About that Trayvon Martin Thing…

Even now, now, very now, an old black ram
Is tupping your white ewe. Arise, arise;
Awake the snorting citizens with the bell,
Or else the devil will make a grandsire of you.
Arise I say!
Othello, (I.1.9)

I can now see it. I’ve been attempting to avoid saying anything about the Trayvon Martin case. I mean what can one say? But I just read “Trayvon Martin and I Ain’t Shit”. You should read it. If it matters, it is written by a safe black guy, Ahmir Thompson: better known as Questlove.

Go read it. Then come back here. He’s saved me a lot of writing. My writing is a shallow form of catharsis at this point.

My story starts with almost ruining a dinner party for some of my friends by sharing my own “elevator story”. (If you’re a black male, you have an elevator story or equivalent. Axiom of the universe.) Really a pastiche of several of them. But my favorite has a punch line that goes something like:

“…. yeah, but the thing that really got me about her fleeing to the other side of the elevator was that we worked together. It was as if without other people in the elevator she feared I was just going to attack her. ”

I guess it doesn’t really matter that the elevator was only going one floor up. I mean anything can happen in one floor of travel on a heavily trafficked elevator in a Santa Monica office building. Especially when there’s a negro on the elevator.

But I digress. This was supposed to be about Trayvon Martin, right? And unless you’ve been “that guy” on the elevator it is difficult to see the connection between that elevator and the murder of a kid whose crime was buying a bag of skittles. And by “been there” I mean – unless you’re the poster child of every social ill and violent act that assails a besieged America. And by America, I mean an America where there is a power structure constructed along strict racial and economic lines…. and you’re outside of it.

It’s hard to connect the narrative.

Maybe I should tell the one about trying to get onto the plane? I fly enough that I’m usually in first class. About 30 percent of the time, the boarding attendant will refuse to take my boarding card and politely inform me that they’re currently boarding “first class only”. It normally takes a moment of me standing there with my shiny iPhone5 and my digital ticket before the agent reluctantly scans the QR code. I’ll try and describe the reaction for you: usually the face starts with callous annoyance; we then transition to shock when not only do I have a valid boarding card but a valid first class boarding card. And sometimes, just sometimes, there is a look. A look blending chagrin with shame encompassing our shared racist moment . Usually though, it’s just a “hey, you can’t blame me – you don’t look like ‘first class’” sort of sad smile. But you know, like there’s a plane to board – no time for a discussion of the Hegelian dialectic.

But I wanted to say something that could help bridge the chasm between those who can buy skittles. And those that can’t. This is just an isolated anecdote. It doesn’t help tell the story of what it’s like to always be powerless.

Wait – that might be confusing for those of you who aren’t black. Let me explain. And since every time I speak I’m speaking for all black people – an absurd notion if ever there was one – let me take this opportunity to correct a common misconception. Everyone in the world at large thinks of the common Negro as being violent and angry. Nothing could be further from the truth: we are powerless and scared – or is that scarred?

Imagine living in a world where driving your car can be an excuse to be shot. Or god forbid, how would you feel if that every time you walked out of a 7–11 that you came under fire? Imagine living in a world where your child, your wife, your brother or your lover could be murdered at any time provided that the assailant was not black. Because remember – a warning shot fired by an abused black woman warrants 20 years.

Wait – that reminds me of an anecdote: I bought a new car once. Acura RSX – stick shift. Sporty but affordable. When the car was new I was pulled over about every two weeks. It was clockwork. It became a running joke with my friends that I couldn’t drive on weekends. The punch line: Even as a designated driver I had a higher chance of going to jail sober than my friends did when they were driving drunk. (Minor point of fact: at the time my friends were almost universally white males, but I’m certain that afforded no undue privilege.) This concept was clarified one night when my friend “P.” Drunkenly sped his new Audi A4 through the streets of downtown at 3 AM – going the wrong way down a one way street. Upon coming upon a peace officer stopped at red light that crossed the one way street, P. skidded to a halt, saluted the police cruiser Red Barron style and sped through the intersection. Officer Friendly didn’t even turn on the flashers. I know this because I was hunkered down in the back seat of the Audi. When we came to a screeching halt at the red light. It was the consensus of we three people in the car that it would be better if I wasn’t seen in the back seat of the car. It was the consensus that having my proverbial black ass in the back seat (or is that “black seat”) was just asking to get pulled over. Let’s be clear: drunkenly slaloming the wrong way down a one way street did not merit such consideration. Which I suppose for three white guys in a car it didn’t. It only merited such thought in so much as we all knew that having a black guy in the car at that moment in time was a bad Idea. But I digress. Where was I? Oh yes…. driving my new car.

So I got stopped about twice a month while driving the Acura. Mostly by police who had excuses ranging from “we got a report of someone ‘matching your description’ stealing monkeys from the zoo” to my personal favorite: “You were driving pretty slowly; you weren’t looking for something were you?” Normally the answer was “parking”. N.B.: replying honestly or tersely is generally not a good idea with police folk. They consider such things “uppity”. And while most people find the idea of finding a car to break into while driving in your own new car a little absurd, those who protect and serve know to look beyond logic. So it was one of those moments when after being stopped for some contrived reason I reached over to get my license and registration and came back to a Glock 17 pointed squarely at my face. It was at that moment that I was told I should move more slowly if I didn’t want to get shot. I had assumed – it would appear incorrectly – that when the officer had asked me for my registration and proof of insurance that he meant for me to procure it from the glovebox. What he had actually meant was for me move incredibly slowly towards the glove box, the entire time announcing that I did not have a fire arm located there. I assumed that since I had told him my name, and that it matched what they had received from the DMV that he was merely going through the motions and I would soon be on my way. I was wrong. And being wrong in that moment almost had my brains splattered all over the interior of my car. Later that evening over a glass of something brown and over 86 proof, I thought about how that police report would have been written. The quote “I thought I saw him reaching for a gun” kept going through my mind. That simple sentence in the report would be enough to assure all involved that the shooting was a justified use of force.

I usually don’t self identify as black. For those of you that aren’t in the social norm know: when Living in San Francisco – how you identify is hella’ important. No matter how you self identify – people here will respect that and try and work with you. Being a guy in tech I usually identify as an “emacs-whisky-drinker-techcompany-founder”; that’s enough of a tag to get by with in the realm of SF.

But in a world that increasingly refuses to allow one to get by on the sidelines. I’ve been forced to remember – no – constantly harangued – that I am black (first and always) in the eyes of this world. And that trumps every accomplishment. It supersedes every idea. It permeates every opportunity where I have to overcome the color of my skin just to get to zero and advance from there. No matter how I identify. No matter which adjectives I choose for myself.

I guess that when a kid gets shot for no good reason. And the rest of society says that it’s okay, because that kid was black. Yeah, I guess I have to pick a side and say something.

Moors the tragedy.

12 thoughts on “About that Trayvon Martin Thing…”

  1. Randall, thanks very much for going ahead and deciding to post this.

    Too often as a white male I confess that just because *I* wouldn’t think twice about scanning your boarding card, I forget how often you and others get subconscious prejudice thrown at you.

    That’s pretty self centred of me and makes me sad. Bringing it up helps – thanks for doing so.

    Chris

  2. Powerful article, and one that made me rethink the effect of my actions on others. But you phrase-group “transgendered” with “half wolf from dimension X named Galactic Lobo.” For another minority that fears daily violence in the Bay Area (and in some cases I’m familiar with, from police), blending that particular identifier with an absurdity is invalidating.

    1. That wasn’t my intention. My intention was to show exactly how welcoming the bay area is. It’s one of the few places where that it doesn’t matter. FWIW: That “example” is actually taken from a real person that I know; I tried to obscure it a little by making it look like the example wasn’t drawn from real life. I didn’t ask to include them in the story so I didn’t want to use anything close enough that might accidentally identify them.

      I do apologize if I offended. Mark it up to my lack of expression, not malicious intent.

  3. At the risk of sounding ignorant:

    My best friends, ney brothers, are African American. Having seen instances such as your boarding pass translation, all the way to being accused of stealing with a receipt in hand we’re very really growing up. Then there were times where weeks would go by without an instance unforgivingly allowing us to ignore the harsh reality that is our (still) society. Then sure enough another unprovoked incident would happen to remind us it is all too real. This post, Trayvon’s story, all too real to be real .. surreal. I digress.
    Thank you for sharing Randall.

    1. Not ignorant at all.

      We all have a story. And I think something keeps us from sharing them.

      Thanks for adding to the narrative.

  4. Wait – you said that the Bay Area was welcoming. So does that mean that you don’t get regularly stopped in flights from SF – but more likely, on the way back?

    1. Nope – happens is SF more often than other places actually.

      Almost never in NYC. But I haven’t really kept good stats on it so take it with a grain of salt.

  5. At the risk of sounding trite, but I think the closing narration of this episode of the Twilight Zone (“The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street) is quite apt:

    The tools of conquest do not necessarily come with bombs and explosions and fallout. There are weapons that are simply thoughts, attitudes, prejudices – to be found only in the minds of men. For the record, prejudices can kill. And suspicion can destroy. And a thoughtless, frightened search for a scapegoat has a fallout all its own – for the children…and the children yet unborn. And the pity of it is…that these things cannot be confined…to the Twilight Zone.

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