By Daniella Gibbs Leger
I have started and stopped this column multiple times. There are things I feel and want to say about the George Zimmerman trial that aren’t fit for this publication. I have more thoughts than can probably fit into 3 different essays. I struggle with what is the most important/crucial view I want to share. So perhaps I’ll start with a personal story.
Last Friday, I was pulled over by the police. I was maybe going a little too fast, but I didn’t see any radar guns, so perhaps it was a DUI checkpoint. They told me to turn off my car and asked for my driver’s license. The officers asked a few questions, we shared a laugh or two, and they let me go on my merry way. Oh, did I mention that this occurred in the Caribbean? I probably should, because if it happened here there would be no joking; everything would have been all business. And the biggest difference would have been that in the U.S., I would have been scared as hell until they let me go.
That’s what it means to be Black in America. Even when I know I am doing nothing wrong, I feel the weight of other people’s suspicions on my shoulders. I get anxious when cops pull up behind me even if I’m breaking no laws. I zip up all bags when I walk into stores lest anyone accuse me of attempting to steal something. On a non-crime note, I still feel that I must list my high school GPA and SAT scores when I talk about what college I went to, since some like to assume that I must have taken the spot of some other more qualified person. In the hours of Twitter, email, Facebook and in-person conversations I’ve had since this verdict was delivered, the main underlying theme is one of bone-shaking tiredness. Trayvon Martin did nothing wrong, yet he is dead. George Zimmerman stalked him, got out of his car when police told him not to, never identified himself as a neighborhood watchman, got into a scuffle with a presumably scared kid who would have had every right to defend himself against this stranger, shot and killed him and today he walks free. Oh, and he gets his gun back too. Yay Florida!
So what do we tell our young boys (and girls) today? Don’t wear hoodies? Don’t buy Skittles and iced tea? Don’t walk in any neighborhood after 8pm? Don’t be aware of your surroundings at all times because if you confront someone, you might get shot? And if you run away, you still might get shot?
The racist trolls were out in full effect Saturday night. I might have to put defense attorney Mark O’Mara in that category too…ok, not (necessarily) the racist part, but he certainly trolled us all when he said that if Zimmerman had been Black, he would have never been arrested. Let that statement sink in for a while. My reaction (one not suitable for print) was and is one of great astonishment. Because O’Mara seems to be many things – a complete idiot isn’t one of them. If Zimmerman had been Black, for one, he would have been arrested right away, not after 40 days of protests. Two, if we assume Martin is still Black, no one would have known or cared about this case outside of Sanford, Florida. Three, if Trayvon is White in this scenario? Please, Zimmerman would have been under the jail already. And to claim otherwise is to have a complete ignorance of the current justice system in this country.
So what now? In the immediate aftermath, there is a lot of anger, but there is also the beginning of a movement. And that’s a topic for another column. In the meantime, parents hug your kids tighter tonight. Have those difficult conversations with them. It may pain you to have to tell them about the realities of being Black in America, but your words could maybe save their lives. Of course as I type that last sentence, I still don’t know what Trayvon could have done differently besides not be a Black kid in a hoodie. And that fact right there breaks my heart.
Daniella Gibbs Léger is the Senior Vice President for American Values and New Communities with the Center for American Progress.
Editor’s Note: This column was originally posted on essence.com.