All the unsubstantiated stories I heard in high school focused on violence. The time someone pulled a knife on BD at the eighth grade dance, and how his boys jumped him afterwards. The time someone pulled a knife on Jackson in the hallway; and how, grabbing the knife-holding-hand in one fist, Jackson punched with the other until blood splattered the ceiling. The time some kids jumped some other kid with a spiked bat outside the library. Were these stories true? I don’t know. But they charged every argument with violent potential and encouraged us to consider hurting one another in advance.
Few of us were native to Palm Coast, Florida. Most of the 75,000 people suspended in that suburban stretch alongside the Atlantic between Jacksonville and Orlando came from elsewhere. When I arrived from New York, the ambient climate of violence surprised me. The local teenage boys, ever the putative aggressors, seemed normal: we played sports, worked restaurants part-time, shamed any outbreak of feminine behavior and chased girls. When it was warm, we surfed. Still, the town had a violent reputation.
In 2005, the year I started high school, Florida passed a law repealing a defender’s “duty to retreat.” Stand Your Ground sanctified deadly force in any situation where a person felt threatened, not just in their home or on their property. My mother worried about this law as she worried about its predecessor, the Castle Doctrine. A lot of people feel threatened by black males, she argued, even skinny, studious ones. She often warned me against going on another person’s property, assuming that “defenders” would target people like me. According to her, I could lose my life for stepping on the wrong lawn. I believed her.
My response was a fear that has never left. I remember wearing my XXL black hoodie for the first time, in the late fall of my freshman year. As I walked to the bus stop in the early morning dark, I imagined my white neighbors peering through their blinds. If they thought this black man in a black hoodie was merely a thief, they might only call the cops. That would be bad, but it would be even more dangerous if they handled the situation themselves. I moved to the middle of the road, took my sweatshirt off, and braved the cold. A white friend later confessed that when I began riding the bus he did not speak to me because my hoodie scared him. In retrospect, I looked boyish, but fear has a way of making dark skin appear older than it is.
I hated that walk to the bus. For a while I tried carpooling with a friend, but he dropped out of school. After my mom bought a used Dodge, I sometimes rode with her. When gas prices spiked, I didn’t think we could swing the extra trips and returned to my morning walk. Unable to afford another jacket, I again wore my hoodie when frost settled on my neighbors’ lawns.
As we got older, the paranoia sown by Stand Your Ground became a permanent fantasy of provocation. People often said, “I wish so and so would show up to my house.” Showing up would give us an excuse to use any weapon we could. Some days, when the brawny white guy in the back of our bus spouted slurs, I thought, “I wish you would.” Then I pictured him at my house and me unloading a pistol on him. My Florida daydreams featured a house filled with an endless supply of pistols.
Fear isn’t only a reaction, and Stand Your Ground, like its predecessor the Castle Doctrine, made it rational to err on the side of aggression. This was especially true for my black friends, who encountered hostility the way other people encounter the sun. Worried about being hurt or killed, we endlessly prepared for defense. As teenagers, we bragged about our strength, about how nobody could hurt us, how we would win any fight. Even when we didn’t believe ourselves, we sometimes fooled each other.
On the track team I became friends with Justin, a self-identified redneck, who helped me to the school bus when my leg cramped at our first practice. He explained the difference between niggers and black people: “See, there’s white trash and regular white folks,” said Justin, “and there are niggers and black folks. Niggers are just the white trash of black folks.”
A few weeks later, a friend wore a Confederate flag t-shirt to practice. When someone confronted him about it, he said it had nothing to do with slavery. It just represented Southern Pride, but I saw lynching. He couldn’t see why it bothered anyone. The discussion went nowhere. In Flagler Beach and other nearby beaches, you see the Stars and Bars on bikinis.
If the shirts frustrated me, the actual flags terrified me. Occasionally my mother and I would drive through a neighborhood filled with trailers and farmhouses proudly flying Confederate flags. Scared, I always glanced around to see if any cars were tailing us. After all, we were in their neighborhood. Could they claim self-defense because they didn’t recognize us? If we don’t survive does it even matter whether or not our killers are acquitted?
Fears of violence struck most often at night, and especially when I walked home from Jerome’s house. Jerome was white and never worried about walking home from my house. Not wanting to arouse suspicion, I stared straight ahead during that half-mile, while the world throbbed in the periphery. Everything looked dangerous. Countless specters smoked cigarettes in their yards, watching me. Every barking dog became a Doberman about to be unleashed. Eyes straight, pace steady, my calves awaited their teeth.
As we got older, the paranoia sown by Stand Your Ground became a permanent fantasy of provocation.Tweet
I plotted escape routes and assured myself that I could outrun anything; I could dash into the nature preserve with the alligators and the snakes. If I needed to hide, I would jump into the gully and lay flat in the sickly yellow-brown gutter water. Worried about leading someone to my house and endangering my mother, I planned my routes in order to lose my pursuer. Unlike my other black friends, who always planned on hopping fences if things went down, I had a rule: never step on someone else’s property.
Sometimes, when I ran home from Jerome’s, my mom would ask why I was out of breath. Embarrassed, I told her I was trying to stay in shape.
Two white policemen stopped me one night on my walk from Jerome’s. They stepped out of the car. I don’t know if I imagined it—I refused to look—but I thought one of them had his hand poised by the gun on his waist.
“What’re you doing around here?” one asked.
“This late at night?”
It was 10 PM on a Saturday.
“Do you live around here?”
I remembered a black friend telling me about the time some cops stopped him on his way home, shoved his face in the ground, and handcuffed him. Maybe tonight was my night. I had been handcuffed without reason before. In Los Angeles in the 80s, the police beat a cousin of mine who was running to catch his school bus.
“Around the block,” I said.
“I’ve never seen you around here,” said the hand by the holster, “and I live just down that street. How long have you lived here?”
Should I just run? It didn’t seem like they were going to let me out of here without a few bruises. On the other hand, I didn’t want to be shot in the back.
“About three years, but I don’t get outside much,” I said.
“Where are you coming from?”
I could definitely outrun them.
“A friend’s house.”
The holster stepped forward and said, “Are you lying to us?”
This went on for twenty minutes, as they waited for me to contradict myself. During that time, it never once seemed that this law enforcement was my law enforcement, paid for by my taxes, charged with protecting me from criminals. These were not my police. Eventually, they let me go. As they stepped into the car, the one with his hand by his holster said, “You shouldn’t be out this late at night anymore.”
That night, I listened to Tupac’s “Thugz Mansion” for solace. Then I recalled that scene from Boyz N The Hood where the crooked cops stop Tre, the protagonist, and one puts a gun to his neck for no reason. When Tre arrives at his girlfriend’s house, he says, “I’m tired of this shit. I’ll kill all these motherfuckers. ” Then he sobs and swings at nothing, repeating, “I’m sick and fucking tired of this shit. I’m sick of this shit.” After wearing himself out, he sits down, holding his girlfriend and crying.
I hadn’t cried in years, I never felt comfortable punching at people or shadows, and I had nobody to sob with. Callous and cold, I lay in bed, contemplating what would happen if I stayed in the south.
Junior year I fell hard for a thin white girl named Kelly. She’d call you a nigger if you upset her enough. When we became friends, I thought that the bad girl who smoked cigarettes and skipped one in three school days might make an exception for me.
After she broke up with her boyfriend senior year, I visited her house to work on a school project, sure that a hookup was imminent. As we sat alone on her bed, I recalled Kelly calling a classmate nigger, and then her screaming matches with her ex-boyfriends over the phone. She did have a temper. Did her parents own a gun? I imagined Kelly standing in her driveway and firing at me as I zig-zagged down the street, searching for cover. Even If Kelly missed, her sister, who was in the garage, would not. Kelly said her sister was even more hotheaded than she was. I won’t lie: I found the danger erotic, thrilling even. I’d like to say that fear for my life or revulsion at her racism kept us from kissing, but the truth is I was nervous and wasn’t sure she had feelings for me.
Senior year, Marco showed me the Magnum under his seat.
“Just in case anyone fucks with me.” He paused. “Check under your seat.”
I found a pipe.
“That’s for you, or whoever’s in the seat, in case we get into some shit.”
We were driving to his house to play videogames.
Marco’s aggression made sense, while my white friends untouched by fear baffled me. One night, a friend suggested ringing the large bell on an unsuspecting neighbor who would emerge and be greeted by a flaming bag of dog shit. As usual, the plan unnerved me more than my white friends. Assuming the cops would pursue me first, I tried to dissuade them; I did not want to get arrested.
“Have you been listening to the I Love Penis Soundtrack?” one friend asked.
When we arrived at the house, I felt short of breath and nauseous. Because I was the fastest runner and because I never stood up for myself, they made me shake the large bell until the ringing hurt my ears. As lights turned on in adjacent houses, we ran away. One friend hopped a fence into a neighbor’s yard while most of us sprinted down the street. If anyone came outside, I was going straight into the woods.
Running, I was both vulnerable and invincible. At first: the rush of the wind as I outpace everyone; then the image of the police shooting. I would be hit in the back and crawl on hands and knees towards the woods. When we made it back to the car, my friends boast, laughing as if after a heist. I demand to be taken home.
Years later, when George Zimmerman kills Trayvon Martin an hour from Palm Coast, I am not surprised. My white friends ask what I would have done. I’ve thought about it. If I was walking alone at night, being trailed by a white man would terrify me. Not wanting to be another victim of self-defense, I would probably run. Maybe I’m faster than Trayvon.
Yet my speed might have flinched before the old fear; a sprint ended by a bullet in my back. Better to carry on normally and let him interrogate me. Who cares if I’m humiliated for a few minutes or even a few hours? And if he beats me, clench my teeth and know that it can’t last forever.
That would be my response, but it isn’t the only one. Marco would have killed Zimmerman immediately and taken his chances in court. I, on the other hand, wait passively for the violence to end. During the trial of Trayvon’s killer, the prosecution attempted to cast Trayvon as a black kid like the one that I was, a studious teen, destined for a good school, just trying to make his way home. Nobody bothered to point out that if Trayvon had attacked his murderer, he would have had the law on his side, that he would have been doing exactly what the Florida legislature told him to, that he was standing his ground. How many other times had policemen or others stopped him for nothing? How much fear can we endure before aggression starts to promise relief? Sometimes I envy those whose first instinct is to attack. By hitting back, they take an active role in shaping their lives. I have chosen fear – or rather, fear chose me—and it has kept me alive, but every time a cop car comes slowly to a stop I wonder if maybe today is my day.