Don’t Stand Your Ground

I went to see Fruitvale Station the night it opened here in Oakland. I bawled by eyes out at the true story of the last day of Oscar Grant’s life before he was killed by a BART police officer on the platform of the Fruitvale BART station, my BART station, the one I use every day on my way to and from work. Fruitvale is my neighborhood where I’ve lived for the past eight years. The movie was sold out all night, and my friend articulated exactly what it felt like: It was a chance for Oakland to grieve.

We were grieving the senseless death of a young man who had his whole life before him, a young man who left behind a four year-old daughter and a loving family. We were grieving for all the young Black men who are killed senselessly in this city, in this country, killed by police officers or other young men of color. We were grieving for all the young men of color who are killed before their time.

The next night, the George Zimmerman verdict was announced, and I continued to feel heartbroken, not specifically because Zimmerman was acquitted (I know prison for Zimmerman won’t bring Trayvon back) but because, once again, it was a reminder about how this country so easily seems to allow the killing of young Black men.

The verdict has sparked a great deal of discussion—some intelligent and thoughtful, some vitriolic and unhelpful—about race in this country and about other issues: gun control and laws like Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” laws.

And, somehow, I keep being sucked into these debates in venues like Facebook. I doubt my engaging with people who argue that Zimmerman was the victim will do much to change their mind, but I can’t help myself: I am trying to make sense of it all, so I just keep arguing. One such conversation went something like this: Friend: “George Zimmerman was trying to defend himself. Trayvon Martin was on top of him, banging his head into the cement. What would you do if someone was doing that to you?” Me: “What would you do if someone came at you all aggressively with a gun? Wouldn’t you also fight for your life?”

I argued that I too would fight for my life. And I would if I had to. I have a black belt in Karate: I’ve learned knife and gun disarms; I have several techniques that I can use to break boards; I love to spar. However the truth of the matter is that, if I could, if I was in Trayvon’s situation, if someone came at me with a gun and didn’t just want my money, I would run. I would run as fast as I can, which, honestly isn’t very fast at all, but I would do whatever I had to to get out of there. And I would never be in George Zimmerman’s situation. I say this for many reasons, not the least of which is that I would hope to never be racially profiling someone as a potential criminal, but also because I have zero desire to carry a gun and aggressively confront someone whom I suspect of being a criminal.

I hope that I don’t ever have to fight for my life. But “hope” isn’t entirely the right word. I am not naïve to the ways the world works, and I know that I might be targeted for violence for any number of reasons regardless of my actions. That said, I do more than “hope;” I also actively try to avoid situations that might lead to violence, and I can’t help but wonder about the kind of mindset that leads people into escalating aggression and violence. I fear that a macho mindset, a culture that says it’s not okay to back down or deescalate a conflict is winning out. The George Zimmerman trial has sparked a lot of discussion about race relations in this country, but I also think we need to talk about the violence of machismo.

I was thinking about this culture of “don’t back down” after watching Fruitvale Station. When the Oscar Grant killing initially happened, I couldn’t bring myself to watch the cellphone videos of his murder that went viral. I wasn’t there, and I don’t pretend that the movie, which is not a documentary, is the exact truth of what happened. However the dynamic portrayed is one I’ve seen with my students or with others, especially young men: After Oscar and his friends are pulled off the BART train for fighting, a BART officer begins aggressively shouting and physically restraining the men. The men shout and argue back; there’s no backing down, no trying to reason or to simply wait. In the movie, Oscar calls the officer a “bitch ass nigger,” which is what leads to him being restrained on the ground. The macho male officer continues to shout and yell; the power of his authority takes him over, and his aggression creates a heightened climate of fear and anger. When the rookie cop, in real life Johannes Mehserle, steps into this angry, violent situation, he seems flustered, not thinking clearly. In real life, Mehserle claims he mistook his taser for his gun, and this is what led to the murder. It’s not hard to see this in the movie: the situation had taken on such an angry, aggressive tone that the rookie cops seems scared, caught up in the physicality of the confrontation, in need of doing something to justify his being there, to look in control and tough. The cop in charge’s aggression takes over the whole situation, pushes it to become what it became. It’s not hard to imagine that, had it just been the rookie cop and the female officer handling the situation and not the aggressive officer in charge, the killing would never have happened; the rookie cop wouldn’t have been pushed to feel the need to use the extreme measure of tasing Grant.

I’m not arguing that Mehserle’s horrible decision was justified, and I’m not arguing that Grant is at fault for his murder. Similarly I’m not arguing that Trayvon Martin deserved to be killed because he fought back. But I am saying that we live in a culture that, all too often, prizes fighting back and aggression over reason and discourse; we live in a macho, patriarchal culture where physical toughness wins the day. And of course this valuing of machismo is ultimately what led Zimmerman to feel driven to be the vigilante hero he obviously felt the need to be, to keep goading Martin even though the police told him to back off.

This valuing of the macho is particularly easy to see in the language commonly used when someone backs down. They’re a “pussy” and a “faggot,” or a man who is seen as weak is called a “bitch,” which carries a very different meaning than when directed at a strong woman; in this case, this language is meant to demean the man for “being womanish.”

I see this macho attitude with my students too. I have witnessed countless stupid interactions between, particularly, male students: One does something unthinking or careless to another. Often the precipitating event truly is a mistake: Someone mishears or is simply clumsy. The other student comes back annoyed or angry and so is met with annoyance and anger. When I’ve intervened, I’m told, “I didn’t mean to do it,” and my response is always the same: “So then it should be easy to just say you’re sorry.” But too often, my students simply don’t know how to apologize. They don’t know how to deescalate these situations that then become fights or at least barely contained anger as they go about the rest of their day. They’re hostile instead of apologetic, aggressive rather than communicative.

It’s not just men who engage in this dynamic; women and girls do too, but it seems very clear to me that this attitude comes out of a particularly male mindset.

All this has led me to think about the one time where I was confronted, provoked to fight, and had to decide how to react. This happened many years ago when I was in college. I was home over winter break, and I’d gone bowling with my then sweetie and my sister. In the lane next to us was a group of three, two men and a woman, who seemed itching for a fight. They began teasing my boyfriend, making homophobic comments and suggesting that he was gay. At one point, one of the men cocked his wrist at Dusty in a stereotypically gay fashion, mocking him. Dusty, knowing full well what the man was implying but not interested in fighting, responded, “What is that? Bowler’s wrist?” trying to lighten the mood, not trying to take the bait or get in a fight. The other man bluntly said, “It means you look like a faggot.” Dusty’s response was, “Well, I’d rather be gay than a tough guy.” The original man got in Dusty’s face and seethed, “Are you trying to start something?” Dusty said very calmly, “No, I’m really not.”

These kinds of exchanges went on as we bowled a few games: they taunted us, and we tried to simply diffuse the situation, not getting angry or aggressive back. At one point, the young woman challenged me to a fight. When I said, “No thanks,” she said, “Are you a pussy?” And I said simply, “Yes, I am. I don’t want to fight.” And I really didn’t want to fight. The confrontation was silly, over nothing; it really came out of this group’s need for aggression.

The night ended with a high-speed chase through the streets of a sleeping Kalamazoo, Michigan after the group waited for us to leave the bowling alley. As terrifying as this was, the night could have had a much worse ending. They had used all the right language in insulting our non-macho lack of aggression. Others, who felt insulted by this, who would have been angry at being called a “faggot” or a “pussy,” would have brawled outside the bowling alley in anger.

I believe in the emotion of anger, but I think it also needs to be tempered with compassion and reason. At the time, I was angry about these folks’ homophobia, but what would fighting have accomplished to address it? I am angry with the posts on Facebook or the “news media” claiming anyone who disagrees with the George Zimmerman verdict is just “race-baiting.” I’m angry that Martin was killed in the first place, that the Oakland police department continues to kill unarmed Black men. But at the same time, as we confront these realities, I hope we don’t devolve into our own violence.

This is not specifically a call for non-violent action; though it could be. My intention is more to interrogate the culture of macho violence that leads us to not treat other human beings like human beings in moments of anger, to feel like we need to get the last word in or one-up the other person we’re in conflict with, to not back down because it would make us seem weak or afraid.

We’ll never know exactly what would have happened if George Zimmerman had backed off when told to, if Trayvon Martin had walked away when confronted by Zimmerman, if the BART police had calmly waited for backup to take Oscar Grant and his friends into custody, or if Grant had stayed calm in the certainty that he was doing nothing wrong. But we do have our own choices to make all the time about how we respond to conflict. I personally can be kind of hot-headed, and I especially don’t like when folks in authority try to abuse their power. I can be spicy and quick to talk back, and I need to remember that this usually doesn’t help anything. We also need to remember that there’s no shame in apologizing, no shame in listening and striving for understanding rather than trying to win.