Dear George Zimmerman:
This is what I know: now that a jury has found you “not guilty” for killing Trayvon Martin, you are, nevertheless, now faced with the daunting task of coming to terms with both your guilt and with this unbearable life sentence: the realization that you killed a child, whose only crime was walking through your neighborhood with a bag of skittles.
Before you read on, I want to assure you and those who are reading over your shoulder that this is not a flame. In fact, as I am writing this letter I am also extending to you my compassion. How could I not? If I can, in one breath, offer my compassion to prisoners on death row, many of whom, like you, have killed a child, then how could I, in the next breath, withhold compassion from you? Especially knowing that, although you are not, like the inmates, awaiting your execution while on lockdown twenty-three hours of the day, you are indeed in a prison of sorts, hemmed in, on the one hand, by the hate of some who believe that you are guilty; and, on the other hand, by those whose hate comes in the guise of love. The latter will celebrate you, congratulate you, and welcome you home, all from their sense that you share their commitment to racism and vigilante violence (perhaps you do, but that commitment itself is a prison).
Moreover, I am aware that you will always be known as the man who got away with killing a child, and most probably because he was black and male and always already suspect. And finally, I know that outside the din of our tortured conversations about race and crime – in your quiet moments, in other words – the fact of your killing will keep you company, letting you know that there is simply no escape from what you’ve done, not even for a moment.
I write this letter to you, then, with complete understanding that this prison of yours will be a difficult place for you to occupy. This understanding on my part, however, does not by any means lead me to celebrate or gloat or wish you harm.
So why do I write? It is for this reason only: to say to you that life has presented to you, in quite terrible ways, an opportunity to remake or rehabilitate yourself as someone who can serve as a force not for hate, but for reconciliation. I believe that this is possible for you just as I believe it is possible for those who sit on death row. Part of the travesty of execution is the belief that a person who commits a heinous crime is forever lost and unworthy of love, community, and a laying on of hands. To banish people from our hearts, and then to kill them, is a spiritual crime of the highest order (and one that you will also have to answer. Trayvon never deserved your disregard. I offer you what you could not offer him, with the hope that you will in turn come to embrace young African American boys, and African American people in general, as your own).
To help you on your way, let me offer to you a story told by Jack Kornfield in After the Ecstasy, the Laundry. It is the story of a young boy who shot and killed an innocent peer. “After the verdict was announced,” the murdered boy’s mother rose in court and said to the guilty boy, “I’m going to kill you.”
After some time passed, the mother began to visit the young boy at the jail in which he was incarcerated. She’d talk to him, bring him food and money for cigarettes – provide him generally with support and care. This went on for the entire time of his incarceration. And when it was finally time for his release, she took him into her home, cared for him, and helped him to get back on his feet.
A few months passed and she invited the young man to sit down. She asked him if he remembered her promise that she would kill him. Of course, he remembered it well. And this is what she said:
“Well, I did. I did not want the boy who could kill my son for no reason to remain alive on this earth. I wanted him to die. That’s why I started to visit you and bring you things. That’s why I got you the job and let you live here in my house. That’s how I set about changing you. And that boy, he’s gone.” She then asked his permission to let her adopt him; he consented, and she “became the mother of her son’s killer, the mother he never had.”
My question to you, Mr. Zimmerman, is this: What would it take for you to become for yourself – for all of us – the mother who kills the man in you who killed Trayvon Martin? And what would it take, precisely, for you to become a man whose life is one to which we could all aspire?
Your answer to these questions is the difference between prison and freedom, and it is these questions that life, with great urgency, requires you to answer.
Permit me to make a suggestion, which itself might be flawed given that I have questions of my own to answer, not the least of which concerns my own inclination towards violence. In fact, the desire to do violence comes in waves when I contemplate the pain of Trayvon’s parents or the legal system we insist on calling “justice” or the hate in this nation’s soul that your case has utterly laid bare. So keep all of this in mind when you read my suggestion. If, at your core, you feel the suggestion to be motivated by my own unspeakable and unattended animus, then I invite you to reject it completely.
Mr. Zimmerman, look squarely at the wreckage left in the wake of your terrible crime and ask yourself, with nothing but a complete commitment to sit in truth, what role you played in creating the wreckage and how you might serve as a force for healing.
If you are honest, then you will acknowledge just how thoroughly you have embraced violence as a way of life. How could you conclude otherwise? Your killing Trayvon was the culmination of violence in thought, word, and deed, and it is this that you must disavow in order to kill the man in you who thought so little of Trayvon’s life. To do so is more than a notion, however, especially since you will no doubt be surrounded by some who will cheer you on as a hero and insist that there is no alternative to violence. But make no mistake about it: this is precisely the path that you must take if you are to kill the murderer in you and thus to release yourself from the prison that you have created.
Thus, you must both embrace a life of nonviolence and insist on making it your lived reality. Ferret out the racism in your heart so that you can ferret out the racism in your community. Make of your life an example as to why we need gun control – nay, step forward as one committed to complete disarmament. Admit that you had no ground on which to stand and work tirelessly to overturn the legalization of vigilantism. Create a neighborhood committee that actually polices hate, whether within the gates of your neighborhood or without. Offer yourself, your home and your community as a safe haven for children. And for those who would encourage you to believe that your murder of Trayvon was just, offer your willingness to help them kill the murderers that they harbor in their own hearts.
But even this is not enough, Mr. Zimmerman. As Howard Thurman wrote, “one cannot, merely by a personal attitude of nonviolence, effect reconciliation in a violent system.” At some point in your journey, you will have to serve the project of dismantling all systems of subordination, for the end that you must seek, in order to be a force of reconciliation and thus to free yourself, is this: a world where all Trayvon Martins can walk freely, skittles in hand, and grow to be old men whose lives were valued because they were understood to be both desired and necessary.
I hope for your sake – for all of us, really – that this is a journey that you will undertake. And with that hope in mind, I wish you well.