Heavy hearted this week.
A teacher from St. Johnsbury, Vermont named Melissa Jenkins was lured from her house last Sunday night when the guy who used to snow plow her driveway called her out of the blue and said he and his wife were having car trouble just down the street. He asked for her help. Melissa felt suspicious enough to call a friend and tell him where she and her two year old son were going, and left the snow plower’s business card on her kitchen counter. Shortly after she arrived to help, the snow plower strangled her to death. Her two year old saw everything and later gave information to the police saying he heard his mother scream and saw a man pull on her neck. The couple put Jenkins’s body in the back of their car and drove it to their trailer where they stripped her, poured bleach on her, then bound her and dumped her body in a river, weighed down by rocks and covered by brush. Condoms and wrappers were found nearby but the police have not yet said whether or not Melissa was sexually assaulted. Fortunately, the murderers have been caught.
I’ve felt amazingly rattled by this. It’s given me nightmares. Left me sick to my stomach and shaking my head as I try to break the images free but can’t. Like me and my wife, Melissa was a teacher and had a young son. She was about our age. I have a friend who knew her pretty well and used to car pool with her to a summer class. Like my friend, Melissa was a single mom.
The world asks us to understand things we can’t possibly understand.
And then there’s the on-going Trayvon Martin tragedy from Florida and the constant revelations and double talk accompanying the debate about what happened the day he crossed through a gated community with a bag of Skittles wearing a hoodie and somehow ended up shot to death by an over zealous neighborhood watchman named George Zimmerman, who we are now learning had a history of violence and aggression, even as we learn also that Martin had his own troubles and had thrice been suspended from school, both their images becoming obscured and distorted and manipulated in ways we don’t fully comprehend or understand. Because of Florida’s controversial self-defense laws, Zimmerman still hasn’t been arrested, even as the local chief of police has stepped down in disgrace.
I don’t know that we’ll ever know the full truth about what happened that day. The only credible witness so far is Zimmerman himself and he’s already lied his ass off, first saying Martin attacked him and bashed his head into the sidewalk and spilt his lip, information which the original police reports corroborated. Then, a few days ago, a police surveillance camera from that night shows Zimmerman looking unharmed, free of the injuries he claimed he got in his “scuffle” with Martin. Zimmerman lied and it would appear the police helped him.
A young black man wearing a hoodie. A hoodie which has now become synonymous with the kind of racial profiling people of color have been enduring for hundreds of years.
I don’t want to oversimplify this. I think it’s likely Martin’s death was racially motivated, but so far we don’t know that for sure. What we do know is he was a young black man in a hoodie and that Zimmerman told 911 he looked “suspicious” and that he was going to follow him, even as 911 told him not to. Martin was gearing up to watch the NBA All Star Game and had walked to a convenience store to buy a bag of Skittles to mark the occasion. He was on the phone with his girlfriend at the time his encounter with Zimmerman began.
Skittles. Girlfriend. NBA All Star Game. Sounds like this kid was really looking for trouble.
And yet, as angry as I feel about this, and ashamed, and terribly saddened, I’m equally terrified of over simplifying this and making decisions without knowing all the information. Isn’t that why we have courts of law? After all, Zimmerman himself was of mixed heritage and his friends and relatives all say he wasn’t racist. Does their word mean nothing? I don’t know. Zimmerman, for his part, has already been caught in his own lies. He’s already guilty in our hearts, guilty enough that what “actually” happened that day matters less and less, even if it eventually goes to court, which of course it absolutely needs to. Has to.
I don’t know what to make of all this. My gut speaks. I listen. I know what I’ve heard and seen and feel. Mostly what I feel. I see the looks on the faces of my black students when the subject is brought up. I see my black friend’s suppressed anger, the choked desire to do something. I hear a tiny and unpopular chorus coming to Zimmerman’s defense, urging people to respect due process. I hear Geraldo saying that anyone of color wearing a hoodie is looking for trouble and that they should know better. I feel myself reacting, thinking did he really just fucking say that?
All we really know for sure is that Travon Martin is dead.
And like the death of Melissa Jenkins, the fact is a heavy burden.