I watched parts of the George Zimmerman trial and read about more, but didn’t see the full trial. Still, I was not at all surprised by the not guilty verdict, even while sensing that both Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman could have acted differently to avoid the conflict that turned deadly. I learned as a youth that appearances can be misinterpreted and situations can turn wrong quickly. I’ve tried to keep that in mind throughout my life.
At 18, a group of friends and I went digging for golf balls in the Fox River aside a golf course in St. Charles, Illinois. When we returned to our cars with buckets and boxes of wet, muddy golf balls, a half-dozen police cars came screaming around the corner and officers came running out of their cars with guns drawn, throwing us up against the cars. Only after substantial discussion and dumping all our golf balls did the police realize that we were not really in the neighborhood to burglarize homes. We had cut through a yard on our way to the river. The owner had called police. But we were teenagers in dark clothes and fatigues. Our dress helped make the owner and police nervous.
That same summer, many of these same friends and I were chased through fields near a St. Charles movie theater by police again running with guns drawn. We had no idea why we were being chased, but didn’t want to wait around to find out. We were playing war with toy guns at the time, which we quickly dropped and did our best to avoid capture. It was only just before friends sang Happy Birthday to me on my 18th birthday in the St. Charles jail that we learned one of the game players had climbed the roof of the theater to gain a sight line and had scared moviegoers and management into believing an armed robbery was underway. Appearance put our lives at risk that day in a way none of us had anticipated. A police officer was actually sanctioned for not shooting one of our friends when he turned with his toy gun drawn when he was told to freeze, thinking it was someone else in the game trying to get him out.
Two days ago, my son and I were playing golf in Port Marnock, just outside of Dublin, Ireland. On the 15th hole, a group of 10 young, drunk teenagers ran up, surrounded our cart, tried to steal a golf ball and began badgering us. One sat down in the cart and tried to take control of it. Another started snooping in so I grabbed my wallet and cell phone, then took the cart key. After five minutes of politely suggesting that the kids needed to just get on their way, one turned to us and asked, “Do you know what it feels like to have your head smashed in with a golf club.” The lone girl in the group egged the boys on to be men and fight. My son and I kept our cool, but became insistent that the kids needed to just get on their way. Perhaps we had the good fortune that neither of us was particularly scared even though we were outnumbered substantially. The kids appeared to be 13- to 16-year-olds and none were individually imposing. Finally, the kids grew tired of us not giving in to letting them take our cart or nearby golf ball and ran off to steal another of our golf balls further down the fairway. I can’t help but think how badly this situation could have gotten if the kid threatening to hit us with golf clubs had reached into the bag just two feet away from him and started to come after us. There would have been no winners from such a confrontation, regardless of the outcome. Would we have acted only to deflect blows coming at us, or attacked back to avoid taking a golf club beating? I have little doubt we wouldn’t have just stood and taken whatever blows came our way.
Did Trayvon deserve what happened to him? Of course not, but it doesn’t mean that George Zimmerman wasn’t justified in responding in self-defense. Since the war-game arrest and golf-ball gun in my back, I’ve been careful to avoid unnecessary conflict and tried to be aware of when others might see me as threatening, crossing the street if necessary to allow others to feel comfortable that they are safe. That restraint served us well in Ireland as well, and may have made a difference in the lives of some of those kids. I don’t know if race played any role in the Zimmerman/Martin confrontation. But I do know that conflicts can develop, impressions can be inaccurately created and situations can go wrong even when everyone involved is of the same race.
P.S. — Everyone else in Ireland was delightful and we enjoyed dozens of great discussions with people around the country. I highly recommend a visit to anyone looking for a friendly destination. I also genuinely appreciated the concern shown by golf course management after the incident.