I’d like to meet Merritt Landry—or, rather, I’d like him to meet me. I’d like him to meet the type of person the boy who jumped into his yard late last month could have grown to be, had Landry not shot him in the head.
I’ve seen an argument emerging in the news and on social media that Landry is an upstanding citizen and the boy he shot, Marshall Coulter, who remains in critical condition in a New Orleans hospital, was merely disposable: a teenage criminal. This is supposed to make Landry’s actions not only justifiable, but in a sick way almost positive — as though there was no hope for the teenage criminal, and the world is better off without him.
This argument does not seem far from some of those swirling around the recent trial of Floridian George Zimmerman for killing Trayvon Martin. The latter’s marijuana use and suspension from school were cited not only to suggest he was capable of attacking Zimmerman, but that he was an all-around rotten apple.
I’m an upstanding citizen who, as a teenager, was also a criminal. I was first arrested, for shoplifting, when I was 12 — I was stealing CDs and selling them to my friends. Over the next five years, I racked up a number of curfew violations, drug- and alcohol-related offenses, and a felony charge for destruction of property (which I pled down to a misdemeanor). These were just the things I got caught doing. There were many more — and, yes, they involved hopping fences and going onto people’s property. One night, my friends and I were out late ringing random doorbells and then running when a man emerged with a shotgun. Like Landry, he thought we were trying to break into his house. We could easily have been shot, but he saw we were children and called the police instead.
I am eternally grateful, not only that the man did not shoot me, but that I wasn’t locked up for years or given another of the harsh punishments I see frequently doled out to teenagers — particularly black teenagers — who commit petty crimes. Today, I’m 30 years old and have a master’s degree, a good job, and a happy relationship. I’m the vice president of the board of a respected local nonprofit, I’m an engaged citizen, and a good neighbor. As you may have guessed, I’m white.
Of course, I’ve read the arguments claiming that what happened in that Marigny driveway had nothing to do with race, but I have a very hard time believing that if Landry had caught a white 14-year-old boy in his yard, he would have assumed that child had a gun and proceeded to shoot him in the head. The assumption that Coulter would not grow up to be an upstanding citizen also hinge on the fact that young black men who have committed crimes face mountains of obstacles that young white men who have committed crimes do not. The same racism that impels someone to pull the trigger on a black child exists among prospective employers who would not hire a black man with a criminal record, but would likely let my priors slide, dismissing them as a youthful aberration.
Even though I was a young criminal, I also had potential. The two things are not mutually exclusive. But when people like Landry see young black men, they don’t see potential. When a person is willing to shoot a child without doing everything possible to avoid it, I think it’s safe to say that not only do they fail to see potential, they don’t even see a human being — a person like them, with thoughts, hopes, hobbies, grandparents. They simply see a threat — even in an unarmed boy. They value the lives of young black men so little that, if they feel the smallest amount of fear, they feel justified in ending his life — just to be on the safe side.
Of course the Landry/Coulter case has key differences, but when thinking about the issue of fear, I can’t help but think of Zimmerman/Martin. Zimmerman got off because he allegedly feared for his life, a good enough excuse under Florida state law. Landry shot an unarmed boy because he allegedly feared for his and his family’s safety. But where does this fear come from, and is killing a rational response?
Statistically, other than the census category Asians/Pacific Islanders, white Americans are the U.S. demographic with the least chance of becoming victims of a home robbery or of a crime committed by a person they do not know, according to data from the United States Bureau of Justice Statistics. Sure, once in a while horrific things happen — I hear the name Helen Hill being thrown around. But if knowledge of past violence justifies fear, I look at the history of white-on-black violence, particularly in the South — from slavery to lynchings to Jim Crow to retaliation during the Civil Rights movement to the extrajudicial killings of young black men by police and to shootings like Martin’s and Coulter’s today — and I can’t help but think that, if I were black, I would fear and feel threatened by nearly every white person I saw. Does that mean I could shoot them?
Nathan C. Martin is the editor of Room 220: New Orleans Book and Literary News.