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George Zimmerman: The Threat From Trayvon Martin Was All In His Head

The summer night my brother and I walked home from a PBA dance at the high school was the closest I ever came to being picked up by the cops. When the dance ended, we started down the road. On the way, we saw Mrs. Mason,* the principal’s secretary, burst out the front door of her friend Ruth Glazer’s** house. Mrs. Mason hurried down the walk, waving her arms. “You kids stop! Stop right there!” she ordered.

With no intention of disrespecting the school secretary – who had five sons and a rather sour disposition – we stopped on the sidewalk in front of her blue station wagon parked at the curb.

At that moment a squad car pulled up. Two township police officers hopped out.

Mrs. Mason was strung tighter than a propped up clothes line on washing day. “That’s them,” she accused. “They’re the ones who did it.”

I was scandalized. “What did we do?” I asked.

My brother tried to take control of the conversation. “Let me handle this. Don’t say anything.”  Then he turned to Mrs. Mason. “What happened?”

Mrs. Mason let ‘er rip. “You stole the rear view mirror right off my car!” she fumed. “And you’re going to pay for it.”

The disconnected story came out. The woman had dropped by her friend’s house and when she went to leave, the mirror was gone. My head clouded. I had never contemplated vandalism as a hobby, being in the marching band and all.

One of the officers opened the back door of the squad car. “Go ahead. Get in,” he said.

My brother ducked inside. He seemed quite comfortable, as though he’d done this sort of thing before.

I felt as self-righteous as any wrongly accused girl in an A-line skirt, calico blouse and penny loafers. I took the officer’s order as a mere suggestion.  “I’m not getting in. I didn’t do anything wrong,” I said.

My brother motioned to me, “Come on, come on.”

Then I had a stroke of naïve genius. I began using logic, something lacking from the whole encounter. “We couldn’t have stolen the car mirror,” I said.

The cops listened. Mrs. Mason twitched with anger. Her friend Ruth – a really nice lady  – just stood there giving us sympathetic looks.

“If we had stolen it,” I reasoned, “we wouldn’t be standing here in front of this house. We’d be long gone by now. So it doesn’t make any sense that we took it. Does it make sense to you?”

Suddenly the officer changed his tune. “You can go,” he said.

I didn’t stick around to see Mrs. Mason’s reaction.

Her stress had been right up there on the charts that night. She wanted to pin her misfortune on somebody, even two good kids. My brother was class president. Not only did she know us, she knew our parents, which makes me believe her cognitive brain wasn’t functioning properly.

The rear door of the squad car had remained open the entire time. My brother got out and we high-tailed it home. Not that we had other plans. It just seemed wise not to loiter.

I can’t explain my bravado. If they had handcuffed me, I would have become indignant, maybe kicked the officer. I didn’t know any curse words.

I’m grateful we didn’t have Stand Your Ground. Mrs. Mason could have come out of her friend’s house packing while she waited for police.

See, Mrs. Mason knew her mirror had been stolen before we walked by. She’d spent a while stewing about it, getting frothed up.

By the time she ordered us to stand there, she had conjured us into evil-doers. We were teenage criminals with nothing better to do than sneak around the neighborhood stealing from people. She had herself a couple of warm bodies.

To her it didn’t matter that her assumption didn’t make sense. Her stress system was on high alert; and in that state, people don’t think properly. They go into survival mode, which uses a  more primitive  part of the brain.

Just like George Zimmerman on  the night he shot Trayvon Martin. He saw someone that looked suspicious. Could be up to no good. Might have a gun. And on and on. Until his body went into fight-flight-or-freeze.

Did Martin respond with violence? How could he not, after being followed and his own threat response system triggered, adrenaline rushing through his body?

The law said Zimmerman could defend himself using deadly force. And he did. Take away Stand Your Ground, and Martin might still be alive today.

I learned from my research on the topic of stress that when people  feel sufficiently threatened – especially boys and men – they often act on their fears with aggression. The problem is, sometimes that fear is all in their head.

From what I understand, when people are repeatedly exposed to threatening situations as children (which can be caused by many things, including poverty, neglect and abuse, lack of stimulating interaction and nurturing relationships), the brain becomes hardwired for stress. It responds to perceived threats without adequate thought, which can cause impulsive actions.

I don’t know  George Zimmerman’s background. But if  his childhood experiences included threatening circumstances due to neglect, if he lacked nurturing care and attention – his brain may have been “hardwired” for stress.

According to an 2012 paper by Jack Shonkoff, M.D., titled, “Leveraging the Biology of Adversity to Address the Roots of Disparities of Health and Development”   (www.developingchild.harvard.edu),  neural circuits in our brains are “wired” as a result of many influences, including experiences and relationships.

Not only that, but when adults fail to meet young children’s needs for a safe, stimulating environment, brain functions do not develop properly.

My goal here, at the end of this post, is to link Shonkoff’s research on adverse childhood experience to the kind of behavior Zimmerman exhibited the night he killed Trayvon Martin: He was easily threatened, lacked the ability to think through the situation, and didn’t follow instructions (police told Zimmerman to stay in his car).

Here’s a short excerpt from Shonkoff’s paper: “The acquisition of executive function and self-regulatory skills corresponds closely to the extended development of the pre-frontal cortex, which begins in early infancy and continues into the early adult years.

“Because these neural circuits have extensive interconnections with deeper brain structures that control responses to threat and stress, maturing executive functioning both influences, and is affected by, a young child’s management of strong emotions. Thus repeated exposure to threatening situations can disrupt the development of the prefrontal cortex and lead to emotional problems as well as compromised working memory, attention, and inhibitory control.

“In contrast, well-developed capabilities in these important aspects of organization can help children (and adults) manage adversity more effectively.”

I’m not a scientist, but it doesn’t take an advanced degree to figure it out. George Zimmerman didn’t start out in life hoping he could someday claim self-defense in a murder trial.  He started out just like every other kid who needs love, attention, and safety.

But current laws, including Stand Your Ground (which Zimmerman did not invoke) give people hard-wired for stress, people like Zimmerman – a wannabe cop –  an unfair advantage. He got to kill somebody and walk away.

FFG

* The name Mrs. Mason is fictionalized.

** The name Ruth Glazer is fictionalized.

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