By Ken Hamilton
Niagara Gazette — Upon first hearing of the Trayvon Martin incident, it would have been easy for even the conservative in me to conclude that Zimmerman was a guilty racist. I could have come to that without hearing any evidence other than Martin was black and Zimmerman was, well, a white Hispanic, but it would have been wrong to do.
We often base things on our own experiences, but in the absence of hearing all of the evidence, it would be wrong for me to judge Zimmerman. Moreover, if a single, personal experience outside of a Long Beach, Calif., gated community in 1971 was all that I had to go on, then I would have to brand him with the red-hot scales of justice as guilty.
The Navy assigned me to the USS Wiltsie, which was then in the Long Beach yards for repairs. Three of us Radarmen from the Combat Information Center gang had orders to attend a weeklong electronic countermeasure/electronic counter-counter measures course at Point Loma. We made the two-hour trip from the ship to that Fleet Anti-Air Warfare Training Center that sat high above the tranquil San Diego Harbor to the east, and west of the waves of the Pacific Ocean that crashed against the rocks. Thereafter, we returned to Long Beach.
Kerrigan, the car’s owner, lived aboard the ship, but the other shipmate actually lived in a Long Beach gated community, not too many miles from the base. On that Friday evening, he decided to simply go home and report to the ship on Monday morning.
With him being a rather plump fellow, I could not understand why he wanted to be dropped off outside of his gated community instead of at his front door. With my hopes dashed of seeing what it was like inside of the high walls of any gated community, our shipmate got out of the car and dragged his luggage from the back seat. He then leaned in and said his goodbyes; and as he was about to throw his sea bag over his shoulder, Kerrigan leaned toward him, looked past me and shouted up to the big guy, asking him if he was sure that he didn’t want a ride into the complex. The man stood and thought about it, first looking back over his shoulder at the pastel pink walls of the development for a few seconds, then spending as much time looking down into my smiling face.
“No, I’ll walk,” he said.
As we pulled away, with his sea bag slung over his shoulder, the big fellow struggled his way toward the pedestrian gate. His massive body became smaller and smaller in the images of the side view mirror, until he completely faded from the sight.
I’ve looked into that same, now-proverbial mirror a thousand times since then. However, I no longer see just a single 6-foot tall, plump, white shipmate walking toward a wrought iron gate in what I can only believe to have been a de facto, whites-only conclave. As well as seeing the faint silhouette of myself, I can see the blurry image of a thousand George Zimmermans in that side view mirror.
You see, for all of the time that I spent as the only black guy in that CIC gang, that plump fellow was one of the kindest of all of my shipmates. People talked about him behind his back, too. I had experienced no problem with him, other than that one look in his eyes when he stared down upon my dark face as I sat in that automobile. That’s when he made it clear to me that I was not welcome in his conclave.
Yet I never judged our gated community dweller as a direct racist. No, not even to this day. The message that he sent is the same message that many others like him have sent me in many areas of my life — and probably some of yours, too.
I can still read the message that his nervously blinking eyes and low groans telegraphed on that day outside of the pinkish walls. “I am not a bigot,” they said. “But once I am inside of those walls, I have to be accepted by the others therein who look like me; and many of them, if not most, unfortunately, are bigots.”
No matter how the Zimmerman case turns out, Zimmerman will have to look into some proverbial mirror for the rest of his life and see himself. We all have to. Therefore, I’ll rest in his being his own judge of self-character, and by the court’s decision.
Let’s pray that we all continue to change for the better.Contact Ken Hamilton at firstname.lastname@example.org.