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Who’s Free, Who’s Not, Who Was, Who Wasn’t, and Who’s Dead: And, Are You Sure You Know Which Way Is Up?

A Letter from Istanbul by Ed Pavlic


Trayvon remains underground, to my knowledge he hasn’t arisen. No Ascension nor Assumption. He’ll never be a free man, again. True.

Last week in Douala, Cameroon, on the other hand, a crowd spent four hours lynching a suspected criminal, waking him up, and apparently lynching him all over again. Da Capo. CNN International noted that such lynchings are a common occurrence in Cameroon. Well, as a well known 20th century bard from Baltimore sung, famously, God Bless the Child. . . who makes it through the Southern trees of Cameroon. Or, Florida. Or Chicago on the 4th of July. Or, or.

Also, last week, at about 9:30 pm on Monday July 8th, on my block of Havyar Sokak in Cihangir, Istanbul, while gas-masked protesters ran for cover, doused their faces and rinsed their mouths in milk and rubbed their eyes with Tums tablets, and while I slammed my windows shut to close off billows of tear gas from the latest round in the Istanbul Police force’s war against sidewalk cafés and green spaces, I noticed the delivery guy from Miss Pizza, located just across the narrow street, exit into the fray, calmly place three Miss Pizzas in the blue box on the back of his Vespa, pull his red handkerchief up over his nose, and buzz off up the wrong way of the one-way street (away from the cops) on his way to wherever he, and the pizzas, had to go.

The collision of these images got me thinking about risk, proportion, freedom and its ever-shiftily situated situations.

Meantime, George Zimmerman, having, we’re told, benefitted (again!) from his “white privilege” in the “not guilty” verdict, and reported upon by a multicultural, medial array of reporters, one can only guess, all checking their own Privilege-Meter apps on iPhones (have you seen that app?) as soon as cameras are diverted, realizes that, you know what, he “may never be a free man, again.” In tag lines on CNN, France 24, BBC, and Bloomberg, among other networks, no doubt, we told over and over, “His life may never be the same, again.”

And, that’s a bad thing?

It must be the fixation with the new app on the iPhone. If not, how explain that no one seems to remark that the reason George Zimmerman (cue Star Wars soundtrack) “may never be a free man, again” might be be because: one, his previous idea of freedom seemed to be spending his waking hours armed, patrolling a gated community looking for the next shadowy threat to his freedom, or his property; and, two, that having come face to the face with the grim, in fact murderous, existential results of a gated “freedom” based upon so-called “white privilege,” Mssr. Zimmerman still refuses to face the seemingly inescapable conclusion that, by whatever tricknosis, he’d been hoodwinked into calling his (I’m guessing unpaid?) prison-guard lifestyle freedom for many years.

James Baldwin used to annoy people by saying, simply, “If you keep me in jail, there’s got to be someone to watch me. Now there are two prisoners.”

Have none of these, we’d assume, well-educated (but, above all good looking) reporters entertained the simple question: why was a man who’ll never be free, again, compelled to patrol his neighborhood with a gun when he was free? And, so the more thorny question–one we won’t pursue here–if Trayvon wasn’t free, why does it seem he was so comparatively non-plussed about the Orange Alert in the neighborhood (if not in the world) on that night a year and a half ago?

But, in fact, he’s right, and so are the reporters–at least according to what their agents claim on Twitter–George Zimmerman’s life IS in danger. So is everyone else’s, not the least of whom those people so obsessed with their safety, and the ever-multiplying, ever-lurking threats to it, that they refuse to actually live in their towns, in their cities, at all.

In this, in fact, strangely, Zimmerman’s hope is everyone’s–or at least many many people’s–hope. It’s to turn tide, face the insidious (or glaringly obvious, depending upon one’s point of view) design of his former imprisonment on the wrong-side of the gates in the world of gated communities, neighborhood watch, homeland security, etc., etc., ad nauseum, in fact, ad mortem. From that turning, with as much guts and aplomb as it takes to deliver a Miss Pizza in Istanbul, or to buy Skittles in Florida, or to drive a car (at night!) as a black man, he’ll encounter his former exile for what it was and from that point of view, just possibly, he’d assent to life among human beings (with its attendant risks). From there, when he wasn’t actually living in the world that, turns out, in most cases, isn’t a murderous plot against one’s safety, but does seem–especially to the extent one’s tuned into the media outlets–an almost consistent assault on one’s sanity. He could, and working on both fronts, then, join in cooperation with those fighting the absurd, wild West-inspired, (and so inescapably white supremacist) “stand your ground” legislation and begin to chip away at the murderous, paranoid concoction that had, by degrees, one guesses, throughout his lifetime, replaced his personality and erased his historical and social sensibility, the one that had brought him to such a awful place (free?), carrying a loaded weapon, stalking a teenager armed with Skittles, ice tea and, you think?, an attitude.

Which turn of tide and accompanying existentially-engaged rationality won’t make George Zimmerman safe. But, the threats to his life, then, would come from exactly those NRA-lobby types that likely informed and instructed him en route to his previous (or current) mentality, are supporting him now and who certainly financed his defense. Circular, this. And, strange as it sounds, if he’d just admit his racism and realize the trick bag he’s in, has been in, many, I’d say most, of the people protesting the decision in his case would join him in rational, political, historically resonant, organized work against the insane prevalence of guns (and the will to use them) and gates (and our compulsive need to build them) in our streets, in our homes, and in our minds.

Yes, it’s terrible. Trayvon Martin is going to stay dead. And, George Zimmerman will never be a free man again. And, if you can’t pierce the fatally circular (il)logic in the story about this situation as told in the media, neither will you. But, that’s ok. Because if you’ve come this far just following along, you probably aren’t much freer now than George Zimmerman was two years ago hiding out nights in the bushes (that decorated the iron fencing) around his neighborhood. Which, unless you’re sick about the murder, about all the murders, the verdict, and the disastrous story it’s provoked in the media, truth be told, is likely just the way you want it.

Why not, right? You can always order out. Let the cat on the Vespa, the taxi drivers, and the public school kids bear the risks. But beware, the un-freedoms you are told diminish as your privilege meter reaches the red zone. . . well, you just might be holding the device upside down.

When you’re standing at whatever version of shutters you’ve chosen, shutters that close you in at least as well as they close anything out, it might be good to think about the warning part in the title of the early poem, “Storm Warnings,” by the poet, Adrienne Rich, another 20th (and 21st century) bard from Baltimore, when she concludes:

This is our sole defense against the season;
These are the things we have learned to do
Who live in troubled regions.

By exactly the logic of the case of George Zimmerman, a storm warning if there ever was one, one the warning in which is being woefully, and willfully, overlooked, we better learn to do something else.


Ed Pavlic, Istanbul, July 16, 2013

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