The Trayvon Martin case has hit close to home for me. I served a congregation in Atlanta that was predominantly black. I have known many black teenage boys who liked to keep up with the latest fashions and dress like their peers. They were in my confirmation class. I have known many black teenage boys who, in the universal search of all teenagers to find their own internal moral compass, sometimes broke the rules of their parents, or even flirted with breaking the law. They read scripture for our worship service. I have known many black teenage boys who may not always been able to control their emotions when faced with injustice or when treated with suspicion and disrespect. They have sung hymns with our church choir. I have sat with the parents of these beautiful black men-in-the-making as they worry that their sons will be prejudged in what otherwise would be innocent circumstances, except that the skin of their beloved sons is black. I have known many white teenage boys who have had acted much the same as they try to negotiate those volatile teenage years and find their own identity, my son among them. But the white parents do not have the same worries and fears that their sons will be harmed, arrested or killed for simply being – innocently being their teenage selves.
So we find out Trayvon was suspended from school for possessing an empty bag with traces of marijuana in it, wrote rote obscene graffiti on a door at his high school, had some jewelry in his backpack with a screwdriver. Does this, in any way, take away from the tragedy of his death? And what if Trayvon attacked Mr. Zimmerman? Why is that not a rational response to the threat of being stalked by a man with a gun? What if what Mr. Zimmerman said is true and ”Trayvon approached Mr. Zimmerman from behind and they exchanged words. Then, Trayvon hit him hard enough that he fell to the ground.”(1) Is this not well within Trayvon’s rights under Florida law to “stand his ground” and protect himself? Trayvon cannot say he acted in self-defense. He is dead.
None of this information about Trayvon will help us know what happened in this tragic incident. There is no record of how Trayvon has acted in similar circumstances, though we do have record of Mr. Zimmerman’s behavior in the face of unexpected confrontation. He was arrested and charged with battery on a police officer and resisting arrest with violence. One of the few facts we know is the one the family of Trayvon has said is the most relevant: “that Mr. Zimmerman chose to pursue Trayvon, who was unarmed and walking home, despite a police dispatcher’s advice to stay in his car.” (1)
You only need to switch the races of the principals in the situation to know if race is a factor. What if a white teenage boy, being stalked by a black man with a gun, tackled the black man and pounded his face on the sidewalk? He would be called a hero. I am not saying that Mr. Zimmerman’s account is true. I am just saying that Trayvon is a typical teenage boy who, if Mr. Zimmerman’s account is true, acted rationally in a threating situation. He may not be without sin, but he did not deserve to die. Or do our victims need to be innocent and pure for there to be an injustice?