Race & Politics, Theory & Essay

My Truth About The Night Of The Zimmerman Verdict


Those who know me and/or have been long-time fans of VSB know I am a textbook introvert. A prominent characteristic of this introversion is the possession of both a need to be clearly understood when communicating and an equally present fear of being misunderstood. My preference for writing instead of speaking stems from this. Basically, I love to write because it allows me a better opportunity to articulate exactly what’s going on in my head than speaking does.

As I’ve gained experience, I’ve gotten better at getting what’s in my head outside of it. It’s very rare now to have a thought I’m compelled to express and not have the words to express it. Even rarer to not have the words and be unsure I’d even use them if I did.

When attempting to process my feelings about what happened the night of the Zimmerman verdict, both occurred.

The night the verdict was announced, I had plans to attend a friend’s birthday party. This friend lives six blocks away. Since my girl and I planned to drink, we decided to walk instead of drive, and I received word that Zimmerman was found not guilty right when we were about to head out the door.

I still remember the weightlessness—a combination of outrage, sadness, and shock—I experienced when first hearing the news. I also remember how scrolling through my Twitter timeline and reading hundreds of tweets from people experiencing the same thing exacerbated these feelings.

When writing about that night, I made sure to articulate these feelings as passionately and contextually as I could. But, I intentionally left out something that colored my night just as vividly. The decision to omit was partially influenced by the fact that I couldn’t quite articulate it yet. And, even if I was able to, I wasn’t willing to go there. Especially not at that time.

I’m still not sure if I should share this. And, I’m still not sure if I will articulate what I’m about to say the best way I can. But, I don’t know. I just feel like I need to now.

It was approximately 75 degrees and clear enough to see multiple stars. And, as I mentioned earlier, my friend lived six blocks away. Six blocks in Pittsburgh is a 10 minute walk. Driving to this party should not have even been an option.

It was an option, though, because we live in a neighborhood where the threat of violent crime is always present. I wouldn’t exactly call it crime-ridden. I grew up in a legitimately dangerous neighborhood, and this doesn’t seem to be anywhere close to that. But, there have been some robberies, and it’s not uncommon to hear police sirens and occasional gunshots at night. In June, a house across the street from us was hit with bullets from a drive by shooting.

Ironically, on a night when my anger towards and suspicion of the criminal justice system, the government, and America in general—all “White” institutions—reached an all-time high, my most immediate thoughts and actions where governed by a suspicion of some of the Black people in my neighborhood. Not the “good” Black people, mind you, but Black people nonetheless.

That night was a perfect example of the mental gymnastics I put myself through when thinking about race, crime, and my own personal safety. I am fully aware of the traditionally adversarial relationship between Black people (Black men in particular) and the criminal justice system. I’ve read hundreds of articles, studies, and books about it. I’ve listened to numerous personal stories involving racist cops, judges, magistrates, lawyers, congressmen, and mayors. I’ve watched and attempted to deconstruct everything from Crash to Do the Right Thing (and I’ll get around to Fruitvale Station some time in the next couple of weeks). I’ve also been the victim of racial profiling on numerous occasions. (The latest occasion ended up costing me over $500 in tow and court fees.)

Yet, most of my anger towards and suspicions of “the system”—as well as White people in power—seem to exist on theoretical level. It’s almost as if I feel this way because I know I’m supposed to. It’s the way well-read and historically-aware Black people—Black men especially—are supposed to feel, but I think it more than I feel it.

In reality, when the sun goes down—the time of the day when people usually put more of a guard up—I’m much more cautious of and concerned about Black people. Black strangers, rather. And, by “Black strangers” I mean “sketchy-looking young Black males who I don’t know.” Women, men my age or older, and young Black males who don’t look and act “sketchy” don’t even register.

I’ve been annoyed by White strangers. Suspicious, even. But not suspicious to the point that it starts to register as legitimate caution. At least not the same type of caution that would make you consider turning an easy, 10 minute walk into a two minute drive.

I didn’t always feel this way. Despite being affected by violent crime in more ways than I care to list, those experiences never really caused me to experience any fear. As a kid, I was much more uncomfortable catching the bus at night while alone in the White suburb my middle school was in than catching one in my own neighborhood. Even the night of the verdict, I wouldn’t have even considered driving if I was by myself.

The shift in my perspective has coincided with me reaching an age where I’m responsible for the safety of others. Basically, I have a girlfriend now. And, having a girlfriend (or a wife, or a child, or an elderly relative) means I don’t have the luxury of allowing how I’m supposed to feel about the macro to override the reality of the micro. Mind you, they’re both important to me. But, my concerns about the criminal justice system’s inherent racial inequality, racial profiling, and even racism resonate with me on the same level that, I don’t know, heart disease does. I know it’s a huge problem that affects us disproportionately and I know it can very well even kill me and people close to me. But, on my personal hierarchy of things needing my immediate concern and attention, it just doesn’t rate very high.

We eventually decided to walk, and we talked about the verdict each second of the 10 minute trip. But, as heated conversation as that conversation got, it never entered the same immediate, visceral space for me that “I need to stay alert for n*ggas” did.

I am not speaking for all Black men, nor am I attempting to minimize what many other Black people have experienced and currently feel. I’m not aiming to start one of those “Black kids get shot every day. Why do we only care when they’re shot by White people?” conversations, and I’m also aware that much of the Black crime most of us have been touched by is a direct result of conditions created by this same system.

I’m just finally sharing what all was in my head that night, not just what would make for the most passionate and eloquent takedown of the Zimmerman verdict. I don’t feel good about this. But, I don’t think I’m supposed to.

—Damon Young (aka “The Champ”)

Damon Young

Damon Young is the editor-in-chief of VSB. He is also a columnist for GQ.com and EBONY Magazine. And a founding editor for 1839. And he's working on a book of essays to be published by Ecco (HarperCollins). Damon is busy. He lives in Pittsburgh, and he really likes pancakes. Reach him at damon@verysmartbrothas.com. Or don't. Whatever.

  • Ms Butterfly


    • The Champ


  • Ms Butterfly

    Well, black people are not immune to the images of themselves in popular culture, and you live in a predominantly black city. If you lived in one of the flyover states with mostly white people maybe you’d feel differently.

    • Agatha Guilluame

      Can I up vote this twice? That’s what it is Ms Butterfly…this fear of black folks isn’t something that’s only talked about at white-only town hall meetings, the same media biases they see, we see so it’s no surprise if eventually we absorb some of the same biases.

      It’s the reason why 70 years later after that initial Clark doll experiment was done, blacks girls still pick the blonde blue-eyed doll as being the prettiest.

      • Ms Butterfly

        ^^This :)

    • The Champ

      “Well, black people are not immune to the images of themselves in popular culture, and you live in a predominantly black city”

      I don’t live in a predominately Black city. I actually live in the Whitest major metropolitan area in the country.


      • Ms Butterfly

        Oh, I thought you lived in DC…..

        I dunno man, some of it comes down to being able to tell the difference between regular black folk and dangerous scary thug black folk. I think painting black people with a broad brush is what makes it racist. If you see a guy with his pants hanging down to his ankles, his hat cocked a certain way and sporting certain flag colors, with cornrows, face tattoos, and gold fronts, I don’t think you would be out of line assuming he was dangerous.

        I don’t think a lot of white people can tell the difference, which leads them to being equally afraid of President Obama and Trayvon (who was wearing a sweatshirt sized hoodie and some khakis when he was profiled) as they are of the hypothetical man I described above. That’s why I think so many people were angry about the hoodie being the supposed reason he was profiled when it’s something that just about everyone under 30 wears occasionally. It’s obviously because he was black because there wasn’t anything in particular that he was wearing or doing him that would denote he was a dangerous person. Also, because if he were white GZ probably just would have asked him if he were lost instead of assuming he was a criminal, given that he was a skinny 17 yr old kid.

        To be real with you, I’ve seen white guys with face tattoos and shaved heads, and oversized t-shirts and I’m just as scared of them. The difference is, I don’t go turn around and think I should be afraid of any given random white person because of those people. Black people are trained to tell the difference, but white people are not.

        • JahRW

          Still making excuses for our actions. If we don’t get real, we’re not gonna get anywhere.

          • Ms Butterfly

            What actions have I made excuses for?

            • JahRW

              Ms B, I just think we have to do better, and control the perception if we really want to defeat white supremacy. Before we can blame the white man, lets get real and understand that we’re doing a lot of dirt. And we need to hold ourselves accountable and know that since the system is against us, we need to be better than we currently are. If we don’t get real, and recognize this, then I believe we’ll be eradicated. For right now, lets not worry about what white people are doing, and get ourselves straight. I think that’s the best plan of action. Because asking someone to give up their power because it is the right thing to do will not happen. We have to take it. And the only way to do so is to do with our mental and economic power.

              • Ms Butterfly

                Agreed, that people have to do better, but my only point is that we can’t entirely control the perceptions of us because we don’t control other people’s opinions and we don’t really control the media. I don’t know what Trayvon’s parents could have told him to avoid being profiled as criminal.

                • JahRW

                  I hear ya loud and clear. But that’s my whole point of controlling how we’re perceived. If we didn’t double down on the propaganda the media, and super rich and corporations are showing us, then maybe Trayvon is alive today. I could be wrong, but thug music and Hollywood is not helping our cause. There’s ratchet in every race, but for some reason, our ratchetness is shown to the world, and we don’t do anything about it. So it effects all black folks, because this is how other races see us, since they may not interact with us everyday. Not saying we need to do this to please the white man. But it’s just the right thing to do to further our cause against white supremacy.

                  • Ms Butterfly

                    To be honest with you, as a black female, I’ve long made the argument that hip hop’s misogyny was a serious issue that devalues black women, and in turn, the black community as a whole on the national stage; that commentary tends to be met with bitter anger from black men. It’s only been in the past few years that rappers like Rick Ross have F-I-N-A-L-L-Y been taken to task about some of their lyrics, because he certainly was not the first rapper to rap about rape. I’m not sure when black masculinity got solely equated with hip hop culture and I wish the black community hadn’t wholeheartedly embraced it as “authentic blackness”. I distinctly remember a whole lot of ostracization of black people who didn’t fit that narrow mold, and even kids who were middle class and well educated feeling like they needed perpetuate these ghetto stereotypes to be “down” or risk being cut off from the black community.

                    I remember being beyond appalled and embarrassed that even some of the largest NAACP chapters endorsed Hilary over Barack for president, and had the nerve to say Barack was not “black enough”, even despite all his accomplishments, his Southside of Chicago bred black wife, and black children.

                    And don’t even get me started on Michael Jackson or OJ.

                    Why do we have such difficulty embracing our own? Why can’t we allow for multifaceted images of blackness? How did we get this way, and how do we undo it?

  • I Am Your People

    Believe it or not, here’s my biggest memory: I was on Twitter (what else would I be doing?) not watching TV News when the verdict was handed down. Between the outraged tweets, Oprah and Wanda Sykes were live-tweeting Wanda Sykes’ comedy special on the OWN Network, that continues to exist (Iyanla, come fix it.) Both went a good half hour before claiming to be in Paris and not knowing the verdict was handed down.
    I was like, ‘but you’re on Twitter? Who do you follow that wasn’t tweeting about this? Don’t BOTH of you have assistants?’
    For the record, some people who I follow in Australia and India were livetweeting the verdict mad; don’t tell me France didn’t know.

    • Todd

      LOL @ Iyanla, come fix this. I still can’t get over the DMX episode. That was the most intense thing I’ve ever seen on TV. That mess had me SCARED for days that DMX was going to run up in my house, say it’s his and kick me out simply by yelling at me hard enough.

      • WIP

        That dude is mean.

      • DMX is the black man you dont want to have around white folk….hes scary and embarrassing and plain ol SAD at the same dern time

        • Todd

          The thing is from like 1998-2004, he was in every straight White chicks list of “Brothers Who Can Get It”. Go figure…

          • look at what crack’ll do to ya

      • Epsilonicus

        That episode was so bad that i could not even make fun of him. Thats how bad I felt bad for DMX

    • The Champ

      “Both went a good half hour before claiming to be in Paris and not knowing the verdict was handed down. ”

      to quote my favorite paltrow, n*ggas in paris, for real

  • I Am Your People

    And this is a depressing as h3ll post to put this in, but since it’s still Sunday on the West Coast I #minuswell say HAPPY BIRFSDAYYY CHEEKIE!

    • The Champ

      may her birthday be a very masculine birthday


    I think stuff like this just makes you a little more scared and more aware of your own mortality. To see such a failure of the criminal justice system I think gives people a feeling of being on their own, which makes everything seem more dangerous.

    A little while after Trayvon was killed, I was walking somewhere with my daughter. She ran out into the street into oncoming traffic. She was fine, but it really scared me, of course. Then she started crying because she had dropped her candy in the street. I looked back and saw a bag of skittles spilling into the street and the combination of having just been scared for my child’s life and the skittles really hit me hard. I can’t quite articulate the connection I’m trying to make here, just the world can be a scary place, you know? And the ways that news and the public world overlap with our smaller, private world can be hard to predict and sometimes even understand.

    Also, thank you for waiting a week until the racist trolls go back under their bridges before sharing this!

    • The Champ

      “I can’t quite articulate the connection I’m trying to make here, just the world can be a scary place, you know?”

      join the club

  • nope, i cant do this today. see you tomorrow

    • AfroPetite

      Yea I was hoping we could discuss DJ Khaled’s proposal and shid :-(

      “We got the same symptoms, we both suffer from success” I didn’t know if I was watching a proposal or a Shakespearean work of art!!!!

      Also, shameless plug, I just joined Tumblr :-) You can follow me here: http://brown-c6h12o6.tumblr.com

      • The Champ

        “Yea I was hoping we could discuss DJ Khaled’s proposal and shid :-(”

        feels like an inside joke between the two of them

        • He’s doing the most with the least.

        • Didn’t Nicki n drake do this already

      • I hope after this we can move on to some lighthearted social commentary….maybe about bewbs lol

  • Todd

    I see where you’re coming from, but after thinking about it some, I have to disagree. This isn’t to say that ninjas in the hood ain’t scary. They are, bigtime. The fools are running wild. Plus, I can reasonably assume that in your day to day existence, you don’t have to deal with a lot of White people. If a threat is more theoretical than real, it’ll become, like you said, more like heart disease than an existential threat. Let’s face the facts. The typical Black person doesn’t deal with that many White people on a regular basis. We tend to work around our kind, and to the extent we deal with White people, it’s at an arm’s length level.

    My experience is a bit different than the norm. I work in a line of work where if I see another Black face, especially if they aren’t janitors or working the mail room, I just about do a praise dance. I regularly have to interact with White people on my job and commute through their neighborhoods. If I’m meeting up with my friends from high school, even though it’s usually a virtual UN of people, we end up meeting in a White neighborhood. And of course, there’s my past history of hopping down the snow bunny trail from time to time when it comes to dating. :) The potential for dealing with White racism is simply in my day to day experience.

    Yeah, the fools in the hood are dangerous. At least I can get a peg on what their motivation is and figure out the easiest way out of the spot. Giving someone your wallet or cellphone isn’t that serious, and the mentally disturbed can be ran from. A racist is someone I can’t figure out easily. There’s nothing I can do or say that will calm them down or make them feel more at ease. I don’t know what stereotype he’s going with, what he wants to do or what else is going on in his life. The unknown of their motivations, combined with the fact that fighting it might cost me my freedom, my reputation and even my life, makes them more dangerous.

    I suppose I have just as much fear of the unknown and what I don’t understand as a racist. Thanks for the projection, dude. *smh* Maybe you could try understanding us before getting scared. Oh, and we all don’t coordinate crimes against White people. LOL

    • I agree somewhere in that grey area between you and Champ. I went to a predominantly white college, so I know the immediate fear of “how racist/violent is this Remi looking dude walking behind me?” and I also grew up in the South Bronx so I understand that “idk that ninja, and he might could snatch me for all my ish–or worse”…

      I think both fears resonate deeply for me. To that end, my fear knows no color. I am under 5ft 5, under 100lbs, and my reality is that ANYONE can be a threat to me at ANY time. Black, white, hispanic, giraffe, it doesnt matter…stranger danger is still stranger danger. However, I think our fears and cautious nature WILL be in direct correlation to what we face everyday, and what we’ve experienced in the past.

      • Damon Young

        “I agree somewhere in that grey area between you and Champ. I went to a predominantly white college, so I know the immediate fear of “how racist/violent is this Remi looking dude walking behind me?” and I also grew up in the South Bronx so I understand that “idk that ninja, and he might could snatch me for all my ish–or worse”…”

        Interestingly enough, part of my feelings about this are due to the fact that I never consider White men to be a physical threat. It feels like it’s some residue from my ball-playing “this White dude can’t f*ck with me on the court” days

    • WIP

      “Giving someone your wallet or cellphone isn’t that serious, and the
      mentally disturbed can be ran from. A racist is someone I can’t figure
      out easily. There’s nothing I can do or say that will calm them down or
      make them feel more at ease.”

      Well said.

    • The Champ

      Thing is, I live in Pittsburgh. Even if you live in a deepest part of the hood here, you’re going to see and interact with White people on a regular basis.

      And, as much as I think about (and have written about) race and racism, these conversations always feel like they’re taking place on an intellectual level. It—and whatever suspicion I’m supposed to have around Whites—is just not as big of a concern to me as keeping me and the people close to me safe.

      I’m also not stating that my feelings about this are “right.” Or “wrong.” They just are my feelings

      • Todd

        I understand. And I get that the hood in Pittsburgh may differ from the hood in other spots. But I just disagree.

  • manish
  • McNairian

    I was on a cruise when I heard the verdict. When I heard that “not guilty”, I was soon overcome with a profound sadness. I’m in paradise and I am feeling horrible. I asked my wife “Why don’t they see the value in our lives?” and I began to sob uncontrollably for a couple of minutes…Such a sad evening.

    • The Champ

      Must have been surreal to be on a cruise and experience that. I ended up going to the most subdued birthday party ever.

  • I was at Moneypenny’s apartment watching Tyler Perry’s Temptation (Sadly, I didn’t bring a book, my kindle, or .38 special to keep me otherwise occupied) when we found out. The verdict I was expecting was read but in no way did I feel any better about what was happening. Moneypenny wanted to talk about it but I just shut down for a couple of hours then went to bed.

    • The Champ

      a .38 special?

      • Yes. Watching that movie made me kind of think about shooting myself or something…kind of.

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