I’ve met you before. Kind of. I’ve defended morally culpable, legally defensible clients. Long before my heart broke because you killed Mr. Martin, I’d seen dudes like you and been amazed. Prejudice — against women, against blacks, against anyone who is acting with more agency than those in power want to afford them — causes people in positions of power to do some really fucked up shit. Fear — of punishment, of the veil being lifted, of not liking what they see in the mirror — causes them to cling to their initial prejudices, twisting them like a toddler tugs a security blanket, until they’re convinced that their prejudices are necessary and they’re worn like armor against the perceived injustice of a potential victim not acting like a victim. Wielded like a weapon against a woman saying what she wants. Or against a black teenager walking, talking and carrying candy in a nice neighborhood. Like he belonged. Like he had that right.
And here’s what I want you to know: I think I’m a good person. I believe in the concepts of freedom and liberty articulated in the Constitution. I was a public defender for a couple of years, and I shielded myself from the discomfort of being a woman defending woman-beaters with the belief that humanness demands humane treatment. That I am better — that the world is better — when I treat guilty and innocent alike with the same dignity and respect. It worked, to an extent.
You should also know: my shield has cracks. The worse the abuse of a position of power, the less self-restraint I exhibit, the less dignity and respect I afford the abuser in my own mind. Because here’s the thing: the system is already stacked. I know, because I benefit. By accident of birth, I have whiteness, stature, straightness, access to education and money in a country that grants worth along those axes. Because of this, my greatest struggles are nothing compared with those of others — but they are something. They are to recognize and make the most of those unmerited presumptions of worth. And it is when I feel isolated in those struggles that I throw down my shield and lash out. I can’t abide the entitlement and selfishness of people gaming a system already rigged in their favor. Which is why your acquittal makes me so sick, and so sad.
You could take so many things for granted, and you did, and then you took a life. You called the cops, and they came. They came, and they treated you well. You did what they told you not to do — pursue Trayvon, confront Trayvon — and that’s inconsequential. You’re on tape yelling hateful things, yet the law allows for doubt as to your intent. You initiated a confrontation, shot bullets into the body of an unarmed adolescent, and he died on the sidewalk; you went home. Trayvon was doing nothing wrong; he paid for your prejudice with his life. You got the benefit of a trial inside a system designed for your benefit, the very sidewalk where your victim perished re-paved as his weapon. Arguments in your favor were flip and disrespectful, yet it is your victim’s traumatized friend who is lambasted in the court of public opinion. How is it that ugly derision was aimed at Ms. Jeantel and not at her treatment?!
(And her torment can’t be brushed aside in the name of zealous courtroom advocacy. Here’s how one of your lawyers is raising his daughters:
And, George, in the end the verdict doesn’t contradict your assumptions that you belonged there that night, and that Trayvon didn’t. And you continue to benefit, now from a history of power and violence that necessitates non-violent protests from the dissenters, and from a history of Christian conversion that bestows on you the grace of your victim’s parents. You wreaked death and destruction, and a tornado of unmerited privilege conspired put the pieces back together in a way that avoids legal culpability for how wrong this all is.
But you and I both know that there can be a huge chasm between “not guilty” and “innocent.” And there are just two things that allow me to pick up my shield, to fight to take the high road and to keep a critical eye on what’s in my own heart: the confidence that you’re living in that dark chasm; and the knowledge that the next letter I write will add my voice to the multitude calling for a change in the wake of this injustice.