They were all my sons.
-- Arthur Miller, 1947
If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon.
-- Barack Obama, 2012
So let's avert our eyes from the nasty fandango of obese bloviators. Let's skip past the animatronic ballet of character assassination they think will make it all right. Let's concede their claims, just to get them off the stage. Let's admit (for rhetorical reasons only) that the dead kid may have smoked pot, that he hadn't a perfect attendance record, that he wore a hoodie. That, followed by an unidentifiable man with a gun, he might have struck out in fear, as I might have done. None of this justifies a death sentence.
I've got two hoodies hanging in my closet today. I didn't know till now that this kind of garment had a name. I know it has a function. Like, you might wear a hoodie if it's raining. Which it was. But if I put on a hoodie, to keep my head warm and dry in dicey weather, I don't expect to be tracked down by an armed and super-empowered fear-addict who finds it suspicious that I cover my head in the rain. I and every other American have a right to go to the store in a hoodie. We have the right to walk as slow or as fast as we like. We have a right to look into store windows. If that makes Wayne LaPierre nervous, he and his National Rifle Association should take a valium; but don't call me in the morning. This is America, love it or leave it. You don't get to kill people just because you're afraid. Just because an entrepreneur of fear has told you to be afraid.
A minister once told me that on the day her son isn't followed by the store detective when he goes shopping, on that day and not until that day will she say our society is post-racial. Van Jones asks how he is supposed to protect his sons -- does he have to dress them in tuxedos every day?* Here in New York we are sick from legalized racial violence against unarmed young men by law enforcement. Abner Louima (August 9, 1997), accused of striking a police officer and sodomized to hospitalization in a police station bathroom. Amadou Diallo (February 4, 1999), gunned down in front of his apartment building by four plainclothes policeman as he took out his wallet to provide identification. Patrick Dorismond (March 16, 2000) shot to death by an undercover office who had accused him of being a drug dealer. Ousmane Zongo (May 22, 2003) killed by an undercover officer who falsely claimed he fired in self-defense. Sean Bell (November 25, 2006), shot to death in his car the day before his wedding by an undercover policeman who feared that he was going somewhere else to get a gun. Perhaps some officers understand that that these actions put their lives at risk, lower their conviction rates and raise the hostility of communities. All policemen suffer the consequences of such atrocities: where is their passion to punish the perps?
But this was no policeman. It was a wannabe, carrying a gun when he was told not to and going where he was told not to, looking for and finding a person to shoot. However the altercation went down, it was the vigilante who chose it. The breach of peace was his. He is responsible for its result. If he had done what he was told, there would have been no incident and no one would have died.
I've never thought about being challenged when I put on my hoodie, even if I walk slowly and look into store windows. I've never had to think about it: and that's the way it should be, for me and for everyone. That's the way it is in a decent society, in a liberal democracy of the early twenty-first century. We're not talking about racial matters but about universal human rights even deeper than the Bill of Rights. We're talking about security -- if you can't go the store without being attacked, then you can't even talk about freedom of speech or of assembly, or about voting rights. What is at stake here is not Jefferson's "pursuit of happiness" or even liberty, but life itself.
"Living in a civilization," writes Steven Pinker, "reduces one's chances of being a victim of violence fivefold."** We do not, on the whole, live in violent times. My city is a remarkably peaceful place, where people of different colors, rhythms and languages rub against each other at least in co-operation and often with exquisite courtesy, where single women go home to their various homes at night without fear. Gun fetishists should be sentenced to live among us -- disarmed of course -- and take moral instruction from our civilization. The last thing we need here is a bunch of armed amateurs, looking for a chance to make us live an action movie or a video game. Stay at home to spin your fantasies, in the dark and with bare hands. We don't want the Wild West on our streets, or the Dark Ages. We want the rule of law.
Carrying a gun makes you want to use it. That's why they train policemen, and why policemen don't want their neighborhood watch to be armed. And that's why Geoffrey Canada, who unlike many fantasizers grew up amidst real violence and does real work to bring children out of violence, threw away his gun. "I knew that if I continued to carry the gun I would sooner or later pull the trigger."***
So a boy is dead, and who was the bringer of death? If anybody was "standing his ground," it is the dead boy. There's one thing we know for sure his pursuer did not do -- he did not stand his ground; he went looking for trouble with his gun.
In the last few days the bloviators and shills of America's right claw have indignantly denied that the shooting was racially motivated. All right, for rhetorical purposes, let's concede their point. Let's suppose that blackness was not one of the boy's "suspicious" qualities. What does that mean?
It means that the shooter is a danger to all of us. He would have shot any of us if we walked too slow, or looked in the wrong direction, or wore the wrong rainwear. So now, for white people like me, this gets real personal.
Today is my birthday, and I'm of an age when I know I won't be here forever. I know that my children and their descendents will inherit this world. In the lingo of my work we call this "generativity," the concern that a person aware of mortality feels for those who will follow. The shooter of this boy is a threat to me and to my children.
This is personal. There aren't black kids and brown kids and white kids. They're all our children and, as President Clinton said, we don't have any people to waste, as this boy was wasted. They're all our sons and daughters, our common good, and it's our duty as parents to protect them from gun-toting fantasists. If we don't protect them, then we're all at risk. The next time I go to the store, who will watch me and decide that my gait, or my hair-style, or the direction of my gaze, or the style of my clothes or the tone of my remarks, makes him afraid? What's to stop him from blowing me away?
This is personal. This was not a tragedy. It was a sin and a crime.
*Paraphrase from This Week with George Stephanopoulis (April 1, 2012). "Jones admitted that the case hits very close to home, saying dryly that if his children couldn't wear the clothes they wanted to when going out in public, he would go broke buying them tuxedos every time they wanted to walk outside. . . . 'I don't know how to protect my sons.'" (Josh Feldman, "Van Jones, Ann Coulter, and Panel Take on the Trayvon Martin Case on This Week," www.mediaite.com [April 1, 2012]).
**The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (New York: Viking, 2011), p. 51.
***Fist Stick Knife Gun: A Personal History of Violence in America (Boston: Beacon Press, 1995). p. 103.