Several years ago, in a coffee shop just off I-65 in Montgomery, AL, I saw two state troopers on coffee break. One was black, the other white. They were partners in the patrol car parked outside.
A few miles down the road, I-65 crosses U.S. 60 to Selma, one of the bloody milestones in the civil rights struggles of the 1960s.
It was tempting to mark the white police officer and the black police officer in the nearby booth as symbols of the great progress the United States had made in race relations and attitudes since Selma. It would also have been wrong. The hatred, the ugly urge to violence, still lurked just beneath the surface not just in Alabama, but throughout American society.
Now, with the election of the first black President, it is emerging like sulfurous gas from the interior depths of our national soul. You could smell it among the gun-waving Tea Party zealots at a Congressional "town hall" in New Mexico, in the coded rhetoric of Christofascists in Virginia, in the instant celebrity of a politicized pop-off in Ohio who wasn't named Joe and wasn't a plumber.
It's in the air again with the tempest over the slaying of an unarmed 17-year-old black male by an armed 28-year-old Hispano-Caucasian male who had anointed himself to be a "watchman" for his gated community in Sanford, FL.
Citizens on both sides of the great and ever-widening American Schism are jumping to conclusions without knowing a lot about what happened that February night in Florida. Leaks meant to bolster the biases on both sides have simply inflamed the blind passions, but done little to enlighten public judgement. ABC news jumped all over the leaked information that the victim, Trayvon Martin, had been suspended from his high school because a plastic baggie was found in his backpack that contained traces of marijuana. The LA Times trumpeted its own exclusive finding that the shooter, George Zimmerman, "dreamed of being a cop." Republican seekers of the Presidential nomination assailed President Obama for remarking that if he had had a son, "he would have looked like Trayvon." A leak said Sanford police didn't consider charges against Zimmerman because they had "evidence" that supported the shooter's version of events that night. Then another medium unearthed two women in the neighborhood who heard the fatal shot and witnessed the "immediate aftermath" of the slaying whose version seemed to contradict the one the police had accepted. Skittles. A hoodie. An SUV. The vocabulary of the case is fraught with flash-point code words and phrases.
Surely the Sanford police did not do their job: any slaying by handgun calls for more thorough investigation than their acceptance of the shooter's story. It's not likely, either, that satisfactory answers will come from a special prosecutor's investigation by a Florida attorney whose statewide reputation as being "tough on crime" is based on the large number of black kids in hoodies she has sent to the slammer and then thrown away the key. Why does a neighborhood watch guy have to carry a weapon? We have a neighborhood watch in our community whose commitment is to call 911 if they see a crime being committed or a non-resident acting suspiciously. None of them totes heat out on the street.
Zimmerman told the police he saw Martin acting suspiciously and followed him. No neighborhood watch person in my neighborhood would follow a suspected criminal; that's what 911 is for. Maybe George the would-be cop saw the kid throwing Skittles at someone's stray cat.
Zimmerman's story reeks of untruth. Our greater society reeks of racism.
Trayvon Martin is far from the only unarmed black youth who has been shot to death this year under questionable circumstance, many of them by men wearing badges, and, I fear, he will not be the last.
Guns are roughly as easy to come by as Skittles in our sick country.