Thursday, August 1, 2013

not guilty

We the jury find George Zimmerman not guilty.

-- Sanford, Florida, July 13 2013

All men are created equal.

-- Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, July 4 1776

My heart is broken. I haven't been so sick in my soul since the massacres of May, 1970, at Kent State University and Jackson State College, when America killed its children and cheered. We're still killing our kids, and particularly when they're black we cheer about it.

It's dangerous to be black in America. Particularly if you're a black man, the country is ready to beat you or kill you, and then give sanctuary to your attackers. There are plenty of out and out racists who will make sure the law protects the killers -- racists not in the institutional but in the good old fashioned biblical, personal and individual sense, their logic so warped by nasty folklore and cultivated hatred that they can't imagine what it's like to be hunted in your own neighborhood when you've done nothing out of the ordinary.

There are stories about getting a traffic ticket for the crime of Driving While Black. In New York our police officers have beaten or killed a series of innocent black men. In Florida they killed a young man for the crime of being Alive While Black.

It's been three weeks now and I can't get over it. I don't know what to say to a black parent. Van Jones wonders if his son has to wear a tuxedo to the store so that he won't be found suspicious; but I think a black man in a tuxedo in a convenience store might be taken as uppity, and many a black man has been killed in America for being uppity. Overdressing is not the answer.  

How can you live in a country that counts you as suspicious wherever you go, whatever you wear, whatever you do or don't do? that sends gunslingers to watch your neighborhood, hoodlums who pick fights but who don't know how to fight without deadly force? How can I tell my neighbors to be peaceable, when the law is at war with them? I have no standing to give such advice. There are many millions of racists in America, and they look like me. How can I live with such a country?

This should be the new and strangely simple test of our public officials, our lawyers, our pastors, teachers, our friends, our judges and our jurors. Anyone who thinks there is equivalence here, some subtle balance between the boy who was killed and the man who pursued him with a gun in order to use the gun against him -- any such persons stand in a long tradition of complicity. Such people are the heirs of Bull Connor and Orval Faubus and Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam and Byron De La Beckwith.

The judgment of reason is clear. The boy was where he had a right to be. He was unarmed. He is dead.  There is no justification for his death. No evidence was presented that he was doing anything wrong. He was pursued by an unidentified man with a gun. Perhaps he stood his ground, and was shot dead for doing so. This was not an unfortunate accident. It was not a tragedy. It was a malicious act of violence with racial motivation. Acquitting the killer completes a lynching.

Emmett Till (1941 - 1955)
Trayvon Martin (1995 - 2012)

So how indeed do people of my social location live with such a country? These days I do not know.

Many years ago, when television stations would sign off at night after the late late show, a network affiliate in the city where I lived closed its programming with images not of aircraft carriers and warplanes, but of mountains and rivers, forests and skylines. The music was not the national anthem but the song that ought to be the national anthem, and the singer was a black man. "Oh beautiful," Ray sang, "for heroes proved/in liberating strife,/who more than self their country loved/and mercy more than life." Later I learned that he made this recording with the death of heroes in mind -- of Martin and Malcolm, of Evers and Till and Chaney and Goodman and Schwerner and Liuzzo and Jackson and of my own church's James Reeb. "America, America! God shed his grace on thee." It occurred to me that the singer felt these deaths had mattered, had somehow made America beautiful, bringing good out of evil. "And crown thy good/with brotherhood!"

And nowadays I think that if Ray Charles loved the country so much that he found a way to sing about it, then perhaps I lack standing to abandon her. I don't fully understand his love. Or the love of those eight hundred men of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry who made the Civil War a moral struggle against slavery. Or the love of those nine children in Little Rock in 1957 whose courage and moral dignity were so much more than we deserved. Or the love of those millions around me who live honorably in a nation that dishonors them, teaching responsibility to their children though the nation declares those children expendable. No, I don't understand such gifts.

But I'm old enough to know that I don't have to understand everything. We are blessed, and can't do a thing about it. The sun shines on the wicked and the righteous, and on the rest of us muddled in between.

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