During our son’s elementary years, we felt the need to define certain “Rules of Engagement” regarding the bullying taking place at his school. “If you can walk away, walk away. If you have to run, there’s no shame in that. But if they keep you from getting away, aim directly for their nose. Whichever way they turn, you’ll hit something that will hurt them. But keep hitting them only until you can get away. Stick to the Rules of Engagement, and we’ll have your back, whatever consequences the school might impose on you.”
The Rules of Engagement worked well. But they were based on an assumption that there was a responsible adult (a pair of us, actually) who would step in and set things right, even when later policies of “zero tolerance” penalized all parties involved in any altercation, punishing even those who failed to prevent themselves from being bullied. In most communities, however, that trust, that we could acquiesce temporarily to various injustices because someone would eventually set things right, has eroded. In others, that trust has been entirely destroyed by similar tragedies, even where those are less conducive to the simplistic divisions preferred by the publicity-mongers.
As trust diminishes, it makes way for fears that many find quite justified. Should a young black man be afraid of being “in the wrong neighborhood?” Racial profiling is not just a matter of traffic stop harassment or stop-and-frisk policies. The ongoing bias in charges filed and sentences imposed are well-documented. Should homogenous neighborhoods keep watch over those who “clearly don’t belong here?” The fears that prompt Community Patrols and Neighborhood Watches are exploited by law enforcement agencies in support of their pleas for more budget and personnel support. Here, in the Fall River Valley of Northern California, a former sheriff quoted his deputies' response time as between thirty and forty-five minutes, so long as the call was received between 6:00 a.m. and 10:00 p.m. Outside those hours, there were no officers available to handle calls from our area. What he intended as a fund-raising ploy became fodder for justifying vigilantism.
How did these factors affect the events of February 26, 2012 in Sanford, Florida? Were both parties mindful of the history of racism, paranoia, community self-protection, and the justifications for deadly force under Florida law? We don’t know. None of us served on the Zimmerman trial jury. The evidence offered, at best, omitted any testimony to Martin’s state of mind prior to the incident. We cannot judge the level of fear each would have felt. Blacks in many areas have rightly come to expect something other than justice. Gated communities with neighborhood watches have rightly come to expect limited response from law enforcement. In these and other groups there is no longer a secure assurance that anyone will step in and set things right. Increasingly, any sense of security and justice is being left to us as individuals and communities to negotiate for ourselves.
Add to this “make-my-day,” “stand-your-ground” environment the desire for a more immediate gratification of our human nature, and a do-it-yourself-justice attitude is likely to prevail. Thankfully, in my son’s case, he addressed that temptation humorously over the family dinner table, rather than during a parental visit to school administrators. He asked permission before requiring forgiveness: “Dad? That kid that’s being mean to Sarah? Would it be alright to tell him, ‘Take hold of my wrist, and don’t let me go, no matter what happens?’” I assured him that, while technically fitting the rules of engagement, he could only count on my support if he were reactively addressing an actual danger, not intentionally provoking a confrontation.
Again, we cannot know which of these (or any others) may have been the attitude of either Martin or Zimmerman. We do know that many benefit from increasing our distrust, if not hatred of one another through harangue and diatribe. At best, they ignore, but perhaps willfully provoke the rising dangers of these fears, calculating the potential profits from more such confrontations in the future. I want to condemn them for doing so. But, am I numbered among them? I don’t pursue their publicity and celebrity. I try hard to never exploit personal tragedies in support of any stand I would take. And I have an accountability structure around me to, hopefully, ensure that should I cross those lines—I get called on it very quickly.
So, why do I feel culpable for this and other lesser known confrontations? When I cannot assure my community that someone will step in and set things right (or even try), I bear responsibility for perpetuating their fears as well as their desire to secure themselves through whatever means they choose. I help to perpetuate the systems and structures that diminish their security, even as they feed off of the fears engendered by each new report of each new confrontation. In fact, in the absence of past confrontations to report, even small-town papers will prophesy future doom “if the appropriate steps are not soon taken.”
All this occurs even within almost perfectly homogenous communities. With regard to the Martin-Zimmerman incident, fear and distrust between two individuals of “perceptible ethnicity” may have been heightened on that basis. Their minority status, however, most certainly provided opportunity to exploit this tragedy as a platform for racializing further what is better seen as an endemic system creating similar incidents within, between, and most certainly against the communities we are called to serve. The many similar tragedies since February 26, 2012 have not drawn similar attention. These have occurred among those whose differences are not so easily stereotyped, and thus will not be so publicly exploited. Yet it is the fact that they occur, not their potential for exploitation and analysis, which should motivate us to more consistently structure just relationships into and among our communities. They need to know that someone is committed to step in and set things right.