Sunday, March 25, 2012

Profiling Fatality

Everyone who isn’t a total recluse has heard about the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, a seventeen-year-old black boy from Sanford, FL, the city my in-laws were born and raised in, and in which we still have family. Trayvon left his father’s house in a gated community to run to the convenience store for some skittles and iced tea during the halftime of a game he was watching on TV. On his way back he realized he was being followed and called his girlfriend who encouraged him to run. He didn’t, and self-appointed neighborhood watch president George Zimmerman caught up with him, confronted him, then shot and killed him.
Zimmerman, identified as white by the police but Hispanic by his family, claims self-defense under the Florida “stand your ground” law and the Sanford police apparently agreed with him, at least until public outrage changed their minds. But as of this posting, he still has not been charged.
Profiling is a dangerous game and so is carrying guns.
I’m married to a black man. I spent many hours in our thirty-six years together worrying if he was safe out there in the world, a world that mostly considers him to be criminal or dangerous just based on his skin color. No matter that he spent twenty-five years serving and protecting the citizens of our community as a firefighter. No matter that he is a devoted husband and father. No matter that he is a talented artist, musician, and single-handicap golfer. No matter that he is an ethical man who wouldn’t pick up a dime off the street unless it was to return it to its owner. His black skin is all that mattered when police frequently stopped him for DWB, driving while black, or when women locked their car doors as he walked through a parking lot back to his car or when people treated him disrespectfully or ignored him completely.
Once Ronald got home very late. I was worried and angry. "Where have you been?" I asked when he walked into the bedroom. "I was ready to start calling the hospitals."
"I'm going to turn on the light," he said. "I don't want you to be upset by what you see, okay? Then I'll explain what happened."
He turned on the light, and I recoiled from the sight before me. His T-shirt and shorts were covered in blood. His cheek and lip were swollen.
He had gone to Planet 505, a bar on Westcott Street, to listen to a band. On his way back to his car, he was jumped from behind and punched in the head. A fight ensued. The other man, a white guy, kept calling Ronald an Arab. When the police arrived, they immediately assumed Ronald was the perpetrator and cuffed him. At least the other man admitted he had started the tussle, and Ronald refused to press charges. While the inside of Ronald's cheek had been torn open when the man grabbed him in the mouth during the fight, the man now had four broken fingers to show for it. He refused medical assistance, and Ronald drove himself to the emergency room where he received three stitches inside his cheek. The man said he attacked Ronald because he was the "Arab man" who had broken into his car. He believed this because that night Ronald wore a Kufi, a hat worn in northern African and some mid-Eastern countries. He profiled him much like Zimmerman profiled Martin because he wore a hoodie.
I’m married to a black man who has a license to conceal and carry a gun, but he doesn’t, unless he is transporting his guns to the shooting range for Olympic-style target practice. He doesn’t carry them holstered, but locked and unloaded in a gun box in the back of the SUV.
He also is certified to teach pistol safety and taught classes a few years ago.  He told me how men walked into class with swagger, and how they sent their wives to class with guns too big for their hands and too heavy for them to handle. Some class members, men and women, mentioned they couldn’t wait to shoot someone.
I was appalled by his stories, but he felt he could provide a service: if people were going to own guns then at least they should know how to use them safely. He added some of his own expertise, for those anxious to shoot someone, about what it is like to react in an extreme circumstance, like firefighting or maybe in the case of someone breaking into your home. Your body wants to flee; your heart is racing; your breath is heaving; your senses are heightened; your fine motor skills leave you, and you lose your accuracy, that is, if you ever had it. He wanted his students to know that it isn’t easy to make good decisions under such circumstances and that an impulse decision might be the wrong one. In addition he would ask them if they had thought about what it would mean to shoot someone.
Did George Zimmerman ask himself what it would mean to shoot someone?
I wrote about how shooting someone can change a person in my post Human Urine (
Zimmerman said he shot in self-defense, but was he brandishing his gun when he approached Martin? How would you react if someone approached you with a gun? I think I would be paralyzed by fear. Perhaps you might push him, if you could. Maybe that’s what Trayvon did. We won’t ever know what happened that night.  I wish Trayvon Martin had arrived safely back in front of the TV to catch the end of the game after his snack run, but he didn’t because he was profiled and someone who was carrying a gun made a bad decision and acted on it. Was protecting Zimmerman’s neighborhood worth Trayvon’s life? Will he ask himself that question for the rest of his life?
So many gun proponents think we should all be carrying guns, maybe like the Wild West. But I think only the police and other safety officers should be carrying. The “stand your ground” law is being considered in the state I now live in as well as the right to carry in public parks. That scares me. Most people aren’t trained the way the police are trained to handle guns and potentially dangerous situations, and bad decisions will undoubtedly be made that will change or end people’s lives.
I remember the boys my daughters went to school with in our urban school district in Syracuse. In kindergarten they were sweet, creative, and fun loving, if not mischievous. By eighth grade some were over six feet tall. They were boys still, but they had man-sized bodies. Already people showed fear around them, particularly the black boys, but to me, they were the same boys with the mischievous smiles from the kindergarten class.
“Hi, Mrs. Hagan,” they called out when they saw me in the hallway or the parking lot, some with baritone voices. I feared for them in the same way I feared for my husband. How would the rest of the world treat them?  I know my fears weren’t unfounded. Look at Trayvon. He should have been able to watch that game, eat some skittles, drink his iced tea, talk to his girlfriend, have some teenage fun, go on to college, get married, become a father and a productive citizen, but instead he died. He was profiled and someone had a gun.
When our young black men are categorized and profiled, what chance do they have for success? Why can’t the world see the sweet faces and mischievous smiles beneath the hoodies? Why can’t they see another human being full of life and potential? Why must our young black men die too soon?

(Excerpt from Chapter 6 Being Black All by Myself, Shades of Tolerance: A Biracial Love Story)
Ronald would grow silent and pensive in the months and years that followed as he slipped into a deep depression – the depression that would rob me of his stories and leave me wondering if we would stay together after all we had been through; the depression that lay on him so heavily he wondered, seven months after his almost fatal fall, if he could attend his nephew’s funeral.
I dreamed about Yancy the night he died in July 2005. His sweet child’s face, even though he was a man by then, his sensitive eyes, his looming silhouette, all in the dream, but there was a gun in his hand and it went off. Whom did Yancy shoot?
I thought the dream was odd because Ronald and I had not seen him for years. He was the baby who made me cry when Ronald called me at my summer job in 1977 to announce his birth. Sylvester Jr. and his wife Marsha separated when Yancy was just six, and later divorced. The lingering mistrust between Yancy’s parents left him mostly with his mother. Yancy was angry, too, that his father started dating white women right after the split and eventually married one. He must have thought it was the ultimate betrayal.
 Twelve pounds when he was born, Yancy had grown to over six and a half feet tall by the time he was a young teen. He dropped out of school. He served a prison sentence for assault and robbery just after he turned eighteen. He was a boy in a man’s body, a boy whom many people viewed as a threat because of his size and the color of his skin; a boy who could not contain his anger over the way his life veered off course. Perhaps it had never been on course. His descent into delinquency, drug use, paternity, joblessness, seemed a self-fulfilling prophecy. He had been a smart, adorable little boy, and that is how I remembered him best, so the dream surprised me. I pushed it out of my head the next day until the phone rang.
“It’s Mom,” Bertha said. “Yancy shot himself.”
“Oh,” I said, “I thought he shot someone else,” the dream pushing its way back into consciousness. I must have confused her. “Is he going to be okay?” I continued, thinking it had been an accident, hoping for it: maybe he had shoved a gun down into his waistband to hide it, and it went off.
 “He’s dead,” she said.
Marsha called me a few hours later. “I want Ron to be one of the pallbearers,” she said, grief halting her voice. “Yancy reminded me of Ron: both of them so sensitive, so artistic.”
“I’ll ask him as soon as he gets home,” I said, the blood pulsing in my temples. When I told Ronald, I saw the vein quivering over his jaw the way it did when he was stressed or angry. He dropped his head. “I don’t know if I can go,” he said. “I don’t think I can do this.”
“You don’t have to,” I said, protective, worried, sorry I had to tell him. “I’ll go. Cara and Mackenzie will go.” They were in Syracuse producing their second evening dance concert. “We’ll represent the R. Hagans.”
“When is it?” he asked. I gave him the details, and he turned and picked up the phone and called the Fire Department to request funeral leave.

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