Trayvon Martin, American Paranoia, and the Decline of the Neighborhood

Seriously, which one of these people would you be more afraid of if you encountered them on the street?

This morning I listened to a story on NPR about “the talk” one mother had with her teenage sons. It made me sadder than anything has in a long time.

Here is the gist:

BRITT: The talk is what many black parents have with their sons and daughters – but probably more often their sons. It’s a preparatory explanation and a warning, to let them know what’s out there for them. You know, when they shift from the adorableness of childhood into, you know, their early preteen and teen years where they can perceived as dangerous, as threatening, as things that most of them really aren’t.

This has got me thinking about my brother, who is 14 and — unlike Trayvon Martin or Britt’s sons — white. My brother also happens to live in one  the most truly diverse neighborhoods in Connecticut — maybe even the country. If you stand on my parents front steps you look up and down the street at homes occupied by black people, Puerto Ricans, bi-racial families, French Canadians, and a couple of young doctors with rescued greyhounds.  There is a gay couple and a lesbian couple. There are grandparents and young families. If you turn a corner you’ll find the parents of Senator, and Asian immigrants.

The neighborhood isn’t always peaceful but more often than not the arguments are about domestic issues, or someone’s dog crapping on someone else’s lawn…not race.

By the standards of George Zimmerman, just about the entire neighborhood is “suspicious” — including my mother who spends most of the winter in hoodies she steals from my brother. Just the other night I was driving my mom home and as we came to a stop sign we passed my brother and two of his friends — one Puerto Rican and one black —  walking home from the park where they had been playing basketball. It has been unseasonably warm, so instead of hoodies, they all had on tank tops. As I pulled away from the stop sign with them in the rearview mirror, I thought about poor Trayvon Martin.

From the first mention of this nonsense about the “Stand Your Ground” law, I’ve thought Martin was the one who had the right to feel threatened in this situation. He was a 17-year-old boy being followed by a much larger, obviously hostile man… with a gun. And how, in the name of all that is good, can you “Stand Your Ground” when you’ve chosen to follow someone, after being told not to, and created the very situation you’re supposedly standing your ground against? Even if Martin did turn and attack him — which I doubt — wouldn’t Zimmerman be getting what’s coming to him at that point? Thankfully, Slate finally put that same question into writing for me. I’m proud to say it was a fellow Connecticutian who pointed this out to Slate:

Because of Florida’s Stand Your Ground law—and because Zimmerman is alive and can speak and Martin is not and cannot—the assumption has been, as Jeffrey Toobin puts it, that “the question at the heart of the case is whether Zimmerman reasonably felt threatened.” I’ve framed it this way, too. It’s hard not to. But as Jeff Chase, a recent University of Connecticut law grad, pointed out to me over email, you can flip the premise and see Martin, not Zimmerman, as the person who was acting in self-defense. Jeff writes: “Trayvon saw someone following him, felt threatened, retreated,was still followed, and then was approached by an armed man who had 100 lbs on him. … Because Zimmerman was acting as an aggressor, Trayvon had the right to  defend himself by punching, kicking, tackling, etc. Because Zimmerman was acting as the aggressor, his actions cannot be considered self-defense: you can’t initiate and then claim self-defense. The evidence for initiation is there on the 911 tape. … Why is it that a black man cannot be afraid of a white man who follows and approaches him on a street at night?”

This case is a source for national shame, and the entire state of Florida should be hanging its head.

I’ve often wondered what people in this country are so afraid of that they feel the need to keep guns in their houses to defend themselves — or live in wretched gated communities, like Zimmerman. I go outside every night before bed with my dog. She is about 44 lbs, and while she might try and save me from a serial killer or deranged rapist, I’m not sure she’d be successful — which is fine, because she’ll probably never have to. During the disturbingly nice weather we’ve had this week, I’ve often left my house with the front windows wide open. My laptop is often on the dining room table, or the couch. It’s always here when I return (knock on wood), and I figure my neighbors will help keep it that way. Once, I even went for a walk with the dog and forgot the close the door behind me when I left. There were no “suspicious” characters in my house when I returned.

I don’t live in a particularly nice neighborhood. It’s quiet, and I can hardly throw a rock without hitting someone who works with his hands. I often see people walking to the end of the street to get to the bus. In other words, it’s a working class neighborhood with modest homes, and neighbors who say hello when you’re outside. I’ve also got quite a few older, retired neighbors who know everyone and everything going on around here. As a young single woman, I feel safe here. More than anything I worry about hawks trying to eat my cats — and I only know they’re there because my neighbor said they were eyeing her Pomeranians.

So why the hell does George Zimmerman feel so unsafe in his gated community that he ends up shooting an unarmed teenager just trying to get home?

You could blame the media. Watching the news for a few nights in a row would have any slightly gullible person convinced our streets are filled with gang members, drug addicts, and roaming pitbulls ready to maul old women and children. As someone who walks miles around my ‘hood every day — and who had a rather adorable, friendly pitbull show up on her doorstep trying to find its way home — I can tell you, there’s nothing to be afraid of. You know who I  run into? Old ladies who want to pet my dog.

I’ve never thought it was wise to go through life afraid of anything. Being afraid of other people, well, that’s no way to live.

Bad things happen, but chances are you can’t predict what those bad things will be. It’s sad to me that Britt (the woman from the NPR story) needs to warn her sons against the prejudices and fears of other people. It’s sad to me that George Zimmerman is so afraid of the people around him that he called 911 46 times in ten years, and eventually created a completely avoidable situation where an innocent kid died.

Zimmerman claimed to be part of the Neighborhood Watch, but something about that seems like BS to me. Real neighborhoods — the kind where people know each other, and talk to each other, and keep an eye out for each other’s kids — don’t need vigilantes with guns and chips on their shoulders to patrol the streets. But somewhere along the line this became a country where we’re all suspicious of each other. People don’t want to pay taxes to benefit themselves, nevermind their neighbors. (Check out this This American Life story for one of the most disheartening and ridiculous tales of every-man-for-himself I’ve ever heard.) Our elected representatives can barely muster basic civility when talking to each other. And millions of people would rather move into gated communities than just work to make their neighborhoods friendlier, safer places to live. And they’d rather carry concealed weapons (in Zimmerman’s case he’s carrying that weapon around a supposedly safe gated community) than accept that most people are good, and that despite what the news says, most Americans are lucky to live in an extremely safe time and place.

Although, I suppose, poor Trayvon’s only mistake was assuming he was safe in his own town.

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3 thoughts on “Trayvon Martin, American Paranoia, and the Decline of the Neighborhood

  1. Ang says:

    These are nice thoughts. But some neighborhoods do need a neighborhood watch program, and if you don’t understand this because you’ve never lived in one, then you’re fortunate. However, the mentality of George Zimmerman is different than of those who want to live in a gated community or one with an organized watch. He clearly has mental problems that go beyond the media’s impact on society.

    Oh, and Tryvon wasn’t in his own town. He was visiting from Miami. But again, I love the rest of your thoughts. I grew up in a diverse neighborhood that felt like family and we watched out for each other naturally. I left my doors unlocked all the time and it feels strange that I can’t do that in the city where I live now. But the sad fact is, that fear comes from living in an area where bad things actually do happen. If you’re still in a place that feels that safe, never leave. You’re not smarter or more tolerant for not having that fear. You’re just lucky.

  2. TheresaMC says:

    Hi Ang,

    Thanks for your thoughts. I do understand that some neighborhoods need a watch — though, if you’re already living in a gated community, like Zimmerman, I’m guessing his neighborhood wasn’t one of them. I still go back to the idea that the sense of community is what really matters, though.

    But I’ve lived in my fair share of rough neighborhoods — and my brother and parents still live in one. Growing up there I got into fights, our neighbor was stabbed a few blocks away, and we were all surprised when one of our favorite neighbors was arrested for shooting a gun off at a party. We had creepy pedophiles, and people who were just plain nuts — one woman hit my stepfather in the face with a pair of vice grips because he told her son to get away from his car (her son was autistic and liked to wander the neighborhood getting into people’s cars or bend their antennas).

    Even with all of this, I’ve never felt truly unsafe there. Sure, you probably shouldn’t wander the streets late at night, or get into an argument with the guy you know is up to no good. But I also know that the majority of the neighbors are looking out for each other, and that’s what matters. With or without an organized neighborhood watch, being a community is what’s important.

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