When I was 13, I had a season ticket to the Golden State Warriors at the Oakland Coliseum. It wasn’t that expensive back then, and I had paid for it with money from my paper route. Still, I deem that kid as privileged just for having had such a luxury. I went to the games by myself, as it was just my mother and me then. I would take the BART train and walk the quarter mile across the walkway to the coliseum along with all the other Warrior fans.
One night, as I climbed the stairs from the station to the walkway, two African American teenagers stopped me. They were no older than myself.
One of them pulled a knife out, and they demanded my ticket. I handed over the ticket and, additionally, started myself crying. One of the boys said, “He’s crying!” with incredulity. At which point I told them that I was meeting my dad at the game, so they would get nowhere using the ticket (or so my story went). In any case, my ruse worked as they were just early teenagers themselves and probably weren’t very accomplished at pulling knives on anyone, let alone someone their own age. They let me go. Incredulity was the right reaction on their part, because I continued on to the coliseum, and, using the money in my wallet that they had not taken, I bought another ticket. That part speaks for itself.
I tell this story to point out that our different socio-economic standing in the late ’70s of the Bay Area is at least remotely similar to a young urban Latino man and his younger, less advantaged alleged assailant, Trayvon Martin (one reason for that difference is that George Zimmerman lives in a house, not an apartment). But in this case, Trayvon’s life as a young black man in America had prepared him to act, rather than take the sissy’s way out as I had. Even at that young age, I somehow had learned that my chances of escaping the situation best relied on humanizing those teenagers to feel badly, rather than reacting with force (I was a skinny excuse for a boy, so that option never occurred to me, either).
But Trayvon Martin had no such thought. He had been conditioned by society to expect nothing but ill will in such a situation, ill will that all the talk in the world wouldn’t right. This is only the second time I have shared this rather miniscule story with anyone (the first was with my mom). I do so because it is a small example of the fear, based on past experience, Trayvon Martin must have felt at being pursued. And he did not have the benefit of feeling that he could reason his way out of a dangerous situation.
I can’t imagine what his family and friends feel about the verdict. But I know it is something I could never hope to understand. At that stage in my life, I had a fear of black people that I no longer do. Some of the best, most tolerant people in my life have been African American. But when we as a nation accept such fear as the reality, we practically guarantee that young men like Trayvon Martin will be conditioned to act with mistrust rather than freedom.
His reaction was different from mine, and someone just as fearful and spineless as I was at 13 took his life for it.
Kendall Eyster lives in San Luis Obispo. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.