In the wake of the Trayvon verdict, America has been struggling to make sense of the rulings and their implications. On my Facebook feed, the place where America now works out its public traumas, friends have posted about America’s broken justice system and the continuing savage inequalities in our country — the kind that mean that Zimmerman can get off scot-free while a victim of domestic abuse who had a restraining order against her assailant can get 20 years for firing a warning shot, all under the exact same law.
However, I have just as often witnessed people defend Zimmerman, saying that he had a right to defense if he felt unsafe, to which I want to ask about the women I know who feel unsafe in public every day, a place where they are routinely catcalled and leered at. Should they be able to shoot every man that harasses them? Who has a right to feel safe?
To back up their defense of Zimmerman’s need for safety, they classify Trayvon Martin as a “thug,” a “hoodlum” or ” a “punk.” Recently, I heard a gay man say that he stopped going to a local bar frequented by people of color because there were too many “riff raffs” there. I wondered what riff-raff really stood for, which was obviously coded language for the words he couldn’t use in public. “Say what you really mean,” I wanted to ask.
Last week, Martin Bashir discussed Trayvon Martin’s school record on air, in a segment where he compared Martin’s “past” with the indiscretions of George W. Bush. Trayvon may or may not have had trouble in school, but according to some, his crimes make him a threat, worthy of being of shot. But Trayvon Martin was still a kid and a minor, at an age where we usually chalk up a little juvenile delinquency by saying that “boys will be boys.”
After the age of 17, George W. Bush was arrested for drunk and disorderly conduct and theft, not convicted of a hit and run when he was 26 and arrested for a DUI at 30. We’ve let that slide, so much so that Bush got to be the president afterward, after endangering the lives of many people around him. Bush coasted through Yale on the Gentleman’s C and got to lead the country — whereas Trayvon, an honor student, is a future criminal.
Why are some of us boys and others a menace to society? You tell me.
At fifteen, I was definitely still a boy, and hardly the type of kid that Zimmerman would have been following. Like Trayvon Martin, I was an honors student and involved in almost every social club our school had to offer — from Student Council to Drama Club and Academic Team. (I even volunteered for the Kerry campaign and at a local nursing home in my free time.) If you looked at my transcript, you would say I was a career nerd, the kind that took AP classes for fun and read the footnotes. I snuck outside reading into the classes I didn’t like, because I knew was going to get an A anyway.
Truth be told, I was kind of a dick. I thought the rules didn’t apply to me and I got to pick which ones I followed and which I could ignore, like the suggested dosage on a bottle of aspirin. Rules weren’t meant to be broken, just ignored if you had the privilege to do so.
Instead of going to pep rallies, I snuck out early and smoked pot in the bleachers with my friends, while we talked about Ghost World and Nietzschean philosophy. We walked out of our bills at restaurants and blew off prom to go to a metal show, coasting down the highway to Louisville while I read A Brief History of Time. We felt like we had cracked the code, staying out and lighting up a bong until 5:00 in the morning and still showing up to English class the next day.
When I was staying out late, my mother called it my “rebellious phase” and encouraged me to get it out of my system. As long as I stayed in school, I could do whatever I wanted, and in many ways, my behavior was encouraged. The first time I came home late, my stepfather grounded me, but after that, he was glad I had friends. Before then, I kept to myself — locked away reading The Bell Jar or watching Annie Hall in my room instead of going out — and I think he was just happy to see I wasn’t a total loser after all. Seeing me break the law came as a relief.
This time in your life is so common that TV shows glamorize it, like Gossip Girl or the critically beloved Freaks and Geeks, a cult classic that went off the air four years before I started being “one of the boys.” It all just fun and games — at least when you’re privileged and white. At the end of the day, my parents knew I was another Lindsay Weir, who just wanted to fit in and find her place in the world. I wasn’t a threat, just a secret loser who wanted to be liked at any cost. When I shoplifted, my uncle waited in the car, engine idling. When I came home high, my mom offered to smoke with me — to show she could be cool, too. Ah, to be young again.
When I was eighteen, my father taught me how to come down off acid: You just smoke a bowl, and it all gets easier to deal with. He figured that if I was going to be staying out all night, I might as well know how to handle myself. “Being young isn’t worth fucking your life up over,” he said and patted me on the back. He knew I would turn out fine.
The day a classmate of mine got busted in school for selling drugs, as part of a months-long sting operation, it wasn’t even a wake up call. College applications stuffing my mailbox, the brochures were lined with faces like mine, kids just partying it up and having a good time. On my first college trip, my hosts’ friends offered me cocaine and pills, the latter of which I’d become accustomed to from my mother’s cabinet. They told me, “Here we work hard to play hard.”
When I went off to college, all of my roommates sold drugs and one of them regularly freebased heroin in the bathroom. We found his spoons in the sink. No matter where I went, the cabinet doors were always open. No matter where I went, another rich white dude was asking me if I wanted another hit. The first time I snorted Vicodin, crushed up and neatly organized in a little line, a friend of mine smiled and said, “This is what dreams are made of.”
Never once was I called a thug. Never once was I followed. Never once did anyone ever suggest that I deserved to be beaten or profiled or shot, even though we lived in the “bad side of town.” I looked “white,” I acted “white” and I dressed “white,” insisting that my mother take me to Hollister to buy my clothing, like my rich friends. She helped me pass, working two or three jobs to pay for my new track jackets and popped collars, because we both knew that’s what it took to fit in. You just had to look the part.
When my friends saw where I lived for the first time, they were universally shocked. They didn’t think that someone like me would live “there.” Some pitied me, but others looked at my upbringing as a curiosity, attempting to figure out how I happened. When people meet my mother for the first time, they look at my bowtie and then look at her. I can tell they are still trying to put together the pieces.
I remember the day that I got my college acceptance letters, which piled up at my mailbox. My mother was so proud of me that she offered to pay my first year’s tuition, which she couldn’t afford. She hugged me, tears welling up in her face at the thought that I would make it out. I would have the life she never got, pregnant and in love too young to know what to do with it. I got to keep my dreams.
When I saw the first picture of Trayvon with a red Hollister shirt on, I thought of his mother’s face, wondering if it welled up with tears as she thought of his future. What’s the difference between Trayvon and me? Why did I get a future and Trayvon didn’t? I am not Trayvon Martin. I was not a “thug,” and I never will be. I’m still just a boy, still just a secret loser who wants to be cool. As you compare our “youthful indiscretions,” I implore you to ask yourself why.