Commentary: Finding our better selves in Trayvon Martin tragedy

The Myrtle Beach SunApril 7, 2012 

Spike Lee, the talented yet always-controversial filmmaker, did something incredibly stupid and potentially horrific.

He retweeted what he believed was the address of George Zimmerman, the shooter in the middle of the Trayvon Martin case that has sparked so much outrage, protests and public demonstrations, including one that was scheduled for Saturday in Conway by UPWARD, an anti-violence group.

But that address wasn’t Zimmerman’s. It was to the home of Elaine and David McClain, an elderly couple in Sanford, Fla. They began receiving an enormous amount of media attention and various threats and had to leave their home.

For that, Lee was compared to the Ku Klux Klan and told to crawl back into his hole.

Lee eventually sent out an apology through Twitter and settled with the couple “for their loss and for the disruption into their lives.”

He also called them to personally apologize.

“He was really kind,” Elaine McClain reportedly said. “And when he called us, you could just tell he really felt bad about it. And it was just a slip, and I just know that he really, really has been concerned.”

A day before that settlement was announced, I told people about a wish I had.

I wished that Lee had the wisdom to use the moment for good by going down to Sanford, meeting with the couple, treating them to lunch and organizing a joint discussion about race and other such things.

For that, I was called naïve at best, and told it would make little sense for the couple to join Lee for such an excursion.

I’ll be naïve, then.

In times such as these, when an ugly incident turns into a national racial flashpoint, conventional wisdom and actions are never enough to undo the damage. Positions have been hardened. Ugly stereotypes about people on both sides of the issue have taken hold.

Only an unconventional level of humility, grace and backbone will do. Ironically, because of Lee’s incredibly wrong and potentially dangerous act, he and that elderly couple have become two parties who have the ability to change the conversation, to pull people back from the brink of irresponsible and irrational behavior that can turn a single tragedy into a national one.

Imagine Lee apologizing profusely and being granted forgiveness by the McClains at the beginning of a public discussion that urges each of us to explore the depths of why we react the way we do in these situations, why some of us are too quick to believe that racial hatred towards blacks is the likely cause of such shootings and why others of us are too quick to shut down even reasonable consideration of race as a potential motive – long before any of us have enough of the pertinent facts to make informed, definitive judgments.

Anger has blinded so many of us to the complex humanity that was represented by the life of Trayvon Martin. He was a 17-year-old as imperfect as the rest of us when we were teenagers, but he was also an unarmed young man walking home from the store when his life was prematurely ended.

Zimmerman’s story is complex as well. Friends describe him as someone trying to keep their neighborhood safe in the aftermath of a string of break-ins that understandably must have increased the level of fear, angst and suspicion in that area. But he was also someone armed and following Martin after the 911 dispatcher told him that wasn’t necessary, even after he knew police were on their way.

Zimmerman’s grieving, conflicted brother and father also represent that human complexity. So do the Sanford police and prosecutors who are trying to conduct their professional duties in a political firestorm; so do the black parents who grew more fearful for their boys’ future because of a bullet that found its way into Martin’s chest; and so do the everyday person – black, white and Latino – who tenses up ever so slightly when encountering a strange black man on the street, largely because of the image of crime that populates the media.

We are all conflicted. We are all flawed and often too rash to judge others with insufficient information and lash out at others when they do the same but come to a different conclusion.

It’s madness.

It’s sad.

It’s frustrating.

We can’t use these moments to push our relationship forward because we are so insistent upon doing things the way we always have, retreating to our comfortable corners and yelling at the other person, demanding that they grow up, that they be reasonable, that they ignore their own experiences and thoughts and substitute them for ours.

Because Lee did something ill-advised, he has given himself and the McClains a unique opportunity to shake the rest of us from our superficial reactions.

If someone can do something so stupid and genuinely not only ask for forgiveness but go out of his way to make amends, and if a couple who has every right to feel aggrieved decides to not only accept that apology but to join forces with the person who caused them unnecessary harm, it would put to shame any of the rest of us who would rather continue taking the easy way out by throwing verbal grenades instead of doing the hard work of building and repairing relationships across barriers that have flummoxed this country for centuries.

And no, I’m not being naïve.

I’m asking us to be better than we believe we can be.

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