The news of George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the killing of Trayvon Martin produced an immediate and very emotional reaction. I absorbed the quotes and articles, friends on Facebook, talking heads on Sunday morning news shows, perspectives, justifications, and over and over again, people trying to talk about ‘what this is really about.’ The conversation feels frustratingly limited, considering the complexity of the issue and the strength of all the opinions. It’s also a powerful example of the need for Building Bridges to expand our work addressing the divisions that exist within the US.
Depending on the news source, this was an isolated, tragic incident in Florida, or it was one more in a litany of cases that prove how Black lives are valued less than White. It was proof about how wrong racial profiling is, or an unfortunate byproduct of the need for it. It was about the erosion of civil rights, for the victim or the gun owner. It was about the injustice of and the need for Stand Your Ground laws. And, it was about the pain of a parent who has to explain to her children the dress, posture, and manner of speech they need in order to survive their trip to the corner store for candy. What it was not was nuanced, or complex, or in context.
I believe that Trayvon Martin’s death is an immeasurable loss to his family and his community, and potentially to us all. And, I believe his death is an example of how racism makes our society a dangerous place to live, especially for young Black men.
Zimmerman’s acquittal, however, is less clear. I have feelings about it that I’m not going to share here because in our world of shorthand, hashtag communication, how we feel about this verdict will quickly fit us into some political or social box. And that will be our loss. In fact, it is the complexity of what happened that we need to address to learn more about how the interplay of race, class, and gun laws continue to affect our daily lives. I don’t fully understand the perspective of people who believe differently from me about the issues involved here, because their perspectives are not available to me in any meaningful way. We can watch the news channels’ coverage, or read blogs, where we’ll hear the extremes. And then, when we find out our neighbors think differently than us, we work to avoid the topic because it’s so uncomfortable, or we don’t know how to talk about it.
Our culture exhorts us to fit into sides or colors or boxes, and I believe those labels paralyze us. We are forced to stand on one side or the other of multi-faceted issues. And, when there is no space or opportunity for complex views to emerge and be shared, the same story, the same issues, play out over and over again. This acquittal comes the same week as Fruitvale Station, a film about the 2009 killing of a young Black man by a police officer in Oakland, who served less than a year for the crime.
When we talk about Building Bridges forming a US only program, we often get asked what the participants will talk about, since there isn’t an ongoing, visible conflict like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And today, I am sad that the answer is clear. Our program will offer a space for participants to step outside of their labels and their boxes and begin to unravel what’s true for them. We’ll offer them the opportunity for those truths to get complex. They’ll get to talk about it with someone who thinks differently from themselves, and they’ll emerge with skills and new ideas and the hope that change is possible.
Today, our hearts are with the Martin family, and our passion is for creating a world where complex conversations can bring about real change.