In 1983, my great-aunts, Phoebe Shapiro z”l (of blessed memory) and Anne Stern z”l were brutally attacked in their home on President Street in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Phoebe was 83 and Anne was 78. They begged their attacker not to hurt them, telling him to take anything he wanted. He took nothing. Instead, he severely beat both of my great aunts. Phoebe’s jaw was badly broken and she spent many weeks with her mouth wired shut, recuperating in the hospital. She eventually recovered and moved into an assisted living facility where she lived until she was 97. Sadly, my great-aunt Anne succumbed to her injuries and passed away days after the attack. According to Phoebe, with whom I was very close, the attacker was a young, black man. He was never caught. Not long after Anne’s death, I remember sitting with my grandfather, Phoebe and Anne’s younger brother, as he wrestled with the reality that his sister’s murderer might never be brought to justice. This tormented him for the rest of his life.
I have been thinking a lot about my family’s tragedy this week as I read about Trayvon Martin and his death. Despite what some are saying about Martin and the shooter, George Zimmerman, there are many questions yet to be answered about this case. But one thing is clear: this death has become a racially charged tragedy. Zimmerman has been labeled a criminal by many. The New Black Panthers have offered a $10,000 reward for his capture. Celebrities like Spike Lee and Rosanne Barr are tweeting the home address of Zimmerman’s parents to their followers. Zimmerman, who is not in custody and has not been charged with anything, might be guilty of a crime. But, he also might be innocent. In this country, we believe that one is innocent until proven guilty. A 17 year old is dead. I understand that emotions are running high, understandably so. But, this is no excuse to disregard American values and laws.
Unfortunately, national leaders are fanning the flames. Reverend Al Sharpton has made it clear that Trayvon was killed by George Zimmerman because Trayvon was a “black kid”. In response to Martin’s death, Reverend Jesse Jackson said that “blacks are under attack”. Some elected officials have acted and spoken out in ways that lend support to Sharpton and Jackson’s assertion that race is the reason Trayvon was killed. We don’t, however, know why Trayvon was killed. Zimmerman might be a racist. He might have been acting out of self-defense. We don’t know. There are too many unanswered questions. An investigation needs to take place. Rushing to judgment will get us nowhere. Surely, Jackson and Sharpton know this. They were very much involved in the 2006 Duke Lacrosse scandal – which, as many of you know, stirred racial tensions and resulted in charges being dropped against the falsely accused lacrosse players. Sharpton also knows the dangers of rushing to judgment after the Tawana Brawley controversy in the late 1980’s.
I know personally the emotions that surface when a loved one is killed. In my family’s case, while the perpetrator was never captured, we know that he was black and that he murdered my great-aunt. As my family learned about the horrific crime back in 1983, emotions raged. The attacker was unknown – but, nonetheless, he was hated by my family. There was an intense desire to find him and bring him to justice. Yes, there were questions about whether or not he attacked my great-aunts because they were white and/or Jewish (this pre-dated the infamous Crown Heights riots in 1991). But, there was no media coverage of this incident. There were no press conferences. There was no intensive investigation that followed the murder (perhaps if the attacker was caught, this would have been different). The murder was considered a burglary gone bad. As I reflect back on this nightmare, I realize that despite their anger and sorrow, I never once heard my great-aunt Phoebe, my grandfather or any other family member assert that white citizens of Crown Heights or Jewish citizens of Crown Heights were under attack. My family’s loss never became “us vs. them”, “white vs. black”, “Jews vs. non-Jews”. It could have. But, my family understood that by asserting, without proof, that my great-aunt’s murder was a racial or an anti-semitic hate crime would have been racist in and of itself as the only “evidence” we had was the attackers skin color. To blame something on skin color is racist. Despite their emotions, my family managed to accept the fact that Anne’s murder was a horrific tragedy committed by a deranged individual who just so happened to be black.
I find it telling that as the media’s attention has been focused upon the Martin tragedy in Central Florida, most of us had no idea that on Wednesday, in Sarasota, Shawn Tyson, a black, 17 year-old, Floridian received a life sentence after a jury convicted him of first-degree murder in the shooting deaths of James Cooper, 25, and James Kouzaris, 24 – both white tourists from England. I find it telling that while most of us know about Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman, we are unaware of the fact that 41 people were shot in Chicago earlier this month and 10 of them were killed! One of the victims was 6 year old Aliyah Shell who was shot by gang members. Her murder, the murder of other innocent souls in Chicago and the conviction of Shawn Tyson received very little media coverage. There are no celebrities speaking out on behalf of little Aliyah Shell. There are no rallies. Why? No politicians spoke out on behalf of James Cooper and James Kouzaris and their parents are asking why? The answer – the media focuses on sensationalism and gives the spotlight to those whose words startle and shock rather than teach and heal our very broken society. This is so sad given that we live in such a broken world.
Let me be clear, I know that racism is alive and well. I know that people are killed because of their skin color. This being said, at this point, it is completely irresponsible for anyone to declare that George Zimmerman is a racist who murdered Trayvon Martin because of his skin color. And it is irresponsible for the media to put the spotlight on those making such declarations. Let the investigation take place. Allow the courts to pursue justice. Give the jury time to deliberate. And while we wait, perhaps the media can send their reporters and their cameras to places like Aliyah Shell’s neighborhood to determine why a 6 year old little girls was killed!
No matter what the outcome of the Trayvone Martin investigation may be, I pray that many in our nation come to realize, just like my great-aunt Phoebe and my grandfather did after the death of my great-aunt Anne, that despite the terrible racially motivated crimes that do take place, there are indeed many horrific crimes that are committed by deranged individuals whose skin color represents them alone and not an entire racial group. If we can embrace this reality, perhaps we will do a better job at pursuing justice and bringing about the healing of our very broken world.