Last night, I attended a vigil in Peekskill held in memory of Trayvon Martin. It was a good event, attended by an impressive cross section of the surrounding community, and featuring speeches from religious and civic leaders. This morning, I feel inspired to share a few thoughts, but I do so with caution and humility, because I can’t claim any special or original wisdom on such a difficult subject.
As a father, I can only imagine the pain that Trayvon’s parents, Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin, must now feel. When a case is the topic of such extensive commentary and has such broad social significance, the person at its center can be reduced to an abstract symbol. It is important to remember that he was a human being, flesh and blood, loved and now mourned.
As a policy-maker, I believe that so-called “Stand Your Ground” laws encourage a dangerous shoot-first mentality. Except in the rarest of circumstances, we are much better off working to deescalate conflict and leaving deadly force to public safety professionals. The success of the gun lobby in promoting these laws around the country offers a dispiriting parallel to the gun lobby’s equally harmful obstruction of common sense gun safety standards in Congress and elsewhere. I genuinely respect the right of responsible citizens to keep and bear arms, but I will never comprehend the logic that says the answer to gun violence is more guns, with more firepower, in more hands.
Finally and most importantly, as a citizen, the verdict and the myriad discussions that followed remind me of how much race relations in America have advanced . . . and of how far we will still have to go.
Several years ago, as I was preparing to leave home to attend the annual MLK breakfast in New Rochelle, I asked my boys, half-jokingly, what I should say to the crowd. Jeremy replied: “why don’t you talk about how people should be judged by the content of their character and not by the color of their skin.” Jeremy had just learned about Dr. King in kindergarten and was simply repeating the lesson, but, still, I was floored and moved. When a little white boy growing up in the suburbs learns those words literally before learning how to add and subtract, there is no doubt that something is going right.
But there is also a sort of false comfort in such little anecdotes. Knowing the words is easier than living them. And celebrating equality in theory, although certainly a good thing, is no substitute for wrestling with the persistence of inequality, in all its uncomfortable complexity. Trayvon’s death and the disparate responses to the verdict, starkly divided by race, reveal a nation still struggling with its original sins. All of us need to try harder to reach beyond the confines of our own personal interests and experiences and better understand our neighbors and fellow Americans.
I am an optimist by nature, so I will close with another famous quote from King: “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Good words to remember. Let’s also remember that the arc of justice bends with our help.
My thanks to the organizers of last night’s vigil for giving us a chance to come together.