It’s hard to believe 15 years have passed since I took graduate courses in English at night. One night in particular will forever be etched on my mind. It changed the decisions I make to this day.
It was about 9 p.m. in late fall. I was walking from Harvard Square through a well-lit, quiet residential neighborhood to my car parked about a half-mile away. I heard leaves rustling on the sidewalk behind me, as if someone was shuffling along. I took out my keys and positioned the longest key between two fingers of my clenched fist. It’s a trick I learned while covering a self-defense class at a local high school when I was a reporter. I also walked faster. The soft rustle of leaves was replaced by the sound of quickened footsteps on the concrete sidewalk. In the soft glow of the streetlights, I could see the shadow of a man. I broke into a run, and so did my pursuer.
I ran two blocks to the nearest business district, an intersection with bright neon signs and bars open till all hours of the night. I was fortunate that the vehicular traffic was light when I reached the crossroad and darted across the street to the doorway of one of those bars. I turned around to see a man reach the corner and run down the street to the other side of the road.
When I told the story to someone close to me, her only comment was, “I can’t believe you thought that was a safe place to walk.”
Every woman knows another woman who has a similar story. Or they know someone who has had to take out orders against an ex. If you know anyone who has been active in the movement against domestic violence, you know how ineffective those retraining orders can be. You also know that the advocates end up sympathizing with police who learn that enforcing the restraining order is like waving a red flag in front of a charging bull: stalkers are essentially sociopathic personalities who are only rage-driven to charge harder at the person waving the flag.
My own experience came to mind for me with each article or editorial column I read about Trayvon Martin’s death. New York Times columnist Charles Blow wrote about the fears that come up whenever his sons go out into the world. Egberto Willies wrote about not just one, but experiences he had when he first came to America. ( I was Trayvon Martin the day I came to America) Other columnists and pundits wrote about being counseled by their parents about how to remain calm and avoid escalation if they are ever stopped by the police or pursued by a stranger. I understood then where my anger for Treyvon Martin’s death was coming from. Young African American men have to worry about what could happen if they are walking while black. Women learn to balance fear with common sense in case they are ever pursued for the crime of walking while female.
Initially the center of the media storm around Martin’s death was that George Zimmerman was not charged with anything due to Florida’s Stand Your Ground law. The law removes the power of the police to charge or even investigate a gun death if self-defense is evident. It took a long time for the fact of George Zimmerman’s head wounds to come to light. Today, the morning after his not-guilty verdict, is the first time I have seen photos of those wounds.
The wounds do not change my mind about this case. Why? Because Treyvon Martin apparently did what every woman fantasizes about: when he knew he was being pursued, instead of running, he turned around and kicked some ass. The Stand Your Ground law applied to the man who left his home with a deadly weapon in his pocket, but not to the man who used his surroundings as his weapon.
Today I learned for the first time of Zimmerman’s record for assault of a police officer and court proceedings resulting from domestic violence accusations. Those facts come as not surprise to me. Only a sociopathic personality would decide it’s okay to actively pursue someone on a dark and rainy night when there was no threat to their own life or safety.
What would have happened if Trayvon Martin had run to the nearest house and pounded on the door for help? Or if he’d hung up on the friend he was talking to and called the police himself? We will never know, because he made a split-second decision to stand his ground and lost the fight.