America's gifts to the world include the airplane, the polio vaccine, jazz, the gated community, and saggy-drawed, gold-toothed gangsta chic. These last two contributions came into deadly conflict last month at the Retreat at Twin Lakes in Sanford, Florida.
America is the land of the free, home of the gate. When don't-tread-on-me meets law-and-order, unchecked liberty experiences the perils of lawlessness and over-the-top security discovers it in a jail cell. That's the sad story of Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman.
Gated communities are cul-de-sacs suffering from a more severe neurosis. For the roughly 94 percent of Americans who don't live in Fortress America, it's easy to stereotype the denizens of the enclaves as overly-suspicious people cowering behind walls. There, a stranger isn't a friend you've never met but a guy fixing to heist your flat-screen television. Residents behind the fences seem as eager to snitch to the homeowners association on a neighbor's gauche Christmas ornamentation as he is to speed-dial the police about an unfamiliar pedestrian.
George Zimmerman did nothing to disabuse ungated Americans of such stereotypes. Since 2004, he has called the authorities 46 times. Potholes, trash in the road, unfamiliar automobiles, and even open garage doors weren't safe from his phone fetish. This busybodyism ended tragically on February 26. The initiate of the community's citizen watch program pursued an African-American teenager after a 911 dispatcher advised him not to. The African-American teenager objected more vehemently to the pursuit. Zimmerman responded to the physical assault with a firearm. Might overreaction be an issue for him?
Zimmerman's victim is exactly the kind of person who the residents of the Retreat at Twin Lakes sought to retreat from.
Trayvon Martin's Twitter account is a world where friends are "n-ggas," women are "b-tches," and English is a foreign language. His nom-de-tweet, "No Limit N---a," boasted of new tattoos, habitually arriving late for class, and smoking marijuana. He made repeated, degrading, unprintable references to women and their anatomies. "F-K DA SKOOL, F-K DA LUNCH, ND MOST OF ALL F-K DA FACULTY," he said of his high school. His high school said of him that he vandalized the building, possessed a pot pipe, and stored a cache of jewelry -- including silver wedding bands -- and a burglar's tool in his locker.
Trayvon Martin may have looked like the president's son. He didn't act like it.
What happened in Sanford, Florida, was a culture clash, just not in the way that Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, and Bobby Rush imagine it. The Martin-Zimmerman conflict wasn't a black-white issue, or even a black-Hispanic issue. It's the culture of the urban gangsta conflicting with the culture of gated living. One might say that the former created the latter. From all appearances, the Miami high school student and the suburban Orlando neighborhood watch captain appear as archetypes of these two American subcultures.
We judge the actors, just as the actors judged one another, on the basis of limited information. Zimmerman assumed the hooded teenager to be a hoodlum. Martin assumed that he could manhandle the shorter, pudgier, older man in a fistfight. Their stereotypes proved correct, but only to a point. If Martin appeared as a nogoodnik, nobody but a dentist could say that he was up to no good that night by merely buying Arizona Iced Tea and a pack of Skittles. If Zimmerman looked an easy mark for a pugilist, the assessment erred in overlooking his weapon amidst his physical attributes.
Americans may have misconceptions about teenagers exuding thug fashion and gated-life busybodies. But they, in turn, have misconceptions about America. The bastion-dweller sees in the very real gates that surround an illusion that blocks out civilization -- or perhaps walls it in. The thug behaves as a barbarian with the unrealistic expectation those in the way will behave in a civilized manner. We live in our cocoons -- until reality invades.
There's bad news for both archetypes. Fifty-three percent of births in the U.S. to women under 30 -- the motherhood demographic -- occur without a father married to the child's mother. Teenage boys blindly grasping at models of faux-masculinity -- such as beltless, pants-dragging prison fashion -- is sure to rise with it. Gated developments have been booming in recent decades where the population has been booming (in the West and South). What the unwelcome mat in front of these communities seeks to keep out encroaches.
George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin were people. Now they're seen as clichés. This is their doing, not the media's.
The passionate partisans of both complain of the public's unfair stereotypes of them. A person who doesn't like being stereotyped shouldn't behave as one.
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