A Personal Reflection on the Trayvon Martin Case

The circumstances of Trayvon Martin’s death bring back memories of my childhood. I grew up in Brooklyn in the 1970s. The Brooklyn of my youth was quite brutal; as a youngster, I was often mugged and assaulted. On my way back and forth to school, my friends and I frequently witnessed and were drawn into fights. At the Catholic school I attended, schoolyard brawls were nothing unusual. On one occasion I remember vividly, a nun trying to break up a fight nearly had her jaw broken. At another, in a schoolyard standoff, I had a razor blade held to my throat. And imagine… our school was considered safe.

Attending high school in Manhattan required using the subways, another unpredictable and violent venue in those days. Everyone had weapons, so my friends and I armed ourselves. A trip on the A train usually required concealing some kind of knife, or a small bat that could be slipped up a sleeve, and perhaps brass knuckles or a device that we called a “wrist rocket.” This was a sort of super-slingshot that delivered ammunition (marbles or lead slugs) with enough force to kill squirrels and pigeons. Classmates at my high school were murdered in shootings and stabbings. My personal peer group did not possess guns, but I imagine that if someone had produced one, any number of my friends would gladly have carried it. In retrospect, I believe that my peers did not have guns simply because they were too expensive. Drug gangs had the money for them.

Growing up in such chaos, I did not suffer with major illusions about the power of the criminal justice system to protect against, or to correct, injustice. To our common-sense way of thinking, what difference did it make if someone was punished for what he or she did? It certainly didn’t help the victim. The idea that imprisoning someone could protect against future crime, or send some kind of message that would dissuade criminals, also seemed ridiculous. People went to jail all the time and the crime wave nevertheless expanded. For every criminal who went to jail, there were two others taking his place. It also seemed that hoodlums could eventually grow out of their crimes, so what was the point? As kids we often encountered adults who stayed on the right side of the law but thrilled to tell us about the illegal things they had done when they were our age. Did they embellish these tales? If half of what they told were true, that would have been quite enough.

Was there racial animus behind the violence? Um, yes. In 1970s New York, my experience was that everyone had a racial animus against everyone else. I grew up understanding that I was half Puerto Rican. To be a half-breed was unfortunate for me since many white kids did not think of me as white and many Puerto Ricans did not think of me as Hispanic. As a result, everyone could attack me. My Irish friends called me “spic” as a term of affection. When we weren’t fighting one another, we could fall back on being “from the neighborhood” and fight those who came from outside. Did we profile one another? Again, I would have to say yes, of course. If you left the neighborhood, you expected to be hunted on the basis or your skin color or appearance. And you understood that people in your neighborhood would similarly hunt those who came on your turf. It was blatant racism and tribalism practiced without any sense of shame.

With the experience of years of education, adulthood, and eventually leaving New York entirely to attend a Quaker College in Pennsylvania, I slowly began to see the strange environment and culture of my youth from a larger perspective. I began to think of these neighborhoods where I had grown up as suffering under some kind of strange social psychosis. Early in my career as a lawyer, I signed on for a tour of duty in the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office during the national crack epidemic. The city’s crime rate was spiking. In the poorest neighborhoods, drug gangs waged war against one another using automatic weapons, drive-by shootings and corner firefights with assault weapons. In the more affluent neighborhoods where I (with my shiny law degree) could now afford to live, yuppies were murdered at ATM machines for small amounts of cash and also suffered home-invasion rapes; these events were not unusual. I was part of a group called the Community and Police Interracial Task Force, formed as a result of the wave of ethnic and racial violence in which a group of teens would beat another to death on a street corner because he was from another racial or ethnic group. As a young leader at the Philadelphia Bar Association, I created programs to help children understand the value of diversity.

What happened in Philadelphia took place across the whole country as well, and I could easily go on, painting a picture of violence across the United States during those unfortunate decades. From the 1960s to the 1980s, the homicide rates in America doubled, rising from less than 10,000 per year to more than 20,000, yielding literally hundreds of thousands of senseless deaths. Experience in law enforcement teaches that a large percentage of homicides occur as a result of fights that spin out of control. A perceived threat causes a counter-threat, followed by violence that spirals upward until one of the combatants is killed.

While all of this can be avoided by walking away from a bad situation, the code of the streets is different. Where I grew up, you did not walk away from a threat. You tried to respond with overwhelming force. (Remember the movie Taxi Driver: “Are you talking to me?”). Trayvon Martin’s experience of fights was probably similar to mine. Many tragedies resulted and, of course, they still do today. In the District Attorney’s Office, I knew of many cases in which the ambiguity inherent in a fight allowed the murderer to walk away because of reasonable doubt. This seems to be what happened in Trayvon Martin’s case. Did racial considerations inform the jury’s doubt? Where you stand on this depends on your life experience. My own answer based on personal life experience? Of course it did. Jurors do not set aside their background prejudices and racial stereotypes in judging such facts.

When I think about Trayvon Martin, part of me thinks, Of course, this is America, and these things happen all the time. I am disappointed that we are not better as a society, with a clear sense that work must be done, but (I hate to say) lack horror or surprise. It is the same as my reaction to those who express outrage at the idea that the NSA can read their email if it so chooses: Where have you been for the last 30 years? If Google can collect pictures of the entire face of the Earth and make it searchable online, how could your email possibly be secure if the most powerful government in human history cared to know what you have been typing on your keyboard? Like a sincere concern for privacy rights, overcoming racism requires us to confront the true historical depth and extent of our problems; that means every day, not just when the media focuses our attention on a particular inflammatory case.

The stark reality is that the violent and hate-filled world we call home cares little about individual rights. It practices murder regularly and especially often on the basis of race, class and ethnicity, among other tragic and stupid rationales. Our government has murdered many innocents in the name of our national and local security, using both the military and civilian justice systems. Our fellow citizens have murdered many more for no good reason. It is painful and disappointing but not surprising in the least. Some might sense my equanimity and think that I am in denial, or minimizing the particular racial elements, of Trayvon Martin’s case. Not so. Like many, I feel sure that if he had been a white teenager wearing a polo shirt, he would be alive today. Similarly, if he had stood his ground with his own weapon, he would probably be in jail today.

Trayvon Martin’s death is another visible manifestation of the rampant injustice in our society. If we open our eyes, we see Trayvon Martins all around us, every day. We see him in the inherent unfairness of our social systems. We see him in the suppression of the voices and perspectives of the poor. We see him in the use of American power around the world to support the wealthy and their interests at the expense of equitable human development. We see him in the way that our market economy allows small clusters of people to amass unbelievable amounts of power, wealth and influence that they use to exclude and exploit others. And we could go on.

As a community leader and one who has practiced community leadership development for many years, I have never been much interested in marching, protesting, “speaking truth to power” or even grieving. Today I am even less interested. To my mind, there is only one activity that makes a difference: the activity of making a difference. I dislike the posture of protest and grievance because it seems to hand over the vehicle of change to those receiving our expressions of anger. I would rather keep my hands on the wheel, driving this energy of opposition directly into transformation.

Everything that could have made a difference in the Martin case depends on social transformation. Imagine a world where there is no fear or suspicion or hatred of young black men, where neighborhoods are welcoming rather than defended with armed guards, where the response to a threat is nonviolence, where there is no gun to deliver the lethal force, where the foundation for human interaction is love rather than fear or suspicion. We can create that world, but it will take imagination, work and a lot of failure over many years. As my own personal experience suggests, it will require us to be honest about how far we still have to go without becoming cynical or losing hope.

I am very tired of people who would rather moan than make progress, who would rather talk than walk, who would rather express outrage than invest it in concrete actions that make the world more just. The self-aggrandizement often inherent in the posture of blaming and condemning others for the great wrongs that they have committed is transparent and pointless. Talk is not cheap. Its terrible price is often the opportunity cost of making progress. One of the things I admire most about President Barack Obama is that he is a thorough pragmatist. I believe he tries to spend most of his time in the arena of action rather than the peanut gallery of blame. As he has said, “Now, the question for me at least, and I think for a lot of folks, is where do we take this? How do we learn some lessons from this and move in a positive direction? … [B]eyond protests or vigils, the question is, are there some concrete things that we might be able to do?” The president would rather do something to advance the cause, even if only a few inches, than go on simply complaining about the failure or injustice so evident in the world. This is why he refuses to demonize the opposition and why he insists on smart compromise: He values progress over protest. He knows that the world will not be perfect and will never be, but chooses to spend every moment of every minute to make it “more perfect” than it is now. To me, Barack Obama’s courageous pragmatism channels Reverend King’s ebullient confidence, expressed boldly, famously and poetically the day before he was assassinated:

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

So let us think about Trayvon. Let us remember Trayvon. And let this loss be another inspiration to do something about it.