Saturday, July 20, 2013

The Extraordinary Lack of Empathy in the Case of Trayvon Martin

I've seen this graphic shared quite a bit in my social media circles in the last few days, with white friends and family members asking why white people who are victims of crimes committed by black people don't get the same media attention and comments by the President.

The answer, in short, is because there is no comparison. In the other horrific instances, such as the case of young Marley Lion, an investigation began immediately, and the alleged perpetrators apprehended, charged and jailed. The system worked.

Not so in the case of Trayvon Martin.  With Trayvon, the police were aware of the killing, but there was no charge until there was national pressure. The Trayvon Martin case made national news due to the perceived inaction by the Sanford Police Department. 

There is room for outrage in all instances of violent crime, but when a proper investigation takes place, resulting in finding and arresting those responsible, being outraged that your loved one's death was essentially ignored isn't one of the outcries.

In the case of Trayvon Martin, this was indeed the initial outrage.

Even though empathy has been in my awareness from the start -- because I am someone who takes the time to try to put myself in the shoes of another -- I haven't totally immersed myself in the details of this hypothetical question:

In the case of Trayvon Martin, even empathy has been in my awareness from the start -- because I am someone who takes the time to try to put myself in the shoes of another -- I have resisted totally immersing myself in the details of the hypothetical question:

What if what happened to Trayvon Martin that evening happened to my child?

I have resisted because to imagine that is too emotionally difficult. I do know what it's like to lose a child -- through no fault, no one was responsible -- and to willingly attempt to walk myself through what Trayvon Martin's parents experienced (understanding that I will never come close to understanding what they truly experienced and feel) is something I've avoided.

The negative, angry reaction from a significant segment of the US population to President Obama's remarks yesterday regarding racial issues shows many things, but the first thing which comes to mind is the extraordinary empathy deficit he spoke of many years ago.  The lack of empathy I see in many places, from many people...the lack of willingness to even ATTEMPT to empathize...made me take the time to imagine this hell.

I come away devastated and heartbroken.

Which is precisely how so many within the black community have felt this past week. 

It's all too easy for people of color in general to imagine Trayvon is their child. (That was Obama's point, people. By the way, it's not race baiting to encourage having a respectful conversation. Claiming this is race baiting says a lot more about the people saying it than they realize.)  The life of a black person is simply very different from mine, as a white person. What happened from the very start, through to the verdict, is something most black parents could identify with acutely.

When the adult carrying a loaded weapon who chose to follow a 17-year-old on February 26, 2012 -- a 17-year-old doing nothing wrong whatsoever at 7:15 or so that evening -- ended up suffering no consequences as a result of his lethal choices that night, it led to national mourning on the part of people of color. What we are witnessing is primal pain and mourning, more than anger.

That's where the empathy President Obama is asking for comes in. No, a white person such as I doesn't understand what it means to be a person of color in America in 2013 (though I do know the mindset of a racist, having grown up in a racist environment).  No one knows the unique grief of Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin.  But I know what it's like to want to protect my child.

Below is my attempt to walk through this nightmare; not step by step of the path followed by Trayvon's parents, but merely the most obvious steps along this nightmarish journey. I would ask all of you who are parents, wondering why this has gotten so much attention, to consider doing the same.

 * * * *

If my child had been visiting someone, doing nothing wrong at all, and was simply returning at a reasonable time (7:15 PM) from buying snacks, and the next thing I know is that my child has been shot and is dead -- and the person who admittedly shot her was free to go (after they did a drug tox screen on my daughter but not the shooter) -- I'd raise my voice and beg and plead and pitch an absolute fit trying to get media attention as well.

(Note that Trayvon's parents have been the picture of dignity and grace throughout this ordeal. I don't know that I would be; I pray I never find out.)

Chances are the scenario wouldn't play out that way for me though, as far as needing to get others to please pay attention to what I know is a wrongful death of my CHILD. I feel fairly confident that I, as a white mom with a white child, would get a lot of support and attention.

Any parent would be outraged and want justice. Anyone who loves someone wants justice, not only for their loved one but to PREVENT IT FROM HAPPENING AGAIN.

For someone to choose to follow and end up shooting my child, who was doing nothing wrong (even if she did, hypothetically, strongly physically defend herself, which is what I have always taught her to do...though, unfortunately, we'll never know the truth of what really transpired during the physical altercation), and then to not be held accountable for the choices they made that evening, that is APPALLING.

For the shooter to be hailed as a hero by a large segment of our population and media, while my daughter is torn to shreds and ripped apart in public, IS APPALLING.

Whereas Trayvon has repeatedly been portrayed as a thug with outright viral lies (by racists and gun nuts, let's be honest here) -- trying to justify the choice Zimmerman made that fateful evening by choosing to follow the teen, with a loaded weapon -- perhaps my daughter would instead be demonized as a slut, saying she was asking for trouble or something. Maybe they'd find a pic on FB that someone could use to paint her in that light.

I can imagine how my child, who is tall and trained in tae kwon do, could be portrayed as threatening to Zimmerman, as the masses attempt to defend the indefensible.

Even if it went to trial after gaining media attention and subsequent investigation, and the trial went according to Florida law and the shooter was found not guilty -- not guilty because my daughter fought back (since she is not the one who created this entire situation to begin with) against someone who chose to follow her, with a loaded weapon -- I would absolutely fight against that law and continue raising my voice and encouraging a national discussion.

Whatever elements were involved that may have led to my child's unnecessary death, you better believe I would be pushing to explore every single one in order that no one else has to ever feel my pain. In the case of Trayvon Martin, racism and racial profiling is an element that must be explored, not only as it concerns George Zimmerman but the Sanford Police Department and the entire criminal justice system.

Regarding the lack of a "proper investigation" as it concerns George Zimmerman, what led many to feel a proper investigation didn't take place includes but is not limited to the fact that: "

--  George Zimmerman was not subject to a criminal background check until after he was released from custody.

--  Nearly a week passed before important witnesses were interviewed by the police.

--  Investigators failed to access Martin’s cell phone records for weeks.

 “Those mistakes should not have been made,” said Andrew Scott, former chief of the Boca Raton police department and a national policing consultant. “They were such rudimentary aspects of an investigation.”

Again, if it were my child and if the police had just summarily believed the shooter rather than investigate fully and more thoroughly, I would have done exactly what Trayvon Martin's parents did. I think any parent would.

Though I don't believe I would be so graceful and dignified; I think that's largely because I don't know what it's like, as a white person, to have injustice and discrimination heaped on me and my child each and every day, in myriad ways. I might have more energy to scream and fight and pitch a fit because I haven't fought that particular battle my entire life. (There are many battles on many fronts right now, including a war on women, a war on the middle class and those living and working in poverty, but this post is about the very specific battles only people of color fight in the USA.)

Again, to address my initial point, everything I wrote above is what made this a national media story and why it's different from other stories being put out as being a comparison. So, please, especially if you are a parent, try putting yourselves in the Martins' shoes. If your heart can take it.

EDIT TO ADD President Obama's thought-provoking question from his 7/19/13 press conference:

"And for those who -- who resist that idea, that we should think about something like these Stand Your Ground laws, I just ask people to consider, if Trayvon Martin was of age and armed, could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk? And do we actually think that he would have been justified in shooting Mr. Zimmerman, who had followed him in a car, because he felt threatened? And if the answer to that question is at least ambiguous, then it seems to me that we might want to examine those kinds of laws."

And how would such an outcome have played out in the courts and our media?  Put on your empathy cap and try to imagine, but be honest -- if only with yourself.

~ Dena