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”)