The George Zimmerman case has sparked up a ton of emotions recently. I think what pains me most about the story of Trayvon Martin is that something very similar happened to me, but by the grace of God, it didn’t end the same way. So when I see his face on the internet or TV, I think to myself, “That could have been me.”
In the summer of 2005, I had just graduated from high school and was enjoying my summer vacation before college started. It was July, and the only time of the day it was cool enough to go for a walk was around 10pm at night.
Now I don’t advise people to go for late night walks, but this was a special circumstance. We lived in a gated community on a hill. So it’s sort of like a fortress. The average home price in the neighborhood at the time was around a million dollars, so it wasn’t exactly the bad part of town. The streets were well lit, and most people in our neighborhood went for walks at night because our neighborhood was quiet, and the view of the city was spectacular. At the top of our hill, you could have a 360 degree view of the entire city.
So in July of 2005 I was 18 years old and walking through my neighborhood, though, not alone. I was hanging out with a girl I was good friends with. A white girl. We’ll call her Allison for the purpose of the story (not her real name).
So we started at my house and walked to the other side of my neighborhood which offered a full hillside view of the entire west valley of Phoenix. When we got there, there was a low concrete escarpment we could sit on and talk. While we talked, for some reason I clapped my hands (I don’t recall the exact reason for it). When I did, I realized that it had a really loud echo through the surrounding neighborhood about 400 meters below my hill.
Allison and I were both really entertained by the echo and kept clapping sporadically through our conversation to hear the echo. Then after a few minutes we heard a man yell out, presumably from his backyard, “You’d better stop all that damn clapping! You’re making my dogs bark!” I’m pretty certain he was in his backyard because we heard the dogs, and could pinpoint his loud angry voice from our vantage point.
His anger only entertained us further, and we kept clapping. We originally did it for fun and probably would have gotten bored and stopped much sooner, but this angry man only made it more fun for us. Now we had to clap! “You’d better stop that G-d damn clapping!” he yelled into the darkness.
Anyways, after about a few minutes of laughing at this guy’s anger problems, we left our spot and continued on our walk through the neigborhood. We circled through a few blocks, and then turned back to head towards my house. On the way back to my house, we had to pass the place where we sat down to chat and clap.
As we were walking, we saw a middle aged man, probably in his late 40’s or early 50’s. He was balding and probably weighed 280 lbs. In short he was overweight, and out of shape. In order to get into our neighborhood, he had to leave his house, cross the desert, uphill 400 meters the entire way. Did I mention this was the middle of the night, in the desert? There’s such a thing as rattlesnakes, so most sensible people avoid walking through the desert at night.
He saw us going on our walk and yelled out politely, “Hey did you see anyone clapping over here like 10 minutes ago?” Allison and I looked at each other.
“Did you see anyone clapping over here a little while ago?” he replied.
Here’s where it gets interesting. I’m 18 years old, an ex-football player, 190lbs of pure muscle in the best shape of my life. I’m with a girl that I kind of liked and was considering asking out at some point in the next few weeks. Now, here comes this man that me and this girl both know is the same one who was yelling profanities from his house below because of our clapping.
I have two options, I can be a man and admit it was me and see what he was gonna do about it, or be a pussy (or so I thought at the time) and say we didn’t see anyone clapping. Stupidity prevailed, and I went with choice number one, mostly because I wasn’t about to look like a coward in front of this girl. So he walked up to us, at what you’d normally deem as polite conversation distance for a stranger.
Here’s the conversation to the best of my recollection. I’m not exaggerating in the slightest.
“Hey did you see anyone clapping over here like 10 minutes ago?”
“What?” (The gears are turning in my head. Man or pussy? Man or pussy? MAN!)
“Did you see anyone clapping over here a little while ago?”
“Oh the clapping? It was ME!”. I pointed my fingers at my chest. I remember emphasising the word “me” like the dick I was back then.
“I’ve been looking for ’em, for about 10 minutes now, but I can’t find ’em.” (he’s actually looking around as he says this)
“I was the one clapping.”
“They couldn’t have gone far…I’m pretty sure it was right over there.” He pointed close to where we had been sitting. “You sure you didn’t see anyone?”
Allison and I looked at each other in astonishment. At that point my brain kicked in, and I realized I don’t have to tell this dude it was me 3 times in a row. Let’s just chalk this one up to a win. In complete bewilderment, I said, “Ummm…no, sorry. I don’t know where they went.”
“Dang. Well alright, thanks anyways, ” and then he walked back down the hill and into the desert from whence he came.
We went on our way as well, and as soon as enough distance was between us and the man, I turned and looked at Allison and asked her, “You heard me tell that guy it was me, right?”. She was just as surprised as I was and said, “Yes! Oh my God, I can’t believe it. Maybe God was protecting us.” We talked about the entire incident all the way home, and being the 18 year old dick I was, I went on to describe how I would have totally destroyed the guy, blah blah blah.
Looking for Trouble
Like I said before, we lived in a gated community on a hill. My parents’ neighborhood was completely enclosed by a fence or by a steep cliff, or sometimes both. There is one exception though. The southwestern slope of the hill is bordered by desert, about 700 meters wide and 300-400 meters deep. Beyond that desert toward the west is the neighborhood in which this guy lived. He presumably came out of his house upon hearing his dogs barking, then heard our clapping. He proceeded to berate these invisible clappers that he couldn’t even see. Then they stopped clapping entirely. It gets into his head to walk through his neighborhood, trek 400m UPHILL through a DESERT, AT NIGHT, to enter a gated community he is not a part of, just to confront someone clapping who had already stopped entirely for over 10 minutes. When I say desert, I mean DESERT. There are coyotes that live in that desert that kill people’s dogs. I’d never seen any rattlers, but even as a dumb 18 year old I wouldn’t walk through a trail-less desert at night. This dude was climbing over bushes and ducking under trees AT NIGHT! I know cause I’ve walked through the same desert during the daytime. Then he spent – God knows how long – trying to confront these people he knows absolutely nothing about, AT NIGHT!
Being an unarmed 18 year old, who would have relied on my then limited fighting skills, and brute strength to defend myself and my friend against this would be assailant, I was missing a piece of the puzzle. The question, is: Why would a 50 year old man, go to all that trouble and danger, to search out unidentified hooligans clapping at 10pm?
Now that I’m a 26 year old man, who’s been to the shooting range quite a few times now, I know the answer to the question that eluded me as a naive 18 year old: the man had a gun on him. As someone who grew up with no guns at home, who had never held, much less fired a gun before, it didn’t even occur to me that the guy could be packing.
I’ll try to avoid judging the outcome of the case. Rather I’ll just state what everyone knows to be fact. As a friend of mine so eloquently put it on Facebook:
George followed Trayvon. Indisputable fact. George was told not to follow. Indisputable fact. Trayvon was unarmed. Indisputable fact.
In my story, what if he confronted me, threatened my life and in defense I attacked him to protect myself and Allison. What if he shot and killed me, because he realized he’s out of shape and that 400m trek really took it out of him. What if he was afraid for his life because I gave him the Nigerian crazy eyes?
I know it could’ve been me that day in 2005. What if I didn’t have a blonde, blue-eyed, white girl with me? Would things have turned out differently? Would he have “heard” my words, if I was alone? I could totally see myself fighting him if I needed to. Would that have resulted in me being shot?
At that time I was a pretty big dude 6’2″ and 190 lbs. Would that be self defense on the crazy guy’s part? In the event of my death, there would have been an investigation. They would have found out that I squatted 540 lbs in 2004, benched 330 lbs, and powercleaned 265 lbs. They would have used that information against me. The guy could’ve made up some fantastical story of how I’d threatened him and attacked him. They’d compare me to Terry Crews, “What would you do if a large black male threatened you in the middle of the night?” I can hear Rush Limbaugh right now, “Are you going to outrun him? Really? You’re going to
outrun out-sprint a black guy? Have you never watched the Olympics?”
Fortunately, because of my upbringing, that’s all they’d be able to use against me. The fat old man with a gun was afraid for his life.
I was brought up to stay out of trouble. It’s something Nigerian parents instill in their children as much as possible, especially when living in a foreign land. To this day my parents argue with me about staying out late. I don’t even live with them.
As a child I was taught that anything part of African American hip hop culture was anathema. No rap music. No backwards hats. No saggy pants. Only perfect English was acceptable. Treat elders with respect. Address your superiors as sir or ma’am. Tuck in your shirt. No alcohol. No sex. No drugs. No jewelry. No “thug” clothes. Aside from not tucking in my shirt, I followed these rules pretty much 100% of the time.
I grew up in the suburbs in the softest part of town, surrounded by white people. We were usually the only black family in whatever neighborhood we were in. I was usually the only black student in my grade: from first grade up to my Senior year of high school.
I don’t sound “black”. I don’t use slang, except when joking around. The only clue as to me being black vocally, is how deep my voice is.
An investigation would’ve found that I was a quiet, peaceful kid who’d never tried drugs once, who was a virgin, who led chapels at his Christian high school, and who’d never gotten in trouble for fighting in school. A kid who listened to Christian rap music, of all things, and it wasn’t very good back then. Embarrassing, I know.
But I wasn’t a normal teenager
Normal teens smoke weed on occasion, and get into fights once in a while, and go to detention. Normal kids wear their hats backwards and listen to loud rap music from their cars, and wear baggy pants and sag them. Normal kids use slang and wear “thug” clothes. Stories from my childhood will prove I was anything but normal. I was an immigrant kid, with Nigerian parents. These rules my parents enforced were meant to keep me safe from a world that shouldn’t judge you by what you wear but does anyways. It shouldn’t judge you by your skin color, but it does anyways. It should’t judge you by your accent, but it does anyways. These rules reflect the reality of the world, rather than the way it “should” be.
Of course no one deserves to get shot for clapping at 10pm at night. No one deserves to get shot for wearing a hoodie and being black in the wrong neighborhood. We live in a crazy world, and more often than not, people of color have to follow a set of rules in order to keep safe, and make others “feel safe” around us.
Why are people mad?
That question can be answered with a question. Why did Zimmerman follow Trayvon Martin? Was it because George was neighborhood watch? Was it because Trayvon looked suspicious? Was it because Trayvon was committing a crime? No. It was because Zimmerman had a gun.
I think people are angry, because (1) none of this would have happened if Zimmerman didn’t follow him and (2) laws exist that allow you to profile and follow someone and get away with shooting and killing them if an altercation happens. That’s it.
It’s not about the right to own guns, or the right to self defense. If Zimmerman was in his car eating a donut and Trayvon approached and attacked him, no one would object to Zimmerman defending himself. It’s when you do things that make no sense, like cross a desert in the middle of the night, or follow someone who’s minding their own business that people go up in arms. If Zimmerman is telling the 100% truth, I think he should have been charged with manslaughter, and nothing more. If he’s lying, then murder was the appropriate charge to bring against him.
My prayers go out to Trayvon’s Family, and to all those involved. The “not guilty” verdict has saddened and angered lot of people, but it’s not the first time something like this has happened. Remember OJ Simpson? Remember Casey Anthony (also in Florida)? I thought both were guilty, but they still were acquitted.
Our justice system is imperfect, but would we have rathered that the police officer sentenced Zimmerman on the spot? Either exonerating him, or executing him? When you pay attention to what goes on in other parts of the world, you realize it could be worse. Much worse. A street murder is nothing a quick bribe or two can’t get rid of in some countries.
President Obama’s statements below, sum up my opinion on the whole matter:
The death of Trayvon Martin was a tragedy. Not just for his family, or for any one community, but for America. I know this case has elicited strong passions. And in the wake of the verdict, I know those passions may be running even higher.
But we are a nation of laws, and a jury has spoken. I now ask every American to respect the call for calm reflection from two parents who lost their young son.
And as we do, we should ask ourselves if we’re doing all we can to widen the circle of compassion and understanding in our own communities. We should ask ourselves if we’re doing all we can to stem the tide of gun violence that claims too many lives across this country on a daily basis.
We should ask ourselves, as individuals and as a society, how we can prevent future tragedies like this. As citizens, that’s a job for all of us. That’s the way to honor Trayvon Martin.
Featured Image Photo Credit: David Shankbone
Update 5/14/15: Like OJ Simpson, George Zimmerman can’t seem to stay out of the news for the wrong reasons. The feeling of invincibility is a pattern with people who think they got away with something. People that constantly attract trouble, are likely the cause of it.