Monday, March 26, 2012


My Trayvon Moment

So, about 25 years ago, I was living in Annapolis, capital of Maryland, sitting right on the Chesapeake Bay. It has a distinction of being one of the early capitals of young America AND a major port for the US slave trade. Yes, down by the docks, there's even a plaque commemorating Kunta Kinte's arrival. 

Today, Annapolis' great claim to fame is being home to both the US Naval Academy and St. John's College, a liberal arts institution of which I am a proud graduate. 

At the time of this anecdote, it was either the summer before or after my graduation. I was walking down Prince George Street, which runs up from the docks toward the college, to visit friends living off-campus. My friends lived in the back half of a house -- with, alas, a non-functioning doorbell. This particular day, the residents in the front half (the landlord/renting family, as I recall) weren't home. 

After several minutes of fruitless knocking/banging on the front door,  I walked around the side of the house, tried a back gate, yelled up to my friends -- ultimately to no avail.  (Yes, kids, this is what life was like before cellphones!) 

After finally giving up, I headed down to the above-mentioned city dock about two blocks away, figuring to kill some time until I'd try to see if my friends were home later. 

After a few minutes, I'm on the sidewalk near one of the dock shopping areas. Suddenly I had this odd feeling ("sixth sense"? Cliche, yeah, but the only way I can explain it) and noticed something out of the corner of my eye. I turn to see a rather burly white man glaring at me -- with a baseball bat in his hand. 

"You! Don't move!" He yells.  "I saw you! Don't move!" I immediately start backing away. He continues advancing toward me. I turn and run, quickly ducking into a nearby confection/ice cream store. 

With Burly Man right behind me, I yell to the person behind the counter to call the police. Burly Man says, "Yeah, call 'em.  You're not going anywhere."

So, we wait for a few (seemingly interminable) minutes -- me standing almost behind the counter, while Burly stands, bat in hand, near the door.  Finally, a (white) police officer arrives.  Burly Man evidently lived in a house facing the back yard of my friends' place. He claims he saw me trying to break into their back entrance.  I explain what happened, why I was there, my friends not being home and how Burly started following me with his bat.

Happily, the story didn't play out as might be stereotypically presumed. 

The police officer asked me if I was harmed or felt any need to press charges. I said no. I was told I was free to go. He  took Burly Man aside, seemingly trying to calm him down. I didn't stick around to listen to their conversation. 

Was I angry after this altercation? Damn straight. Later that day, I related it to one of the other few black students at St. John's. He was even angrier than I was; he wanted to go and exact some righteous justice on Burly Man. I said, let it go. 

Looking back, free of the vivid emotion of the moment (as is obvious, the incident stays in my memory like it happened just, well, if not yesterday, but "last month" or so), things worked out right. 

Upside: No one was harmed, no one arrested. Downside: Did Burly Man learn anything? Probably not. Did he try anything like that again? Who knows. 

But why was there a favorable outcome? Primarily, because there was a cop who made a judgment and figured out on the spot whose account seemed more plausible.  

Unlike other racially-charged situations, the young black man was being given the benefit of the doubt. 

But, "what if"? 

What if Burly Man had a gun, instead of a bat -- and it had never gotten to that point? What if I wasn't wearing geeky black frame glasses and looking as non-threatening as I could be (with a still mildly noticeable Island/UK accent at the time)? What if I hadn't ducked into the store and initiated the call to the police -- and instead kept on running?

If a young black man is running through the streets with a big white guy behind him brandishing a bat, who looks in the right and who in the wrong? Another way of asking this question is who would be deemed "suspicious" and who "righteous"? 

It's an experience like this -- and these questions it provokes that make me realize why conservatives need to take a look at the specific statutes associated with Florida's Stand Your Ground law. 

And the full reasons for that will be delved into in my next post. Hint: It's the lesson gained from the police officer in this story.  

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