A lot of people have emailed me asking me for my take on the Trayvon Martin killing, and although I’ve kind of wanted to write about it at the same time I have not wanted to touch it with a ten-foot pole. Mostly this is because I am A) white and B) not American, so I’m two steps removed from being able to make any truly cogent commentary – all of the greatest writing about this that I have read has come, not surprisingly, from black people trying to articulate why they’re mad about it, and I don’t know quite how to approach the enormity of the black experience in America from a doubly outside perspective. So this may not be searing eloquence here, is my point.
Sadly, I think the best way I can discuss it and why, this time at last, the anger from black people is not going away (and it isn’t, and it shouldn’t) starts with the context of The Hunger Games movie. Yes, I know I’m making a leap here that is seven-league-boots long, but bear with me, I’m just using it as a starting point. And yes, that means some spoilers for the movie based on a book which came out four years ago, so deal with it or don’t read.
One of my favorite things about the movie (which is good, but not perfect by any means) was how Alexander Ludwig played Cato at his death – the alpha-dog career Tribute is completely beside himself because he’s finally realized that the ruleset he’s internalized doesn’t apply. All his life he’d been trained to accept a reality where, sure, he’d have to kill some people, but it was part of an inevitable progression towards the life he imagined he was supposed to have and anyway those people didn’t matter. The consequences of being a tribute were never supposed to apply to him. He was following the rules, and optimizing himself to work within those rules, and although at his end he realizes that the rules were basically bullshit and were never going to guarantee him anything, he’s still trying to work within them even when he’s accepted the reality of his own imminent death because he’s internalized them so much that he can’t entirely believe that the rules aren’t going to step in and save him.
Okay, nerd digression over, we can stop talking about the movie now and go back to society. Society, for the most part, is the process of internalizing rules and accepting that following them is good. Usually these rules exist for good reasons. “Don’t kill people,” for example, is a good rule because it means if everybody follows it nobody will try to murder you, except rulebreakers, and then those rulebreakers run into “don’t break the rules” and they’re in trouble. Granted, sometimes there can be stupid rules, but luckily we have managed to advance society to the point where we can discuss and change the rules. This is about as good as society is gonna get unless we become telepathic.
Now – were I black and in America, I would be perpetually pissed off to begin with, because it’s quite evident that being black in America means you get a different set of rules than, say, white people do. But simply having an unfair set of extra rules isn’t really enough to get people really, really mad most of the time. (The civil rights struggle basically started after the Civil War ended and took nearly a century to get to the point where a majority of the black population was engaged, and it wasn’t because black people weren’t being treated like shit at the beginning of it.)
No – what gets you really mad is having the fact shoved in your face that not only do you have a different set of rules, but in fact that those rules don’t apply whenever someone feels like having them not apply for whatever reason. And even then, black people in the USA have been remarkably restrained. Amadou Diallo gets shot to death by cops and sure, people get pissed off, but there’s no real uprising. Sean Bell gets shot to death by cops and again – it’s an everyday thing, right? Cops shoot black people and get away with it. Black people got angry about Rodney King, but since then it’s been clear that nobody really gives a shit if cops beat up black people for no good reason and that gets internalized as one of the rules, so it becomes perceived as less of a big deal (on some level) when Diallo or Bell gets shot.
But Trayvon Martin pushes the envelope too far again, because his killing was so much more extreme. He was a kid, for starters. He wasn’t shot by cops, but by some random idiot with a gun who didn’t even get arrested. When the conflict started he walked away. These facts are not in dispute.
(Naturally, this means conservatives have started trying to justify Trayvon’s death, which tells you all you need to know about modern American conservatism. Liberals get angry about a senseless murder, so conservatives decide that the murder must have been proper because liberals are angry about it. Trayvon deserved to die because he was 17 and not the little kid who shows up in all those photos in the media! He deserved to die because when he was pursued by someone with a gun he may have fought back! He deserved to die because he was suspended from school for having a plastic bag, traditionally used to hold pot! This is what modern conservatism has come to: demonizing a dead kid for being in the wrong place and the wrong time.)
This is a new level of disrespect for black people who followed the rules – as unfair as those rules might be. Part of internalizing rules is accepting the fact that if you break the rules you will be punished, and even if the rules aren’t fair you can at least always follow them and stay safe from punishment – which, for black people, is often lethal. But the moral of the Trayvon Martin killing is that the rules never existed in the first place and indeed will just be revised as necessary (and retroactively if need be) to make sure that anything is justifiable under the rules. That’s why the anger isn’t going away this time. It’s why I hope it continues to not go away.
Because, seriously. 17.