But thinking about that seventeen-year-old boy’s death and the acquittal of George Zimmerman, the man who shot him, I keep thinking, “Uh, no. I was a lot worse than Trayvon Martin.”
Let’s rehearse what we know about the kid who was gunned down last year.
We know he did drugs, smoking at least enough marijuana to get caught and suspended from school.
I went to a rural high school where drinking and smoking marijuana were as commonplace as doing homework.
I never got suspended for it, only because it was the culture of that time and place to look the other way. I remember kids making bongs in art and shop class.
There is also some evidence that Martin stole things. He was found at one point with what may have been a “burglary tool.”
When I was a kid, I was a certifiable klepto. I’m ashamed to admit it now, but my decidedly casual moral and ethical boundaries ranged from theft to harassment to vandalism.
I’m sure some of my high school friends will correct me if I’m misremembering this, but I seem to recall one lazy, bored small-town summer when we actually made a game of pestering police officers — a kind of high-stakes hide and seek.
Except, really, the stakes weren’t so very high.
In my rural, white world, it was understood that kids would get up to hijinks. I’m not excusing my behavior — it was appalling, shameful, idiotic.
I’m merely pointing out that where I come from, a kid was expected to do far, far worse than anything Trayvon Martin did as a sort of rite of passage, as a way of sowing wild oats.
Some kid acting like a screw-up didn’t prompt anyone to reach for their pistol.
On the contrary. There’s actually a whole genre of American movies — “American Graffiti,” “Animal House,” “American Pie,” “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” — romanticizing teen rebellion.
Or maybe I should say white teen rebellion. Try to imagine it being a funny sight gag in an American movie if a bunch of black kids sabotaged a cop car? Or sped away from a traffic accident?
Text messages also suggest that Martin had a fascination with guns and gangsta culture. Friends, we owned guns, big guns, and we did things with those guns that make my blood run cold now.
Finally, there is this idea that maybe Trayvon Martin attacked George Zimmerman in the street the night the boy was killed. Maybe Zimmerman pulled the trigger in self-defense.
I can tell you that in the rural white culture where I grew up, if some strange guy is stalking you as you walk home from the corner store, refusing to mind his own business, there’s a level chance he’ll get a poke in the eye.
Now let me say this. In hindsight, some grown-up should definitely have twisted my ear a lot sooner. And there are still some old neighbors back in my home town who are owed a sincere apology.
I’m guessing there are some people that Trayvon Martin would have apologized to someday as well, if he had lived. He would one day have been sheepish about and embarrassed by the stupid nonsense he got up to as a kid.
What I didn’t need, though, was a guy with a pistol following me through dark streets. And I can tell you straight up that Trayvon Martin didn’t need that either.
Finally, I’ll say what I think is obvious but has maybe gotten lost in the culture war back-and-forth of this tragedy.
If a guy had shot me down in my home town in exactly the same way that Trayvon Martin was shot down, he would be in prison right now.
Particularly if you flip the racial dynamic and make it a black man shooting a white seventeen-year-old kid, it would be a no-brainer.
You could have told the jury about every one of my youthful indiscretions. You could have pointed out that the man who gunned me down had some injuries on his face. The guilty verdict would still have come back in about four minutes.
In a lot of ways my experience and Trayvon’s mark the current racial demarcation in America.
Yes, Jim Crow is gone. The modern era of lynchings and officially sanctioned violence against blacks is over.
But behavior that is met with flexibility, patience and a certain amount of weary, parental fortitude in white society — casual drug use, petty crime, youthful nonsense — will still get you killed or sent to prison if your skin happens to be black.
George Zimmerman walked away from this one. The rest of us? Not so much.