Learning from messy narratives

By Alan Bean

The Trayvon Martin case is following a predictable trajectory.  Calls for the arrest of George Zimmerman centered on the self-appointed neighborhood watch captain’s unprovoked vigilante pursuit of an unarmed citizen.  Now comes the inevitable backlash as the Sanford, Florida police department leaks reports that Martin had been suspended from school after being connected to an empty marijuana baggie.  The unspoken message is that Trayvon Martin really was the flipped-out druggie Zimmerman initially reported in a 911 call.

In addition, Zimmerman’s attorney is suggesting that Martin initiated the physical altercation that lead to his own death.

A certain amount of speculation is unavoidable in this case.  We know that Zimmerman decided to leave his vehicle, against the advice of the 911 operator, with the clear intention of confronting Martin.   We know that Martin was aware that he was being followed because he was on the phone to his girlfriend at the time.  We know a physical altercation preceded the shooting because of the grass stains on the back of Zimmerman’s shirt and his bloody nose.  We know that Zimmerman used deadly force to resolve the situation.

Frankly, I was surprised that it took so long for the champions of the status quo to start spinning the story to their own advantage.  For two weeks, black civil rights groups and bloggers have had the mainstream media all to themselves.  That couldn’t last.  It never does.

In Jena, Louisiana, a fierce counter-narrative emerged early on, in which the entire affair was credited to my overheated liberal imagination.

When James Crowley, a white cop, confronted Henry Louis Gates in his own home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, status quo people argued that Gates could have avoided arrest if he had welcomed the intrusion.

The same process would have engulfed the infamous Tulia drug sting if the story had stayed alive a few weeks longer.

When the status quo is threatened by claims of systemic racial bias, the propaganda machine goes into overdrive.  This normally involves the assertion that a liberal media is making excuses for thuggish behavior.  If the folks on the receiving end of unjust treatment can be redefined as one of “those” people, the horrific details no longer matter.

Two facts emerge from this familiar dialectic of thesis and antithesis.  First, America deals with public policy issues by arguing about discrete narratives.  Tulia was about narcotics task forces, Jena was about the school to prison pipeline, the Gates affair was about racial profiling, and the Trayvon Martin story is about Stand Your Ground laws.

Secondly, when these narratives sweep across the media stage, America quickly divides into protestors claiming that the narrative du jour is a prime example of systemic racism, and debunkers insisting it is nothing of the kind.  Both groups focus on the facts that work for them while ignore aspects of the story that are more problematic.

At Friends of Justice we understand that America engages issues through a narrative lens.  But narratives are messy.  Stories turn tragic when bad decisions by one actor spark even worse decisions from other actors.  The Tulia defendants, for the most part, were not model citizens; that’s why the folks in charge used the drug war to run them out of town.  The bizarre intrusion on officer Crowley would never have come to light if Professor Gates had responded to the man in his living room with grace and equanimity.  In Jena, the refusal of public officials to call a hate crime by its proper name sparked an adversarial relationship between two groups of students that became increasingly violent over time.

It appears likely that, at some point, Trayvon Martin confronted his stalker.  We don’t know how the stand-off led to gun play, but Zimmerman’s bloody nose and grass stained shirt suggest a physical altercation.

There is always a dance between the oppressor and the oppressed.  Generally, things don’t get out of hand so long as the oppressed makes his peace with the oppressor.  Narratives only come to national attention when the powerless person says no.

Trayvon Martin is dead because he said no.  Had he peeled back his hoodie, smiled, and responded to Zimmerman’s “what you doing in my neighborhood” inquisition with sweet equanimity, he would still be alive.  But he didn’t, and that should hardly come as a surprise.

Real life narratives are messy because life is messy.  Victims of injustice get caught up in the mess.  They don’t play their roles with the disciplined panache of a Rosa Parks.  They talk back; they fight back; they come out swinging.  And that’s when bad things happen.  That’s when the tragedy quotient gets high enough to catch the media’s attention.

Why did George Zimmerman feel called to defend his neighborhood from intruders?  We did he see Trayvon Martin as out of place, an anomaly.  Because he was wearing a hoodie?  Because he was walking with a peculiar gate?  Because he appeared overly interested in his surroundings?  Eliminate Martin’s blackness from the equation and it is impossible to imagine Zimmerman reacting as he did.

Zimmerman defined criminality in racial terms.  Who, or what, taught him to think this way?

The same social phobias that shaped George Zimmerman’s worldview also created Florida’s Stand Your Ground law.  Your average legislator was thinking of the residents of white neighborhoods fending off the criminal element when they passed that law, and the stereotypical criminal in the crosshairs of legislative imagination looked a lot like Trayvon Martin: a young black male in a hoodie.

President Obama said it all: If he had a seventeen year old son, he would look a lot like Trayvon Martin.  And so the president is gripped by the pathos.  White parents know instinctively that laws have not been written with their sons in mind, so they can’t relate to the anguish this story has hooked.  What’s the big fuss?  Sure, I feel for the parents, but if the kid hadn’t gone all street on Zimmerman . . .

Must these messy narratives always divide us?  Can’t we all agree that Zimmerman precipitated a tragedy by stalking an innocent young man on the basis of unwarranted stereotypes?  Can’t we all agree that local law enforcement betrayed a double standard when they took Zimmerman’s explanation at face value and failed to even identify the body at the crime scene?  Can’t we all agree that, regardless of what facts ultimately emerge in this case, Zimmerman should have been arrested as a murder suspect?

Our national conversations will continue to revolve around messy narratives.  No one was talking about Stand Your Ground laws until Trayvon Martin died; at least no one with an audience.  No one was talking much about narcotics task forces in Texas before Tulia.  Every issue comes with a narrative attached.  No narrative; no debate.

All we can ask is that everyone make a good faith effort to tell the whole story, including the community history in which it is rooted.  Gun toting vigilantes reflect the world around them.  It may be a grotesque, circus mirror reflection, but it’s a reflection all the same.  This story has something to teach America; I pray to God that the lesson isn’t obscured by the partisan blizzard.

2 thoughts on “Learning from messy narratives

  1. What we are witnessing is routine practice that they have down to a science, it is called spin. Learn the lesson so that you will be able to predicate and counter.

  2. I agree strongly with your article. Zimmerman pursued and that causes the one being pursued to experience a “flight of fight” response. The kid chose to fight and he lost to the guy with the gun. The responsibility lays right at the feet of Zimmerman. He caused the death of an unarmed kid. Zimmerman is the one who forced the kid to choose. Anyone who straps on a gun and pursues an unarmed person and a death results, should have to pay a high price for the loss of a life, irregardless of who threw the first punch.

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