In Spirit and Truth seeks to encourage discussion and deeper consideration of representation issues in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). It is hoped entries will prompt reflection and dialogue on aspects of expanding representation and supporting full participation in the PCUSA, especially at the assembly and mid council levels.
This blog will occasionally feature content written by one of the fifteen members of the General Assembly Committee on Representation, who are teaching and ruling elders from across the country, as well as links and articles of particular interest. The ministries of advising, consulting, advocating, reviewing and recommending are vital to the life of the whole Body of Christ. Committees on Representation and/or their functions exists at all councils above session so from time to time we may highlight activities and insights from sister committees on representation at lower councils throughout the church.
Any views or opinions presented in this blog are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. or the General Assembly Committee on Representation.
Author/Facilitator Molly Casteel is an Assistant Stated Clerk and the Coordinator for Representation, Inclusiveness and Ruling Elder Training in the Office of the General Assembly. She is a teaching elder (a.k.a. Minister of Word and Sacrament) in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary.
I hardly know where to begin, because my heart is so heavy with disappointment, and incredulity. My initial reaction upon hearing of the death of Trayvon Martin more than a year ago, was sympathy for his family. As more details emerged, I began to get angry. I was angry because it was clear from the recorded call between Zimmerman and police, that he had undeniably racially profiled this boy. But I was more horrified that he had been released, in possession of his weapon that night, before Trayvon had even been identified. This child, killed in Sanford, meant nothing to them; a derelict, a nobody. But he wasn’t a nobody. He was someone’s son, someone’s brother, part of a family and a church family, a boy with a future. But there he was dead in a morgue, unidentified. There was to be no arrest or trial, because Zimmerman claimed self-defense based on the “stand your ground law.” The problem for me was that there are two sides to every story, and we only heard Zimmerman’s side because Trayvon was dead. It was only after thousands of people all over the nation, and even the world, staged local protests, and thousands converged on Sanford for a protest there, that Zimmerman was arrested and bound over for trial.
As you six ladies were empaneled, I thought, finally: there will be justice for Trayvon. The previous year had seen a steady and systematic campaign of attempts at character assassination against Trayvon by the Zimmerman defense team. They probed every conceivable crevice of Trayvon’s life, looking for fodder to use in vilifying him. They had to make him look criminal, sinister and unlikeable to justify Zimmerman’s story. There wasn’t a lot to find. Frankly, the things they did uncover could be attributed to the sons (and daughters) of some of my middle class, professional White friends, as well. No criminal record, good student, good family, clearly loved and cared for. Trayvon could have been any 17 year-old in America. And as for the hoodie, it’s a uniform for teens in my area; I have two of them myself. As I drive past the local, predominantly White, suburban high school, I see them in abundance on kids of every complexion. It was February, chilly and raining; quite appropriate dress, I’d say. But finally: there will be justice for Trayvon.
Now here’s my real issue: it was Zimmerman’s mindset and choices that initiated and orchestrated the events of that night; his and his alone. He saw Trayvon and profiled him. We have his own words in his own voice to prove that. He ignored the police direction not to follow the boy. Contrary to block watch guidelines, he was armed with a gun. He could have chosen to follow from a distance just to see where the boy went; he didn’t. When approached by an adult male stranger at night, it seems to me it was Trayvon who had the right to “stand his ground.” If Zimmerman was in jeopardy (which I seriously doubt,) he willfully put himself in that position. But he wasn’t afraid to do so because he knew what Trayvon didn’t, that he had a gun.
In these times when children and teens of all races and genders are routinely kidnapped, molested, and murdered, we have taught kids to scream, fight and run; to do whatever is necessary to get away from people who mean them harm. Just like Zimmerman knew nothing about Trayvon, Trayvon knew nothing about Zimmerman. He could have been a kidnapper, a molester; it turns out he was a killer. I personally think he murdered Trayvon, but I’ll acquiesce to the legal finding from the trial and call him a killer. We’ll never know what Zimmerman said or did to Trayvon to make him feel he needed to fight, but we have to assume from what his friend heard over the phone that Zimmerman put his hand or hands on Trayvon. Again, it was Trayvon who should have been afforded the “stand your ground” defense, even posthumously. Instead, it was Trayvon who was on trial for his own murder.
Though there are many White people in America who, while they aren’t subject to it, “get” the Black experience. I’m grateful for them. But until you have been racially profiled, or had members of your family profiled, you really don’t understand the impact of White privilege. Until you’ve had to explain racially derogatory names and race bias to your six year old, or teach your kids (especially boys) how to behave so as not to look suspicious or threatening, you can’t really know what it means. We’ve been told this case was not about race. That’s just not true! It was initiated by race: it almost didn’t go to trial because of race. If Zimmerman had been Black and Trayvon had been White, we all know without a doubt there would have been a trial and the killer would have been well into his serving his sentence by now. But the implications of this case and its resolution will have far reaching affects, well beyond race.
This verdict has signaled open season on Black boys. White people will feel comfortable killing Black boys, claiming self-defense. For the sake of the boys, I’m praying this won’t happen, but I’m cynical enough at this point to believe it will. Our children will lose even more independence as fearful parents keep tighter reigns on them. But, I was reminded by a White friend last night, of her fears for her children; that someone may judge them by who they “think” they are, instead of taking the time to find out who they really are.
So, forgive me for racially profiling you, but I just don’t see how such a homogenous jury could begin to understand the dynamics at play in this case. Even when race is not a factor, I think that diversity of background and experiences brings a richness to discussions and raises points I’d never consider. So, if you would, just close your eyes and imagine your White child or grandchild in Trayvon’s shoes walking back from a store, talking to his friend on the phone, armed with his iced tea and Skittles, minding his or her business, stalked and approached by Zimmerman. Maybe the hoodie masks his or her skin color. Or maybe they’re tanned and have dark hair…could possibly be Black. Or maybe they’re tattooed, or maybe they’re gay, or whatever might excite the bias in anyone who is ill-intentioned. When frightened or panicked, who knows how kids might react. It should make you feel anxious. This could happen to any teen, but your verdict has increased the likelihood that the next one will be Black. Your verdict said that Black kids don’t matter; they’re expendable. I’m mournful about more Zimmerman-like people who will feel empowered by your verdict. I mourn with Trayvon’s family for their son who will never pass 17; for the grandchildren who’ll never be born; for the career that will never be realized. And I mourn with Black families across America who know this could have been their child, especially if they live in Florida. I MOURN.
Adrienne N. Owens,
Adrienne Nolan Owens was raised in the First African Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, and is now an active member of Bethany Presbyterian Church in Columbus, Ohio. Her ministry beyond Bethany is within Commissions of the Presbytery of Scioto Valley, with the National Black Presbyterian Caucus (NBPC), and with B.R.E.A.D., a local justice ministry. She is a retired teacher, and she and her husband have three adult children and eight grandchildren.