HOW TO HANDLE A TRAYVON-ZIMMERMAN MOMENT
BY WILLIAM DWIGHT MCKISSIC, SR.
No one disputes that George Zimmerman initiated the communication with Trayvon Martin. No one disputes that Neighborhood Watch Volunteers are trained not to carry a weapon. No one disputes that Neighborhood Watch Volunteers are trained not to personally intervene if they observe a suspicious person or activity, but rather notify law enforcement. No one disputes that the 911 dispatcher counseled Zimmerman not to pursue Trayvon. No one disputes that Trayvon had just as much right to be on those premises in Samford, Florida, as Zimmerman. Yet, Trayvon was the one viewed with suspicion and being pursued by Zimmerman. No one disputes that Zimmerman was the aggressor in the encounter.
The truth of the matter is young people, and not so young people, will inevitably face a Trayvon-Zimmerman-like encounter. A sudden, unanticipated, confrontational situation—with the potential to escalate to a violent encounter—could happen to any one of us—even in close proximity to our homes.
Someone can deem you as suspicious. Someone can approach you without identifying themselves and ask you questions that you deem are inappropriate. Someone can engage you with the wrong attitude. Someone can encroach upon your personal space and cross your comfort zone. Someone can form wrong and premature conclusions about you. Someone can report you to authority figures based on their false assumptions. Someone can approach and address you with a superior, judgmental, authoritarian and condescending attitude and disposition. This is what Trayvon Martin encountered at the hands of George Zimmerman on that dreadful evening in Samford, Florida.
Without the benefit of any prior knowledge, Zimmerman concluded that Trayvon Martin was an “a …hole, suspicious, and a f…ing punk.” He also categorized him as belonging to a group called “they” who always get away. Either Zimmerman had a mysterious, inexplicable discernment regarding Trayvon, or he profiled him. Those are serious and sordid assessments to make upon sight regarding a total stranger.
How do you reach such strong conclusions about a person that you’ve never met? It is impossible to harbor those kinds of feelings toward a person and it not be reflected in your actions, attitude, body language and speech when you approach and address that person.
People sense when these are your feelings toward them. Trayvon sensed Zimmerman’s unjustifiable disposition and attitude toward him. Zimmerman’s profile of Trayvon was based solely on externals and perception. Trayvon’s externals were: race, clothes, age, gender, skittles, tea, and a cell phone. Armed with only that knowledge, Zimmerman concluded that Trayvon is again, an a…hole, f…ing punk, suspicious and a member of a group called “they.”
It is my belief that we all engage in selective racial profiling at times. I certainly am no exception and neither was Zimmerman. To that extent I can identify with Zimmerman. The problem, however, is when we act on our “suspicions” or profiling. That is totally unacceptable and can easily ignite a dispute, fight and racial unrest—that can escalate to a national crisis—as we now all see.
Let me be clear. Had I been on the Zimmerman jury, I would have found him, guilty. If Zimmerman had been a 34-year old Black Man behaving in this manner toward a 17-year old White, Asian, or Hispanic child, I would also have voted—guilty.
President Obama is correct in stating the outcome would have been different if Trayvon had been the one left standing. We all know that if Trayvon would have been the one remaining alive that night, he would have been immediately arrested, tried, convicted and sentenced to life in prison. And that is why the vast majority of Black America are enraged by the verdict. Not having an African American on the jury exacerbates the outrage. The racial composition of the jury and the verdict reminded African Americans of an era that we’d hoped was past and gone.
As painful, disappointing and unjust as the Zimmerman verdict was, I found a sense of hope and healing from a surprising source—the President of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the SBC—Dr. Russell Moore. Reading what Dr. Moore said on this matter in the Washington Post produced a therapeutic and euphoric moment for me. Moore’s words represent the fact that the SBC may truly be on the verge of systemic and substantive change with regard to race. The fact that Moore is Anglo makes his words in this instance more impactful and helpful toward healing the wounds Blacks have felt over Trayvon’s tragic death. In our mid-week service last Wednesday, we put Moore’s quote on the stage screen and read his quote verbatim. These words were like apples of gold on plates of silver:
“Regardless of what Trayvon Martin was doing or not doing that night, you have someone who was taking upon himself some sort of vigilante justice, even by getting out of the car. Regardless of what the legal verdict was, this was wrong,” said Russell Moore…”
“And when you add this to the larger context of racial profiling and a legal system that does seem to have systemic injustices as it relates to African-Americans with arrests and sentencing, I think that makes for a huge crisis.”
“Most white evangelicals, white Americans, are seeing [the Martin case] microscopically, in terms of this verdict, and most African-Americans are seeing it macroscopically. It’s Trayvon Martin, it’s Emmitt Till, it’s Medger Evers, it’s my son, my neighbor’s son, my situation that I had,” Moore said. “Most white Americans say we don’t know what happened that night and they are missing the point.”
For a White Southern Baptists to truly understand the depth of our pain and to be willing to articulate and identify with our perspective without needlessly trampling on Trayvon’s grave is truly extraordinary.
When faced with a Trayvon-Zimmerman moment, there are only three possible responses one can make. Jesus in Scripture was also profiled based on His background. Therefore, He could identify with Trayvon. Jesus faced unwarranted and unanticipated opposition, as did Trayvon on the night of the Zimmerman encounter. By example and teaching, Jesus shows believers how to handle a Trayvon-Zimmerman encounter.
All believers of all colors will inevitably face an adversarial person that could be any race or color. Before we encounter that person(s) we need to make sure that we are armed and equipped with the mind of Christ (Philippians 2:5). Lessons from Jesus and Trayvon’s legacy can guide believers through an unanticipated moment of potential conflict.
The three options available when faced with a Trayvon-Zimmerman moment are to (1) fight; (2) finesse; or (3) flee. Jesus addressed all three.
1. The option to fight should only be employed when there is absolutely no other possible way to remedy the situation. And even then one can take the option of not fighting back and hoping that the aggressor will relent. Jesus taught that you should turn the other cheek. I know that sounds archaic and unrealistic in today’s culture; but this was the method employed by Jesus and Martin Luther King, Jr.
As a matter of fact, Jesus told Peter to put up his sword, because he who lives by the sword will die by the sword (Matthew 26:52). Jesus taught that responding to aggression with aggression is not wise. Trayvon responded to aggression with aggression, and that proved to be fatal and tragic for him. We all need to learn a lesson from that. The option to fight, according to Jesus, is not the best option to take.
2. The option to finesse when faced with a Trayvon Martin situation is also available. By finesse I mean to respond with conciliatory, constructive, non-threating dialogue. Jesus said in Matthew 5:25:
“Agree with your adversary quickly, while you are on the way with him, lest your adversary deliver you to the judge, the judge hand you over to the officer, and you be thrown into prison.”
To finesse when faced with a Trayvon-Zimmerman encounter, simply means to seek common ground in the dialogue—not battle ground. Jesus makes it clear that the consequences are weighty if the two parties don’t find—common ground. Jesus also makes it clear that the right kind of dialogue can lead to a peaceful resolution.
3. The third option available when faced with a Trayvon-Zimmerman encounter is to flee. This is probably the best option. Especially in the kind of situation Trayvon faced on that dreadful night.
Jesus said if peace don‘t abide, flee (Matthew 10:14). Jesus fled when he faced an aggressive group that was prejudiced against Him for false reasons. If Jesus fled in this situation, you and I can flee (John 10:39).
My mother warned her children that we would face a Zimmerman encounter in life. And again, we all have. Her advice was “It is better to be a live coward, than a dead hero.” And I believe mother was right and so was Jesus.
There comes a time, when you don’t allow someone else to take your life. By fleeing and finessing, you freely lay your life down.
You are to fight only if this is the only option that you believe is available to you.
Zimmerman was wrong. But to respond to the jury verdict with violence would be equally wrong. Two wrongs will never make a right. Innocent Hispanics and Whites who have been verbally and violently assaulted in the aftermath of the Zimmerman verdict—have been racially profiled, and we need to cry out against that kind of senseless violence as well. The media should publicize the names of the victims and perpetrators in these instances as they have done Trayvon and Zimmerman.
Ironically, the SBC may be the only ecclesiastical body that can bring our nation together for prayer and dialogue surrounding this issue across racial lines. The SBC sanctioned the segregation of American society from her inception through the first century of her existence. Perhaps, now the SBC can lead the way to the healing of racism and racial distrust in American society in the 21st Century. Zimmerman may have gotten by, but he is not going to get away. Remember O.J.? Maybe out of Trayvon’s death will evolve a resurrection of constructive racial dialogue and healing that could lead to the prevention of unnecessary racially motivated deaths in the future.