When my mother remarried, she and I moved to Teaneck, NJ where my stepfather and his kids lived. They lived in Teaneck because it was a convenient commute for my stepfather and, more importantly, it was one of the few towns in the area (if not the country) where interracial families were commonplace. My stepfather's son from his first marriage is adopted and of another race, so this was an important consideration for the family.
I knew no one on my first day in the new school system but I was lucky to share all of my morning classes with a nice guy who sat next to me alphabetically, and he invited me to eat lunch with a group of kids. It was a mixed group in terms of race, ethnicity, and religion but that wasn't discussed much. Instead they talked about sports and TV and girls. One of them is still a close friend. Another was a kid named Phil. Phil's home life was a lot different from mine but not much different than a fair number of other kids in town. For example, I've always had a strained relationship with my dad, but he never made me act as a lookout while he robbed a tire store. The summer before 6th grade Phil was arrested helping his dad with just such a caper.
I ate lunch with this group of guys for the rest of the year and hung out with them when I could, playing intramural sports and stuff like that. With each progressing year of school, the crew drifted apart and became more racially stratified. I don't think this was intentional, but rather a function of where everyone lived and thus hung out. So the black kids ended up spending more time together in the black part of town, the white kids in the white part of town, and the lunchroom tables reflected these changes in the social dynamic. The black kids who continued to eat and hang out with the white kids were the ones who lived in the whiter parts of town, and generally were from middle-middle-class to upper-middle-class homes. By the time we got to high school my original lunch group was scattered to other tables.
But at the same time, the Teaneck public school system boasted about its multiculturalism and its multicultural curriculum. We were learning about Timbuktu and reading Zora Neale Hurston, and not just in the honors classes. In fact, Teaneck was the first town in the country to voluntarily integrate its public schools. This was a source of pride for the community, even if the pattern of the lunch tables looked like a checkerboard rather than a melting pot.
I didn't talk to or even see Phil after middle school, to the best of my recollection. Apparently he moved to the next town over and eventually dropped out of high school. One night when he was back hanging out in Teaneck he was shot and killed by a white cop.
Phil was black and he was shot while hanging out with black kids on a playground in the black part of town. The cops showed up at the playground because there were reports of someone waving a gun. When they frisked Phil they felt something in his pocket and reacted. Phil ran, the cop followed, and when Phil turned around the cop shot him. In Phil's pocket was a starter's pistol. Which Phil had modified to shoot real bullets. Because for the crew of guys he hung out with, it was cool to have a gun. But Phil couldn't afford one so he had to rig up this homemade zipgun.
The cop didn't know any of this, all he felt was a gun-shaped object in Phil's pocket.
In a few days a vigil was held outside of the police station. It turned into a race riot. Cars were flipped, windows were shattered, news crews descended. Fire alarms were pulled in school at least 4 to 5 times a day. Students yelled and swore at the police when they arrived. Al Sharpton showed up to make things worse. Sharpton held a "vigil" in one of the two churches across the street from my house, bussing in people from Brooklyn and elsewhere. He worked the vigil into such a rage that everyone stormed out of the church and started rioting on my street. I swear to god, Al Sharpton was on my front lawn with a bullhorn. The guy two houses up the street was volunteer cop and he rolled into the street wearing a badge and a pistol, with a nightstick in one hand and a leash tethered to his Great Dane in the other. To this day it's the ballsiest thing I've ever seen anyone do. The crowd dispersed as more cops showed up.
The fire alarm situation got so bad that school was perpetually disrupted. Eventually Jesse Jackson showed up and collected the entire school in the gymnasium. He gave a speech that calmed everyone down, even though he referred to Phil's death as an assassination. I honestly think that he was the only person on the planet who could have defused the situation in April of 1990. The school year ended in June. Everyone who could afford to sent their kids to some form of summer camp for as long as possible.
This was a surreal experience. I felt confused and helpless. Everything I was told about our town's multiculturalism and harmonic community was a sham. White adults sided with the police. Black adults sided with Phil. The kids were angry and scared. Things had settled down to serviceable normalcy when I graduated in 1992, but there was always a tension in the school about the incident and about race.
The officer who shot Phil was found not guilty and that deprived a lot of kids from a sense of closure. Including me. Was Phil stupid to carry a gun? Probably. Was the cop scared? Probably. But someone I knew who was friendly to me when I knew no one, who sat with me in a lunchroom at a time in my childhood when eating alone was tantamount to leprosy, who was genuinely a nice kid, was now dead.
I couldn't understand how the man who killed him suffered no consequences. The judge instructed the jury that "[e]ven if you believe Gary Spath made a mistake, as long as you feel that mistake is reasonable, you can accept his explanation of self-defense." The idea that it's reasonable to shoot kids on the playground as they're running away blew my mind. This was completely irreconcilable with everything I was taught and everything that my allegedly tightknit multicultural community was supposed to stand for.
Phil's death haunted me. I decided to find a college far away in a relatively rural setting in a real college town, a place where guns weren't a status symbol and where the cops didn't shoot at kids out of fear. Turns out that the stuff I was running from is everywhere. I encountered racism (like people who used the n-word) and ignorance ("What's it like to have a Jewish roommate?") in Williamsburg, and the only time I've had a gun in my face was in the back of Paul's Deli.
Over time the whole incident got stuffed into some back corner of my brain. It wasn't until years later that my old feelings of anger and confusion resurfaced in, of all places, law school. During a discussion of People v. Goetz, the famous "subway vigilante" case from New York City in the mid 1980s, we learned that in New York you can use deadly physical force on another person if you "reasonably believe that such other person is using or about to use deadly force ... or [if you] reasonably believe that such other person is committing or attempting to commit a kidnapping, forcible rape, forcible sodomy or robbery." The court said in Goetz that "[t]hese provisions have never required that an actor's belief as to the intention of another person to inflict serious injury be correct in order for the use of deadly force to be justified, but they have uniformly required that the belief comport with an objective notion of reasonableness." As a result, Goetz was found not guilty of attempted murder and assault when he shot four kids on the subway, because he "reasonably" believed the kids were going to rob him. I was stunned to learn that I was one of only three students who thought this was the wrong outcome. Everyone else essentially cosigned the idea that it was reasonable for a middle-aged white guy to shoot at black kids because black folks are scary. Some even thought that Goetz was a hero for cutting down his alleged would-be muggers in a crowded subway car. The other two students who sided with me were the only African-Americans in the room.
Admittedly, many people likely didn't want to engage in open conversation on a touchy issue like this and kept silent even if they agreed with me. But I will always be disgusted by several of the students in that class because of what they said that day.
My old feelings returned when I first heard about Trayvon Martin's death. I was in a livery car on my way to the airport and the driver had NPR on the radio. The story made me sick to my stomach and I was distracted by it for days. I remembered how I felt when I was 16, and I thought about how Trayvon's friends and family must feel now.
George Zimmerman's not guilty verdict intensified my emotions. The jury instructions in the Trayvon Martin case said that Zimmerman was guilty of manslaughter if the state proved that "1. Trayvon Martin is dead. [and] 2. George Zimmerman intentionally committed an act or acts that caused the death of Trayvon Martin." Check and check right? No? What if I told you that "In order to convict of manslaughter by act, it is not necessary for the State to prove that George Zimmerman had an intent to cause death, only an intent to commit an act that was not merely negligent, justified, or excusable and which caused death." So he's guilty of manslaughter even if he didn't mean to kill the kid, he just had to intentionally do something that ended up killing the kid ... he's guilty right? The jury instruction also said that "[a] person is justified in using deadly force if he reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself." There's that reasonability standard again.
These instructions reminded me of my frustration in high school and again in law school that it is reasonable to kill someone if you are scared of them, particularly in a society where it's apparently reasonable to be scared of black kids. President Obama's remarks hammered this point home. I carry my high school's tragedy with me and I'll likely never shake it as long as kids are gunned down without any repercussions for their shooters.
The facts surrounding Phil's death are different from those of Trayvon Martin's, and I understand that we could debate the reasonableness of their shooters' actions. What is not debatable, however, is that their deaths were pointless, wreaking havoc in their families, schools, and communities, and causing national outrage. Their deaths were exquisitely preventable--the causes were multifactorial and if even just one were addressed both young men might be alive today.
And yet I've done nothing to prevent these types of deaths. I talk a mean game about repealing the Second Amendment, and my feelings in this regard began entirely with Phil's death and the cache guns had in my high school, but have I done anything at any level to make that happen? Have I lobbied for gun control? Or to reform self-defense laws?
Have I ever mentored kids to stay away from guns and crime and situations like Phil's? Have I even given money to organizations that do this type of work?
Have I made noise for increased training for the police? Or for background checks and mandatory registration for "neighborhood watch" participants?
The answer to all of these questions is a resounding and shameful "no." I continue to live in a society where it is reasonable to kill black teenagers out of fear, simply because they are young and black, and I've done nothing about it.
Can I do more? Absolutely. Why haven't I? Sadly, I don't know. It's time to start.