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How George Zimmerman is Different from '80s Subway Vigilante Bernhard Goetz

Here are two American voices, one black, one white, reaching for one another without knowing one another:

My first victim was a woman -- white, well dressed, probably in her early twenties. I came upon her late one evening on a deserted street in Hyde Park, a relatively affluent neighborhood in an otherwise mean, impoverished section of Chicago.

As I swung onto the avenue behind her, there seemed to be a discreet, un-inflammatory distance between us. Not so. She cast back a worried glance. To her, the youngish black man... seemed menacingly close. After a few more quick glimpses, she picked up her pace and was soon running in earnest. Within seconds she disappeared into a cross street.

..... I was 23 years old, a graduate student newly arrived at the University of Chicago. It was in the echo of that terrified woman's footfalls that I first began to know the unwieldy inheritance I'd come into -- the ability to alter public space in ugly ways. It was clear that she thought herself the quarry of a mugger, a rapist, or worse. Suffering a bout of insomnia, however, I was stalking sleep, not defenseless wayfarers.....Her flight made me feel like an accomplice in tyranny.

... At dark, shadowy intersections in Chicago, I could cross in front of a car stopped at a traffic light and elicit the thunk, thunk, thunk, thunk of the driver -- black, white, male, or female -- hammering down the door locks. ....

.... I began to take precautions to make myself less threatening... If I happened to be entering a building behind some people who appear skittish, I may walk by, letting them clear the lobby before I return, so as not to seem to be following them.

Brent Staples published this essay, "Black Men and Public Space," in 1986 in Ms. magazine, to describe his experiences in a Chicago neighborhood that would be Barack Obama's home in the 1990s. In 1986, Obama was working as a community organizer on the city's South Side.


I stopped a mugging. A woman was coming home from work. I was sitting out on the stoop. I saw a kid going toward her, then he saw me. I looked at him. He looked at me. He didn't do anything. But I knew. I knew. Every time someone has assaulted someone in this area, I could see it coming. It's not skin color, it's a certain look about a person, they give off a certain vibration.....

It's like if anyone gets mugged in the street, it's almost as if his friends say to him, 'What the hell's wrong with you? Can't you see what's going on around you? Can't you distinguish people one from the other?'

Meanwhile, the black kids I know are seeing the same thing.... That's one of the reasons they're into combat so much, as a protective device, because... they're afraid themselves, there's a lot of validity to the fear.

It's not so simple. A friend of mine had one black kid on his softball team, and one day a guy from another team yelled a racial epithet at him. The whole team went and beat the shit out of [the white guy]. On the other hand, a couple of days later a black guy was chasing a white woman down the street and they ran and beat the shit out of him!

I'm for social programs that keep people out of poverty and out of crime. But once they cross the line [and commit crimes], okay, then that's it. That's how I cleared my head up on this. I would say to whites, I realize there are problems, that people have fears, but you can't have these insane attitudes toward minorities and political policies based on fear, vengeance, spite, insanity; you have to separate these things out. I don't see political leadership that makes these distinctions. They're kowtowers to fear, they say we should keep 'them' on the reservation'.

Gasper Signorelli, one of many working-class New York whose work takes them daily across lines of class and color in New York City, told me all this for The Closest of Strangers (recently e-published by W. W. Norton) at about the same time that Brent Staples was writing his essay in Chicago.

Signorelli and I had worked on an alternative weekly newspaper covering northern Brooklyn, including his neighborhood of row homes that was undergoing wrenching racial and economic transformation in the late 1970s and '80s.

When he tells other whites, "you can't have these insane attitudes," he's speaking to the George Zimmermans of this country with the authority of one who knows that disproportionate black crime is real and that white purse clutchers and door lockers have good reasons to feel defensive and on guard -- as do black cab drivers and black youths themselves.

Long before "racial profiling" was a term of art, the white writer Charles R. Morris told me about the "empirical racism" his own kids had learned while bicycling to school in their integrated Brooklyn neighborhood. They learned that although not all black kids would knock you off your bike and steal your lunch money, only black kids did that. It was something they had to know in choosing a route to school.

The Closest of Strangers also offers the experience of the white, leftist sociologist Gilda Zwerman, who grew up in Brooklyn's Brownsville section in 1950s as it was changing from mostly Jewish and proletarian to mostly black and poor. The public housing projects constructed there were integrated at first, including her own family: One day, as a small child, she emerged from a wading pool to find that her mother had given her clothes to a poor black family..

"You fight for what you believe in. You don't run, and you don't give in," Zwerman told me, characterizing her parents' determination to stay in the projects -- and giving "Stand Your Ground" a meaning that turns Zimmerman's logic on its head.

A year later, Zwerman's was one of the last white families to leave neighborhood. "We just couldn't go on stepping over the bodies" and hearing gunshots at night, she told me.

Actually, Brownsville had long had more than a few "bodies" killed organized crime, some of it Jewish, as in Meyer Lansky's Murder Incorporated. But that kind of crime had been tightly controlled, and the streets had been safe for most people. After Zwerman's early childhood, though, white women were being mugged by black girls in basement laundromats, and Charles Morris' kids were having their lunch money stolen.

Feelings of betrayal and bitterness grew uneasily but ineradicably in progressive hearts, winning inner dialogues with conclusions like "It's a physical reality. You have to protect your body and your children," as Zwerman put it.

Are you finding this difficult? You may be experiencing "confirmation bias" -- a tendency not to want to see or acknowledge whatever doesn't confirm your prior beliefs. George Zimmerman has that problem, too,

Gasper Signorelli and many others overcame it. They saw and acknowledged harsh realities of black family disintegration, cultural disarray, and crime, Signorelli faced the challenges by remaining in his neighborhood and working in its local hospital. Others I portrayed taught and ran youth sporting leagues across shifting lines of race and class, as I show Mark Naison and Gerard Papa doing in other parts of Brooklyn.

But not everyone is that strong. Similar harsh realities prompted George Zimmerman's and the State of Florida to embrace a different idea of standing your ground: in gated communities, armed against threats that, although not nearly as bad as New York's were in the 1970s, aren't entirely fanciful, either.

Zimmerman's "Twin Lakes" community -- almost 50% white, 20% black, 20% Hispanic -- has 260 townhouses in which, as of late last year, there had been been 8 burglaries in 14 months, leaving residents on edge and Zimmerman proposing the neighborhood watch group he started.

If you haven't lived enough in the real world, or if ideology or moralism have driven you so deeply into "confirmation bias" that you can't acknowledge the validity of the fears, then you're out of the conversation and out of power.

But if, like Zimmerman, you've inflated the fears so much that you can no longer draw the distinctions Signorelli draws -- if you've spent too much time sitting home and feeding your nightmares by watching Fox News and then arming yourself and demanding that "political leadership" kowtow to your fears with laws and judicial practices virtually scripted by Fox's Roger Ailes -- you're riding the wrong kind of power, toward impotence.

A state whose automobile license plates carry the solipsistic, consumer-marketed "MyFlorida.com" has lost its civic dignity. It has lost shared historical and political understandings resilient enough to resist assaults on its viability as a decent society by voter I.D. restrictions and "Stand Your Ground" laws.

The jurors in the Zimmerman case weren't even permitted to know how often he'd called 911 against blacks in neighborhood -- "These assholes, they always get away," he told a police dispatcher after spotting Martin -- and what he actually did to make Trayvon frightened and angry enough for there to be a fight.

To get at that kind of truth, the law would have had to allow jurors to draw distinctions somewhat like Signorelli's in New York. The Daily Beast's Harry Siegel and Filipa Ioannu drew such distinctions in a remarkable report comparing Zimmerman with Bernhard Goetz, the white electrician who, mugged once too often in the 1980s, armed himself and gunned down four black youths who were hassling him on a New York subway train.

Siegel and Ioannu report that the judge in Goetz's case thinks that Goetz's lawyer succeeded in "prosecuting" his four black victims in the jurors' minds. And Curtis Sliwa, leader of the Guardian Angels, a New York-based, nationally known crime-watch organization that's more sophisticated than the one Zimmerman started, tells Siegel and Ioannou that Goetz's action was almost inevitable and indeed necessary in a "war-torn" city whose public spaces were truly out of control and beyond the law in the mid-1980s, with nearly 2500 murders a years.

Yet Sliwa considers Zimmerman "a complete nut job who thinks he's on a 'mission,' and this young black man ended up on his radar screen, and then dead. "Because I deal with the wannabes who want to join the Guardian Angels," Sliwa added, "I see right away what this guy Zimmerman is: a self-appointed guardian... determining who is and is not a threat. Forget laws, forget standards, forget the police [who had told Zimmerman not to get out of his car]. Goetz had already been victimized, thrown through a plate-glass window [in an attempted ay-time robbery... in 1981.]

"When the four guys began to surround him on the train, to do that dance that many of us were used to back then, when the predators would sniff you out and maybe they'd rob you, you'd... realize there's nothing you can do if these guys pounce...."

Recall Gasper Signorelli's saying, of a likely mugger, "I looked at him. He looked at me. He didn't do anything. But I knew. I knew. Every time someone has assaulted someone in this area, I could see it coming." This is the kind of street sense and restraint we need on our streets -- the kind of restraint that Zimmerman lacked and that nothing in Florida's laws or politics encouraged him to cultivate.

I can't defend what Goetz did. But his perception of what the four youths were doing to society was as right as any liberal's perception of what society had done and was doing to them. They were carrying screwdrivers on their way to rob video-arcade change boxes, and they were harrassing this mild-looking white passenger in order to pump themselves up for their great adventure.

As Signorelli put it, when people cross the line and start committing crimes, they forfeit our "understanding" and society's indulgence. One has to pay poor black youths the compliment of holding them to at least the elementary standards of decency too which one would hold one's own children.

But by that standard, Zimmerman's perception of Trayvon Martin wasn't just wrong; it seems psychopathic. Zimmerman is half-Hispanic; for all I know, living in northern Florida, he may have thought that targeting blacks would make him completely "white," and he may think that he has succeeded, thanks to all the geniuses who needed only to know his surname and the color of his victim before they backed him.

Sliwa, who knows better, draws the necessary distinction between Goetz's victim and Zimmerman's: "Here's a kid, goes out at half-time to get Skittles...., puts his hoodie on because it's starting rain, doesn't say anything to anybody, isn't eye-fornicating anybody, just minding his own business. He doesn't have an M.O. He doesn't do home invasions. What the hell are you following this kid for? Goddamn right he fights back... Martin is defending himself against a guy approaching him with a gun and confronting him."

"Stand Your Ground" jurispudence as it has developed in Florida risk foreclosing assessments like Sliwa's by narrowing the jury's attention to a small part of the encounter.That failure is a symptom of a weak civil society, one that's no longer in realistic conversation with itself about its common ends. It also corrupts the public's understanding of the larger, increasingly harsh realities that are encircling and devouring that weak society..

What harsh realities? Realities that are even more ominous than those described in the 1980s by Mark Naison, a white professor who has chaired the African-American Studies department at Fordham University and had chronicled the ups and downs of his interracial experiences and beliefs in his book White Boy. Following the black sociologist Harry Edwards, Naison described the reigning outlaw culture in New York's drug-ravaged neighborhoods of the 1980s as

a 'pediocracy,' a world run by children without significant adult influence. In the eyes of some 'homeboys,' every institution run by adults... is a trap. The only good things available to young people are what they can grab for themselves through their own physical strength. The future doesn't exist. Nor does the past: the elderly are frequent victims.

The drug dealers are as aggressive in cultivating their market as any advertising executive on Madison Avenue. There are no neutrals because of the ferocity of the competition. Community, family and neighborhood in the traditional sense are gone. What we have is a new form of capitalism gone wild in an environment without government or law, in which human bodies and souls are for sale and the market is regulated by the power of the gun.

New York's murder rate today is less than one-third what it was when Naison made his assessment in 1989. Its streets and other public spaces are much safer now than they were then. But the "pediocracy" that Naison described has assumed different, larger dimensions that encompass and transcend the ones Zimmerman thinks he's tackling.

One of those dimensions is exposed by the fact that none of the mass shootings of recent years -- Columbine, Virginia Tech, Aurora, Sandy Hook, the massacre of Sikhs -- has been committed by black youths. No longer is the pediocracy mainly about race. It's part of a larger dissolution.

The pediocracy isn't even mainly about age. Are Donald Trump, Sarah Palin, Anthony Wiener and many other such "leaders" adults? Are even their institutions "adult"? Are casinos and the mindless, algorithmically driven groping and goosing machines that pump mayhem and degradation (and gun sales) ever more intimately and intrusively into our public life "adult" institutions?

As I re-read Naison's description, I wonder which "institution run by adults" is actually still run by leaders who care effectively for society's well-being. Wall Street? The Roman Catholic Church? The United States Congress? Corporate America? The NFL? Major league baseball? Universities whose presidents and trustees are transforming them from crucibles of civic leadership-training into career-networking centers and cultural galleria for a global workforce that no longer feels responsible to any republican polity or moral code?

Don't today's "institutions," including government and the society that it frames, show young people that "The only good things available to [them] what they can grab for themselves"? Haven't they become places where "The future doesn't exist. Nor does the past:"? Aren't the elderly are frequent victims, as governments and corporations blame pensioners for their budgetary imbalances?

Aren't advertising executives "as aggressive in cultivating their market" as drug dealers? Indeed, aren't they basically dealing drugs that stupefy and distract us from the challenges before us? Isn't it true that fewer people now work for the common good when there can be "no neutrals because of the ferocity of the competition."?

Isn't it true that in places like Twin Lakes, "Community, family and neighborhood in the traditional sense are gone, owing mainly to "a new form of capitalism gone wild in an environment without government or law, in which human bodies and souls are for sale and the market is regulated by the power of the gun."?

(If you doubt the sale of bodies and souls, read Michael Sandel's description of how Americans are selling themselves and to one another in his book, What Money Can't Buy. And read Daniel Greenwood's and my piece in The Atlantic on how corporate marketing to a "pediocracy" of all ages is hyping the power of the gun.)

How much of all this can be the fault of people like Goetz's assailants and Zimmerman's suspects? Brent Staples was induced by a frightened, fleeing woman to "feel like an accomplice in tyranny" simply because he was a black man. George Zimmerman actually tried to make Trayvon Martin tyranny's perpetrator, not just its accomplice.

Every society, like every healthy individual, walks on two feet -- a "left foot" of social provision, without which the virtues that conservative cherish couldn't flourish; and a "right foot" of irreducibly personal responsibility, without which even the best social engineering would turn its intended beneficiaries into clients, cogs, or worse. A balanced society has every good reason to rebuke and block young black men who "cross the line" to commit crimes in reaction to what it has imposed on them. But the true perpetrator is the casino-finance, corporate-welfare, consumer-marketing juggernaut that's dissolving the whole nation's republican virtues and beliefs and, with them, its institutions, driving many Americans crazy and breaking their hearts.

People like George Zimmerman, who imagine that they can save the republic by pointing guns at one another, are promoting its dissolution. There are other ways to stand our ground, starting with profiling members of today's real pediocracy: bond traders,predatory lenders, mortgage brokers, congressmen who've been paralyzing any part of government that isn't owned by the predators themselves.

But it will take a lot of courage and wisdom to spotlight and deter them and to prove that our society isn't too weak to bear either its growing ills or their cures.