This is appalling

The recent shooting of Trayvon Martin (Google results linked here because there are just too many articles to choose one) has generated a lot of controversy here in the US. The gist of it is that a 17-year-old boy was deemed to be "suspicious" by some guy from the neighborhood watch* down in Florida. The 911 emergency operator told the dude to stay in his car; he didn't, some things which are not yet entirely clear happened, and the neighborhood watch guy ended up shooting the kid in the back. The kid, Trayvon Martin, was later found to not be holding any kind of weapon or other dangerous item, but there's still an investigation going on as to whether he did anything that the neighborhood watch captain might reasonably have mistaken for aggressive, etc etc etc.

[* I don't know what this sort of thing is called elsewhere, but a "neighborhood watch" in the US is basically when a bunch of people who live in a particular neighborhood get together and hash out a semi-formal schedule for wandering around the area and making sure nothing bad is happening. Although a neighborhood watch usually includes any law enforcement officers that live in the area as a courtesy, and are known to the local cops, they have no more authority than any other citizens, hence why this dude called 911. According to US common law, pretty much anyone can perform a "citizen's arrest": if you personally see a crime being committed like right now, you can use reasonable force to detain the guy wot did it until the real cops arrive. Whether you can shoot at them varies by area; some states give a kind of blanket permission to assume that if some guy you don't know is on your property and doesn't respond to "Hey, YOU!", he's probably there to kill you and you can fire away. Most states use the guideline that if any reasonable person would be in fear of grievous personal injury or death, you can defend yourself as you like within your own home, either with legally-bought and registered weaponry, or improvisation using common household objects like fireplace pokers or baseball bats.]

Someone on the Straight Dope Message Board, where I hang out from time to time, brought up a question that had never occurred to me to ask, which is whether African-American parents give their children The Talk -- not the one about the birds and the bees, the one about how not to get noticed and therefore arrested. I've never even heard of this before. My mother is very "damn the Man!", and made absolutely sure I knew that I could refuse a search and refuse to talk to the police until I had a lawyer/my parents present, but I think she also knew that wouldn't be much of a problem for me or my sister. (My mother has a tendency to forget that she is a WASPy, upper-middle-class, suburban housewife, whose highly-educated husband has to periodically dig up his old Selective Service Number to renew his security clearance so that he can continue doing contract work for the government -- for all practical purposes, she is the Man.)

In point of fact, I've never had any run-ins with the police. Partly because the sorts of trouble I got into as a teenager weren't the sorts the law cares about -- remind me to tell you guys about bokken and bookstores and potato-ing lawns sometime -- but mostly because I'm a young-looking white female who dresses in a manner somewhere between "professional" and "college student". I am acutely aware that this makes my life far easier than it ought to. I used to work nights and walk home, about a block, at four in the morning; the only time anyone ever talked to me was when a young police officer stopped his cruiser to ask if I was all right by myself, and when I told him he was the only person I'd ever even seen on the walk home, he apologized for bothering me.

In the Southwest there are also border patrol officers both at the Mexican border (tons of La Migra) and at state borders (a few poor bored state troopers between Arizona and California). I've gone through the checkpoint a dozen times at least and the only time any of them even spoke to anyone in the car was when the driver was a Hispanic guy. He looked like someone named Gonzalez but he sounded like the IT dweeb that we all were -- seriously, we were on our way to ComicCon in San Diego -- and we were waved through after about two sentences.

It is also kind of unfair, but an advantage I'll gladly take, when it comes to things like being broken down on the side of the road. I don't know if attractive has anything to do with it, but I look like I'm in my 20s still and most of my friends actually are, so every time I've ever had any kind of car emergency, someone has stopped to help PDQ. Because we lived in Flagstaff, most of our car trouble happened on the highway running north from Phoenix, and if there are two kinds of drivers that run that road almost constantly, it's middle-aged day-trippers and big biker dudes with bandannas on and beads braided into their beards. I assume what triggered it is that we all looked like someone's kids. The middle-aged couples were going to visit their offspring at the college, and anyone who survives long enough to be a grizzled old biker is probably with-it enough to have his own old lady and children at home, so they all saw us and thought, "Oh my god, those are someone's daughters, stop and make sure they're okay!" The only time it was a dire enough emergency to get the cops involved, two Highway Patrol officers and a tow truck driver (all male) all sat and doted on me and my two roommates (all female) until we had been delivered unto safety and called someone's parents to come retrieve our now-car-less asses from the Denny's in Williams, Arizona.

This is all, of course, highly classist, sexist, and racist of basically everybody involved, I hope unconsciously. I don't object that it happens to me a lot, but I would really rather that it was standard operating procedure, rather than a special subroutine that kicks in because I look like a helpless girl. I object even more to things like shooting happening just because someone has committed the horrible crime of being a dark-skinned teenager in a hoodie who was in no particular hurry. I have no idea what I can personally do to fix this, other that not doing it myself, and pointing out when other people are doing it so they can learn not to. I speak from a position of privilege -- not privilege I have earned myself through actions, but privilege people assign to me whether I want it or not. As such, I feel that my voice is often unwelcome in a lot of political and social protest venues, because I can't possibly have experienced what they're protesting against.

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