Back in 1994, I went to work for an organization that supported at-risk youth and their families. Early in my career there, I had little clue how to deal with some of the struggles these young men and women were facing. As a result, there were some interesting days in the life of this rookie counselor. Some of them I'm not very proud of to this day.
There was an incident that happened shortly after I became the man in charge of a group of 10 teenage boys. They were not all happy boys. One day, one of them was doing something out of line, so I confronted him. I don't recall exactly what this kid was doing, which means the actions were nowhere near as egregious as my eventual response.
After I confronted this young man, he began cursing at me. They were not new words to me. But he arranged them in a fairly unique fashion and shouted them with a hatred I was so unfamiliar with that I suddenly felt as if I was being beaten with far more than words. So I began shouting back. Not the same words, but I'm sure with the same sounds of hatred that I was hearing. It wasn't long before the young man was standing in front of me, his nose to my nose, threatening to escalate our war to one that involved more than words.
I did what I had been trained to do when a young many became physically assaultive. I restrained him. It was an ugly restraint, mostly because of the amount of anger I released while performing a perfectly acceptable response for that current situation.
Several hours later the situation was resolved, at least in terms of getting the young man incorporated back into the group. He was quicker to act like nothing happened than I was. I had sadly just put him through something he was far more accustomed to than I was.
The young man I'm talking about was black. I am white. That never entered my mind in the middle of our confrontation. More importantly, it never entered into the follow up discussions with that young man or my supervisors, who by the way appropriately disciplined me. I'm thankful for that, otherwise I would have missed out on a valuable lesson.
That incident and the response of my supervisors put me well on my way to adopting an unshakeable belief - that it takes a bigger and better man to calm a crisis than it takes to escalate one to a violent climax. More importantly, when it comes to our kids, especially our young men, each and every one of them deserves to be in the presence of men committed to resolving conflict in the most peaceful way possible. Especially when those men have accepted or been appointed to roles that demand it. I hate to admit one of them didn't get the benefit of such a commitment from me that day. I hope other men later seized the opportunity I missed with that kid.
I know today I would have never learned that lesson if the issue had become focused on race and not my actions.
Being a bigger and better man often requires training, especially in positions that might encounter confrontation. Our law enforcement officers are trained in various techniques to therapeutically intervene in a crisis, as are our 911 operators. I'm not sure about our neighborhood watch program directors.
When I read the transcript of George Zimmerman's 911 call, I couldn't help but think of the day I transformed the possibility of a conflict into a conflict into a physical altercation. All because I refused to even explore a more peaceful route.
Here is how Zimmerman initially described the crisis in which he was about to intervene:
Hey we've had some break-ins in my neighborhood, and there's a real suspicious guy, uh, it's Retreat View Circle, um, the best address I can give you is 111 Retreat View Circle. This guy looks like he's up to no good, or he's on drugs or something. It's raining and he's just walking around, looking about.
So George Zimmerman's path to killing someone began with a concern that a guy was "walking around, looking about - in the rain". This led him to believe the guy was on drugs and suspected he was going to break into someone's house.
The dispatcher then confirms:
OK, he's just walking around the area…
looking at all the houses.
Now he's just staring at me.
Clearly at this point Trayvon Martin has noticed that George Zimmerman is staring at him, so he stares back. I have stared back at people who stared at me.
After relaying to the operator some details about his location and confirming he believed Trayvon Martin was a black teenager based on his further observations, he tells the operator that Martin is now moving toward him.
Somethings wrong with him. Yup, he's coming to check me out, he's got something in his hands, I don't know what his deal is.
Just let me know if he does anything, ok?
(unclear) See if you can get an officer over here.
Yeah we've got someone on the way, just let me know if this guy does anything else.
Okay. These assholes they always get away. Yep. When you come to the clubhouse you come straight in and make a left. Actually you would go past the clubhouse.
So it's on the lefthand side from the clubhouse?
No you go in straight through the entrance and then you make a left, uh, you go straight in, don't turn, and make a left. (expletive) he's running.
Martin is now coming to "check Zimmerman out". He's not charging at him. He's not threatened him in any way - or Zimmerman would have reported it more threatening than "coming to check me out." And based on these actions, Zimmerman now believes the kid is an asshole. Do we get a picture of who is getting escalated here. I do. I recognize him. He's the man who should be searching for resolution not conflict, but isn't. The man with the gun, by the way.
But Zimmerman catches a lucky break in the crisis, Martin is running away. Zimmerman can bow out of it, wait on the police and let them deal with it. In fact, Martin is headed for the "back entrance" of the neighborhood, which to those inside the neighborhood, including Zimmerman and Martin, would be the exit. Martin is now running toward the exit of the neighborhood. The neighborhood Zimmerman felt so uncomfortable with him being in in the first place. A guy looking to de-escalate a crisis, solve it with the least amount of force possible, can now wait for the police and point them toward the back entrance of the neighborhood.
I'm also here to tell you, I've been around enough teenage boys to know that if Trayvon Martin was interested in escalating the conflict, he would have kept on "coming to check (Zimmerman) out" instead of running toward the entrance (exit) of the neighborhood.
Are you following him?
Ok, we don't need you to do that.
Not only did Zimmerman choose to pursue Trayvon Martin, he did so against the advice of someone trained in de-escalating a crisis. He is now chasing a teenage boy for "walking around and looking about" in the rain. The only action the kid has taken since Zimmerman's original assessment of the incident is to run away from the incident. Trayvon Martin was running away from the conflict. Zimmerman ran to it.
We know by now that Zimmerman caught Martin. Once he did, the case became about the words of a dead man versus those of one alive and well and holding a gun. A dead man's words mean very little to the courts; they mean a great deal to his parents who will never hear them again.
When my supervisors punished me for my interaction with the young man I referred to in my earlier story, they did so not because of what I did - because once the crisis was escalated I did need to intervene to protect myself and others - no, they punished me for what I failed to do, which was exercise the opportunity and the skill and the sound judgment of an adult to extinguish the conflict. Years of experience after that event assure me I absolutely could have done that, had I only chosen to.
I'm not sure why the jury decided to relieve Zimmerman of his responsibility to avoid a crisis that through neglect he manufactured from the ground up, from a boy walking around looking about in the rain to a boy lying lifeless inside the darkness of a casket.
I know it doesn't help that so many incidents like these - those involving different races or cultures, immediately become issues of race. Our media does us no favors when they dismiss the relatively uninteresting nature of facts and cling instead to the sensational and inflammatory issues of the heart, which is where racism lives and no other man can see. And where stories sell. It seems to me that by the time this case went to trial George Zimmerman and a host of other individuals and organizations were on trial for being racists. I think this jury had the facts and intellect to convict Zimmerman of being neglectful, and as a result, killing a teenage boy.
I don't believe they had enough courage to dive into his heart and come out with the conclusion that he or anyone else were racists.
Finally, I will add that up until now I have been fairly neutral on the subject of gun control. I have heard both sides of the argument and appreciated and understood both sides, and in the end probably lean toward those who oppose gun control, even though I don't own a gun and likely never will. But this case has made me apprehensive about my stance. And it's not because I believe the issue in this case was the "gun" itself, because it was not. It's because so many opponents of gun control have used George Zimmerman's gun as a shining, hand-held example of why people should be able to own one. They truly believe that Zimmerman not only had the right to possess a gun to protect himself from danger, but also the right to make up the definition of danger as he went along, and when the danger didn't warrant the use of a gun, he had the right to raise it to a level that required one. And with that the right to kill a teenage boy.
They are more comfortable than I am living with the knowledge that George Zimmerman still has that gun, fully believing that the last shot he fired with it was one that benefited his neighborhood and society as a whole. Maybe if I was black or some other color than white, I would view this fact as a lesser concern than racism, but I am white and I don't. Maybe, just maybe there is a way for those of us who share different colors but the same sadness over the senseless loss of life to give this and tragedies like it a name we can agree upon, one that will make us more comfortable working together instead of against each other.