The Zimmerman verdict brings to mind a wild night long ago, when profiling, presumption and reckless reaction almost led to tragedy.
Nothing concentrates the mind like a verdict — especially a verdict in a bellwether case like O.J. Simpson’s. Or George Zimmerman’s.
I don’t mean to diminish the tragedy of Trayvon Martin’s death, or the apparent travesty of the law that lets it go unpunished. And I won’t presume to judge the jury, which acted under that law and, I presume, in good faith. I’m just surprised that I’ve only now noticed how the events of that ghastly night in Sanford, Florida echoed another weird night in Boston, Mass. 41 years ago.
The outcome then was very different, since I’m telling the story now. And any profiling behind it was cultural rather than racial. But it’s scary to think how close I may have come to meeting the same ending as Trayvon Martin, when I committed the same sort of trespass he did — and found myself likewise pursued by a neighborhood vigilante and brushed off by a system of justice more attuned to the anxieties of homeowners than the safety of strangers in the street.
I was a couple years older than Trayvon, one of a quarter-million college students who had descended on what was still the insular, often xenophobic city of Boston. I shared an apartment in a blue-collar neighborhood called Brighton that lies between Boston College and Boston University, and tended to favor work shirts, denim overalls and engineer’s caps, clothes no real worker wore if he didn’t have to. My long, unruly hair — still a badge of defiance and disrespectability — would have given me away anyway.
Some good friends lived on the way downtown, a half-mile away by roundabout streets, but much closer if you turned up the cul-de-sac at the next corner and cut — just as Trayvon Martin did — through the open yard of a big house that always seemed dark and empty.
One night, however, a dark sedan pulled into the cul-de-sac just as I was about to take my favorite shortcut. Thinking it might belong to the house I was about to cut past, I turned back to the main street. A block later I noticed that the sedan had also turned around and was now following me. I stopped and smoked a cigarette. The car idled. I approached it; it backed up. I set forth again, and the dark sedan followed.
The driver was a stocky guy with short, dark hair — an Italian George Zimmerman. Was he a cruiser, one of the sad closet cases every guy who hitchhiked at night in those days came to know? Or something more ominous? There was no license plate on the front of the car.
I rounded onto Commonwealth Ave, a busy strip of trolley tracks and student slums. A young woman stood at the next corner hitchhiking (it was a different era). I explained as best I could what was going on, jotted down my phone number (those were the days before guys gave girls their phone numbers for other reasons) and asked her to check for a license number when the car passed her.
Just then another car stopped to give her a ride. “Why don't you come along?” she asked, and I hopped in. The driver turned out to be an acquaintance from school named Neil, who was taking his girlfriend home — across town, to the top of Mission Hill. The mystery car followed through the narrow, twisting streets. After we dropped her off, Neil asked mischievously, “Whatcha wanna do?” and then checked his gas gauge and answered his own question: “Let’s take him for a ride.”
Neil’s car was a muscle-motored Pontiac, and he fingered the wheel like a pool shark caresses a cue. I held on and we roared off through the byways of Back Bay, Brookline, Alston and Brighton. The dark sedan followed implacably. Movies cannot begin to suggest how much fun a car chase can be. At one corner, our little caravan screeched around a police car. The cop kept going in the opposite direction. Once our pursuer pulled up beside us and shouted some gibberish. The only words I caught were “my house.”
Finally we lost him. We pulled over to let our pulses and the heat gauge subside, and mulled over our grand adventure. “My house….” Belatedly, the fog cleared from my callow brain and I realized what should have been obvious from the start: He thought I was a would-be burglar casing his house. It was all a big misunderstanding. We should go back and straighten things out, I said. Apologize and explain. Peace and love.
We returned to the cul-de-sac and pulled in front of a house with a dark sedan in the driveway. Lights went on in the top floor, and a head appeared in the window. Neil stepped out, waved his arms and started to explain. Then everything exploded. The guy who’d pursued us burst from the front door and swung at me as I stepped from the car. I grabbed his arms and yelled at him to stop and listen.
The moment seemed to freeze, then broke again. “They’ve got a gun!” Neil shouted. I can picture a black barrel pointing from that upper window, but that may be suggestion; I doubt I had time to look up. I pushed the Italian Zimmerman away and slammed the door. Neil flew like a trick rider into the driver’s seat. A blast went off, and something like pebbles ratted on the pavement and tatted on the car's chassis. Neil turned the key and popped the gears, and we roared off. Zimmerman paisan threw himself on the car trunk and fell off in perfect movie style.
We raced around the roundabout to Neil’s place, near my original destination. No one had followed us. We parked the car behind the house, ducked inside, and again took stock: This is getting serious. “They’re going to be watching for you,” said Neil.
What to do? Let’s call the police! Then we can go straighten things out without getting shot. Peace, love, law and order!
A half-hour later, two world-weary Boston Police officers stood at the door. One looked like Officer Bill Gannon on "Dragnet." They entered and began sniffing the air — “Is that marijuana?” and scanning the windowsills for plants. I showed them my Turkish Specials cigarettes. Neil and I explained what had happened.
“So what do you want us to do about it?” the other cop (who did not look like Jack Webb) asked.
"Well, we thought you might go over with us so we can straighten things out and make sure no one gets hurt, " I said. They exchanged a “Can you believe this guy?” look. I’ll never forget the lead officer’s reply.
“What do you think we are, peacemakers? We’re police officers. If you want to press charges against him, you can, but all he has to do is kick in his basement door and say you broke into his house, and he’s got a better case against you."
“And what makes you think they shot at you?”
Neil and I had both heard something — birdshot? rock salt? — peppering the underside of the car. The officers grudgingly consented to step out back. One cast a flashlight over the body of the car. Nothing. They didn’t look under it.
Enough said. The cops left, and I proceeded to my original destination. Still awash in adrenaline, I stayed up late with my friends, telling this story and many others. Finally, in the pre-dawn gray, I shuffled back home, almost too tired to stand. As I neared the cul-de-sac, a utility truck loaded with tanks and toolboxes pulled out of it, and stopped suddenly. Two men stepped out — the pursuer and a bigger guy with gray hair — and marched toward me, shoulders hunched and fists clenched. I had to get past them to get home.
What perfect timing, I thought. Here I am, dead on my feet and about to get stomped over the same stupid misunderstanding. I couldn’t help it: I started laughing, loud, at the ridiculousness of it all.
They looked at me, looked at each other, huffed and puffed a bit, and seemed to deflate. A few grunts and growls and they returned to their truck and drove off. I never saw them again.
Around that time I remember a friend of my parents decrying the way the authorities treated shaggy-haired, beaded and bangled young folks like me and her sons. “It’s racism!” she declared. “It’s just like the way they treat black people!” No, it’s not, I insisted. It’s a much softer, shallower and surely more transient form of discrimination. Right now the cops might jack us and search us and dump out our packs, looking for drugs or just throwing their weight around. But we could always cut our hair and button down our collars, or wait to become gray and respectable. We didn’t have to change the color of our skin, or change centuries-old attitudes toward it.
Still, there’s a common thread. “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon,” said President Obama. In the right (or wrong) circumstances, any young man who’s where someone doesn’t think he should be can look like Trayvon. Racism is the most pernicious, persistent mechanism for defining an Other and designating scapegoats, but it's not the only one. Trayvon Martin may have shown less than exemplary judgment and restraint, but who does at 17? I certainly didn't at 19, though I walked away unscathed. There but for grace of luck went I. And maybe you?