By: Johnny Gall
There is something I have to say to you. Rest assured, it is not something which I particularly want to say. In fact, it is something which I have avoided saying a thousand times. It is possibly the thing I am most ashamed of about myself. I find I must say this to you though, tonight, after watching a jury of your peers declare you not guilty after shooting and killing Trayvon Martin, whom you had been following with a gun because you found him suspicious.
Mr. Zimmerman, I am ashamed to admit that I know very well the paranoia you felt that night. There is a story to this. Four years ago, while walking to church, I was tapped on the shoulder and found myself being held at gunpoint by two black teenagers. I fought back. Over the course of a short altercation, I was pistol whipped more times than I could count, and eventually held in a choke hold by one boy as the other went through my pockets for any valuables. I ended the night with fifteen staples in my head.
Ever since then, I too have felt endangered at the sight of young black men dressed a certain way walking the streets at night. I hate this about myself, but after a year and a half of therapy and four years of positive experience, the rational part of my brain is still unable to stop the scared-shitless side from panicking. No matter how much I scold myself, there is still a part of my brain which sees a young black man walking the streets at night—just as I am walking the streets at night—and feels threatened.
I have done many things that I am not proud of, Mr. Zimmerman, though nothing nearly so egregious as you. I have turned around and walked the other way. I have crossed the street to avoid passing someone. I have looked over my shoulders a thousand times, and I have clenched my fists and shut my eyes tight as good men have passed me on the sidewalk, having done nothing wrong. I am certain that my reactions have led many people to feel self-conscious and ashamed of something they have no control over. I am certain that my prejudice, no matter how much I have struggled to keep it a secret, has done harm to good people. Even saying this to you now is probably harming many people whom I absolutely adore, which I hate.
The difference between you and me, Mr. Zimmerman, is that I refuse to justify my prejudice and I refuse to allow my fear to justify my actions. You may, like me, struggle to control that part of your mind which is bigoted and mean and which assumes trouble upon first glance. But despite what you or the criminal justice system might say, fear and paranoia are no justification for murder. However you may have felt that night, Mr. Zimmerman, you had choices. You had the choice to remain in your car and do nothing. You had the choice to listen to the police when they told you not to act. You had the choice to allow Trayvon to keep walking and eventually pass you by, reassuring you that you were worried for nothing. Our feelings, Mr. Zimmerman, are often out of our control, but our actions are not. You felt threatened, and I know well that you can’t stop yourself from having that impulse. But you made the choice to act on that impulse, and you chose to do so by stalking an unarmed boy and ultimately killing him, and there is no excuse for that.
What’s worse, the jury today justified you in this. Because of the Stand Your Ground law, you were allowed to act on your prejudice by hunting an unarmed teenager down and it was not considered criminal because you felt that he was a threat. Not only did you choose to justify the ugly bigoted part of your brain that told you Martin was “up to no good”, but our justice system chose to justify this as well.
Mr. Zimmerman, I know what it feels like to have the bigoted part of you rouse up and tell you that someone’s a threat to your life. The difference between you and me is that I recognize that part of me for what it is: ugly, violent, hateful, mean and usually incorrect. You may not be able to choose whether or not to feel afraid; I certainly don’t feel like I can stop myself from being afraid. But you have every choice about what you do when you feel afraid of someone, and you made the absolute worst choice you could possibly have made. Now, because you chose to listen to your fear and prejudice a boy is dead, and given the way the jury went, a precedent is set by which other men can commit violent acts and get out of criminal charges by stating that they felt afraid.
It is for this reason that I feel compelled to admit to you tonight that I often feel the way you felt. I hate it, but it’s true. Had I seen Trayvon Martin walking home that night, I probably would have felt afraid. I probably would have clenched my jaw and my fists and waited for him to pass me by, feeling relieved when he did so without incident. But I can promise you, Mr. Zimmerman, that had I seen Trayvon Martin walking home that night, I would not have chased him down, I would not have fought him and I would not have shot him. If I had been in your place, I would have been as terrified as you, but Trayvon Martin would still be alive because I would rather attempt to control my feelings rather than allow them to control me.
That’s my problem with you. You are a racist, and deep down so am I, and many other people in the world feel the same prejudice and fear that you felt that night, but would not have acted as you did. Racism is more powerful and prevalent than you can imagine, and we have each since birth been receiving messages from our culture that cause us to perpetuate these systems of prejudice. Still, each one of us has the choice to listen to these messages and act upon them or to recognize them for the hatred and meanness they are made of and ignore them. You made the wrong choice, Mr. Zimmerman, and because of that a young man is dead. And I don’t care how you felt that night, because I have felt the same thing many times and I have often reacted to it badly, but never so badly as you did and never at the cost of a human life. So, whatever our criminal justice says, I know that by no means can you be considered not guilty. Your fear does not excuse you and it does not justify your actions. You are free, by all means, to be as bigoted and racist as you want to be, but when those feelings cause you to murder, you are not allowed to cite them as a justification. You never had to listen to them.