident between George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin, opinions on how it played out, and the many ways that each character (for lack of a better word) will be demonized or glorified is a story that the law has now closed its book on. It all boiled down to this. Two human beings found themselves face to face and one did not walk away living. Trayvon Martin’s parents will mourn the loss of their son for the rest of their lives. George Zimmerman will be facing himself in the mirror for as long as he lives. He is now a man who has killed. He took another life, a life that did not belong to him and that was not his to take. If there are souls, his will bare that mark. He and Trayvon will be bound together, wrapped in the collective grief and fears of a nation.
What has bothered me about the national media response to this case is the escalation of the same rhetoric that has been employed since humanity first became self-aware. After all of this time we still endeavor to compartmentalized feelings and thoughts, to stoke the flames of those fears that would divide us. One group calls it race baiting, the other calls it hate crime. Truly, this is narrow thinking on both sides. Tragedy is not comparable to a team sport. The only people who know the whole truth are the two people involved. Every other player, from Zimmerman’s lawyer to the entire legal team representing the State of Florida, seemed to be posturing to make a career off of this.
Several years back, three boys were sentenced to life in prison. The West Memphis Three were a group of white boys who liked heavy metal music. They were rebellious and loud. For that they found themselves targeted and eventually behind bars for murders they did not commit. Their youth was robbed from them as sure as the young boys they were accused of murdering. This case comes to mind when I heard people judge the “suspicious” appearance of Trayvon Martin. He wore a hoodie and acted like a teenage boy. As a minor, now deceased, this case presented a multitude of difficulties on top of the media circus which surrounded it.
The hooded sweatshirt has become a symbolic representation of injustice in this case. I can’t think of a single person I know who doesn’t own one, white, black, or brown. None of these people wear it for any reason but that it is an article of clothing that is functional. Until now. I can’t think of a person who has not behaved in a ridiculous manner in their youth. Young people the world over find solace, solidarity, or simple anonymity by conforming to the standard of their peer group. Adults perpetuate it in their lives as well. But that conformity does not constitute a certain behavior pattern as a rule and whatever events that occur are emblematic of the causality of action, whether it be a poorly timed one-night-stand that results in an unwanted pregnancy or, as is the case here, death at the hands of another human being. It was a killing, whatever the courts rule.
There are good people who do bad things. There are bad people who do good things. The motives can be questioned but never understood. We are complex creatures, humans. Maybe we should start acting like it. Compartmentalizing our problems into tidy packages never got us anywhere good (see also: Salem Witch Trials, the Holocaust, slavery, class warfare). No one can presume to know what Zimmerman was feeling that night, just as no one can know what Martin was feeling. I would venture to say, it was fear. And why are we fearful? Why do we feel the need to defend ourselves with violence and why do we expect violence?
Regarding the “race baiting” commentary that has been thrown around shamelessly; no one should demand that any other human being simply “get over it” when it comes to race division, any more than we can ask a person to get over their place in class division. One cannot demand that a huge segment of the population forget a tradition of imposed silence and obedience that grandparents still remember. To demand that a child or grandchild of a person who remembers what happened, not two-hundred but fifty years ago, is insensitive and naive. Racial division exists. To ask that a child raised in poverty to “get over” the poverty that shaped them into the adult they become is like telling them to change their DNA. Likewise, no one has the right to point the finger at a group of people who are colored a certain way and say that by virtue of their color they are complicit in actions they never perpetrated; that is just as small-minded. There is no window into the lives of others. Color may be a physical reality but it is a subjective experience.
What I would ask is this: try to be cautious and circumspect about any rush to judgment when emotions run high. Let’s mourn the end of lives which were each in their own way beautiful and fragile. Though Zimmerman lives and walks free, his sentence is a life living with what he has done. He has robbed the world of not just one life, but innumerable lives. And that includes his own. Any further loss of lives, any further violence, is a degradation of the higher spirit of humanity. I always go back to Martin Luther King Jr. whose words had the power to change the face of nation; not with his fists, not with a weapon, but with simple words.
“ Nonviolence is a powerful and just weapon. which cuts without wounding and ennobles the man who wields it. It is a sword that heals.” Can we not commit to wielding the sword of nonviolence as a weapon of the just and the fearless?
My hope is that Mr. Zimmerman spends the rest of his life attempting to atone for what he has done and by the consequence of that atonement he finds peace and gives peace to others. My hope is that it begins with giving the gun that killed young Martin over to the keepers of Trayvon’s memory that they may protect it from further use, so that it might never do harm again. It seems to be a human compulsion to hold others accountable before ourselves. That is what Zimmerman did as he followed Martin that night. What happened ? He shot and killed a child, regardless of what circumstances he did this under. He killed a boy, and in that there is shame.
As the Zimmerman trial came to a close, the nation watched, transfixed. The case became a bonfire of opposing vanities. To lose sight of the loss of lives is to succumb to the kind of frivolous voyeurism that cheapens the portent and the value of those lives. If every life has value and meaning, then we must show the kind of respect and humility that those lives deserve. These are days to show humility. Vainglory is cheap and disrespectful, whichever “side” you stand on.
I love stories,science, gadgets and gizmos. If I had early ambition, I would have aimed myself at the stars but I chose to write about them instead. I've been making stories since I was a kid and, more importantly, I've been listening to other people's stories. Best job ever.