I was 17. Trayvon Martin’s age. It was 1:30 in the morning. I was walking down Dana Road after visiting a girl I knew. The one-block street was otherwise deserted and quiet. My home on Delham was only three blocks away.
A police car pulled up next to me and two cops got out. They wanted to see identification, know where I’d been, why I was there and where I was going. They were perfectly pleasant about it all those decades ago, but still they wanted to know why a 17-year-old boy was walking down a street that, to put it mildly, wasn’t used to foot traffic in the wee hours.
It’s the sort of thing that not uncommonly happens on the streets that house families of means and influence. The cops were quickly satisfied with my ID and my story and let me amble on my way. I was home in five minutes. More than a little surprised to be sure, but unshaken by the experience.
It was simply the way of the world. I was walking down a street where no one ever walks at a time of night when nothing ever happens unless someone is having a noisy party. And I was white – a fact no less significant all these decades later than it was so long ago. It simply didn’t occur to me to be afraid. Or angry.
I’m used to my life experiences being largely irrelevant to what is happening in the larger world. I no doubt live, from the world’s point of view, a cocooned life and always have. What happened to me as a boy all those decades ago was a nonevent so immaterial that I’m probably lucky I remember it at all.
It hasn’t seemed immaterial, though, in the last three days.
How differently that evening might have gone if I’d been black – if there were eyes on me every time I walked into a store and browsed goods on the shelves that are there to be browsed; if my very presence behind the wheel of a car were an invitation to extra scrutiny.
None of us can truly know what it was like to be Trayvon on the night he was killed. But I think a major proportion of black America – and everyone else – can take an educated guess at the fear, the anger.
The crucial difference, of course, between my banal non-incident and the agonizing death of young Martin is that I was stopped by two ultra-professional Buffalo cops just doing their duty on a very quiet and boring night. I wasn’t being followed by a “creepy ass cracker” from a neighborhood watch – one who, incredibly, was armed and eager to impersonate an actual cop.
All too much of America understands all too well the basic scenario of the George Zimmerman case – the motiveless suspicion, the fear and rage it engenders, the legal whitewash when things go as awry as they can possibly go.
That racially charged description of Zimmerman came from Rachel Jeantel, 19, usually described as Martin’s “girlfriend.”
She is an immense and crucial part of the compound, complex case. Alan Dershowitz, just for one, has been proclaiming the prosecution case misguided and unwinnable from the beginning. If you just look at the facts, you can understand it.
The Sanford, Fla. authorities wouldn’t file charges originally. It took public outrage and an order from the governor to get charges filed. By the time of the actual trial, there was money to provide for a powerful defense in a trial where everyone could figure out why Sanford authorities might have been so reluctant for so long.
Yes, everyone knew that Trayvon was profiled and stalked by a man who should never have had either the gun or the feelings of legal entitlement his neighborhood watch group conferred. But that’s not the same thing as being found guilty in a court of law.
And there’s the tragedy. And the constant and repeated lesson of media frenzy since the O.J. Simpson trial: how very different it is to intuit something logically and to prove it beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law.
What seems constantly apparent is that, as with the Simpson case, the prosecution was outlawyered. Money talks. But even beyond that, the Zimmerman case itself was enough to make anyone understand the Sanford reluctance to prosecute.
The two major witnesses – eyewitness Jonathan Good and “earwitness” Jeantel – were problematic in the extreme.
All that Good could say, when pressed, is that it was Trayvon he saw on top of Zimmerman during their fight. And Jeantel was a specimen under glass of the last person you’d ever want as a key witness in any legal proceeding – sullen, inarticulate, freely given to dissimulation.
She was perfect, then, for the defense team to keep on the stand as long as possible to taint the prosecution case with her general presence. So they did. She was on the stand for six hours.
But even then, it was the prosecution that made her repeat the “cracker” remark so often and so loudly that its only effect on the jury stopped being a matter of conferring suspicion on Zimmerman and became a revelation of the victim’s hostility toward his pointless stalker.
We keep learning what good, well-funded defense lawyers can do – the Simpson team, Casey Anthony’s lawyers, Zimmerman’s. Especially when legal cases don’t begin to conform to guilt that couldn’t possibly seem more obvious when media tell the story.
At the same time, in our media world, media eat them up. CNN, for one, loved the Zimmerman trial. It is no coincidence that the network has a new boss, Jeff Zucker, transparently hungry for ratings.
Out of cable news’ immense metric needs came a crash of national spirit.
It wasn’t, though, the only time last weekend I was moved by the world to think about my own empty adolescence.
Even more profound to me, for some reason, was “Malala Day” at the United Nations. There Malala Yousafzai – the Pakistani “educational activist” who is 16 now but started blogging for the BBC about the universal need for education at the age of 12 – said this to the United Nations: “On Oct. 9, 2012, the Taliban shot me on the left side of my forehead. They shot my friends, too. They thought that the bullets would silence us but they failed. And out of that silence came thousands of voices. The terrorists thought they could change my aims and stop my ambitions. But nothing changed in my life except this: weakness, fear and hopelessness died. Strength, power and courage was born.”
How far from banality so many adolescents are.