I was thinking about what I was like when I was in college as my 25th reunion approaches. Le Moyne College in the 80s was populated by a fairly conservative student body, and I wasn’t conservative politically which made for a fun time for this liberal, but there were some serious events that caused debate. Apartheid, poverty, Reagan’s conservative muscle flexing and of course the constant racial divide not only on campus but around the country.
One story really brought some of those issues to the national awareness. Bernard Goetz, a man who took a gun onto a New York City Subway and used it when menaced by some black youths. He shot and injured the people he said tried to mug him. Some say even he was hunting and fired into a severely injured assailant beyond a self-defense need. There were many versions of the story but it didn’t take long that NYC and much of the country was divided along racial lines. While Goetz was only convicted of an illegal gun charge, it refocused our attention on what is self-defense. Some say this was revenge for previously being mugged. That he was out hunting bad guys. Debates were numerous and I even remember the Western Civilization Club at Le Moyne using the subway vigilante theme for a poster for a movie night featuring one of the Death Wish movies.
I remember thinking many times that while racial issues were always bubbling that by the time of our 25th reunion we would be beyond that. I truly had hope which many times over the last 25 years seemed to be both bolstered with the pinnacle being the election of President Obama, as well as destroyed by the fall out of things like the OJ trial. We are still a racial divided country and one that seems to at times be getting worse. But in the last few weeks it appears the country is nostalgic for the days of Bernie Goetz.
In late February a man who fancied himself a neighborhood watch captain shot and killed a young black man he suspected of being a criminal. His suspicion seemed to be fueled by the young man’s race. He stalked him and executed him. Standing behind a law that allows someone attacked to stand their ground, he was not charged and in fact the police treated the dead body as that of suspect. However what we do know happened that night was the George Zimmerman called the police for the 46th time this year to report a suspicious person in the neighborhood. When he was asked if he was following him, he said yes. The dispatcher told him “we don’t need you to do that” a phrase that in many circles means, “Don’t follow him”. There was a confrontation, someone yelled help and Treyvan Martin, a 17 year old boy with Skittles, Ice Tea and a cell phone was dead. At first it went mostly unnoticed. I read a paragraph about it in early March but the firestorm of interest began when it was discovered by the 24 hour news world. We now have several versions of what happened that night, witnesses with conflicted stories and a police department under scrutiny for racial problems but now and in the past. What we also have is the right wing noise machine trying to make the victim the problem while Mr. Zimmerman is still free, still has his gun and is being treated by some as a hero.
Like the Goetz case there is a racial divide here and that makes me sad. Unlike Goetz however there is also a serious effort to see if this is a story beyond simply the racial issues but a larger concern about what it means to defend one’s self. We have heard many things. Glenn Beck wondered aloud on his echo chamber of a radio show if Mr. Martin may have been a murderer or a kidnapper (with no evidence of anything close to that). Geraldo Rivera suggests the attire of Mr. Martin (a hoodie in the rain) contributed to his death. Others blame Rev. Al Sharpton, another piece of 80s nostalgia is just pour gas on the flame as he was one of the first people to make this a national story. But what I see and I see it sadly, it is a lot like Goetz. Complex human psychology, a country willing to empower certain behavior even if sparked by some kind of racism, and the ubiquitous guns in the hands of people who may have series psychological problems. The difference is that I truly do believe that our country is getting better, that young white people seem to connect more to Mr. Martin than Mr. Zimmerman, that thousands are wearing hoodies in protest of the craziness of Geraldo’s and other’s attitude and there is a much better effort looking for justice.
As I continue to think about how I will be seen in June in Syracuse maybe I will focus on how far we have come and not the stunted growth of our culture as I see it in this story. But a part of me wants to show up in a hoodie. I wonder how many people expect me to.