I live on Chicago's west side, in a neighborhood that boasts two or three empty lots to a block. Some of these lots are fairly new, the only solution the city can find when an abandoned building becomes infested with squatters. Most of them, though, date back to April, 1968. When I take the train downtown, the first train station I pass is a charred skeleton, a stop that has remained unused since it was burned down by rioters. That was also in 1968.
What happened in April, 1968? Martin Luther King was assassinated. The father of the civil rights movement went down to a bullet in the brain, and Chicago got to remember what it was like to be on fire for a while. Somewhere between nine and eleven people died, upwards of a thousand were left homeless, and 45 years later those lots are still empty. It's only been a year and a half since Trayvon was shot, and what small damage there was is already all but repaired.
But Trayvon Martin was not Martin Luther King, so I guess that makes sense, right? Except I grew up in Los Angeles, in the 90s. In 1992, a man named Rodney King drove drunk on a highway and was rewarded with a brutal beating at the hands of police. When his attackers were acquitted in April, my city became indistinguishable from a war zone. Fifty-three people were killed. Upwards of two thousand were injured. Trayvon Martin was not Rodney King either. For one thing, Rodney King
Rodney King was driving drunk. He lead the police on a high-speed chase. He was uncooperative and erratic. Trayvon Martin was walking down a sidewalk at night, not under the influence of anything more serious than weed and skittles. What the hell, right? Why isn't anything on fire?
I have a theory. My theory is that the response to events like these has nothing to do with the severity of the events themselves. Rodney King cost LA a hundred times more than Dr. King cost Chicago. No one decides to riot based on a drawn-out cost-benefit analysis. People riot because they are waiting to riot, and someone gives them an excuse. People riot when the people around them are rioting. People riot when rioting seems like the next act in the story.
What got me thinking about this again was the front-page article in a back-issue of the Austin Weekly Herald. The Herald is a lovely local newspaper that bucks the general media trend of only reporting on horrible things, despite Austin's #13 ranking for violent crime among Chicago neighborhoods. But this article was a disconsolate one. It lead with the line: "Let's make one thing clear: We are not surprised about the Trayvon Martin verdict."
That's what it comes down to, I think. No one was really expecting George Zimmerman to go down for this. Florida's laws make it ridiculously hard to get a conviction for this type of thing. And this is simply a story we've seen too many times before. Martin Luther King, Rodney King ... Trayvon doesn't have the same last name, but he's filling the same role. Nothing's on fire because every time this happens, it becomes less of a real-world event and more of a myth. It becomes The Way Things Are. And we move forward by finding more stories and fitting their elements into the readymade slots of this myth, so we can keep telling ourselves that this is how things are, and nothing can change them. It's just hard to get too murderous over a bedtime story. We're tired.
But here's the thing. In the wake of the Rodney King riots, they re-tried and convicted (some of) the cops. The LAPD put effort into hiring more minorities. Korean Americans formed a lobby, got themselves political representation. Things changed. And even during the riots, there were these rare beautiful moments between individual humans. A white trucker who was getting bricked in the head by an angry mob was saved by a black man who'd seen the beating on TV. People proving that the fact that there's a race riot on doesn't immediately divide the entire human population along color lines. Things like that have happened since the Zimmerman verdict too.
I'm not saying the riots weren't horrible. They were, and this whole situation is horrible too. A young man is dead, and another man is branded as a hate criminal for life. I think it's safe to say that the only people to benefit from this tragedy are the news organizations and the good people who sell Skittles and Arizona Iced Tea. What I'm trying to say is that there's a lot of smaller stories going on beneath the bigger one. It's easy to feel powerless if we only listen to the big story, the one that keeps getting told, without realizing that we all have a hand in writing it.
Cory O'Brien is a white male who may be totally off-base on this, but isn't trying to be. He writes much less serious stuff on his blog, which is bettermyths.com