Nancy Giles: On when we assume

LONDON - FEBRUARY 15: A man wearing a Don't Shoot hoody is pictured near a crime scene in North Clapham at the Fenwick Estate on February 15, 2007 in London, England. A 15 year old boy, locally known as Billy Cox, was found dead in his home in the Fenwick Place area of Clapham North on Wednesday afternoon. This is the third murder in a week in the South London area. (Photo by Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images) Daniel Berehulak

(CBS News) In this commentary "Sunday Morning" contributor Nancy Giles offers her take on when "reasonable" is used to define Stand Your Ground, Stop and Frisk, and our own anxiety:


When Trayvon Martin was shot and killed by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, in Sanford, Fla., last year, my nephew Julius was living with me, and I worried about him all the time.

Julius is 23, bright, well-spoken, funny, never been in trouble, and wears a baseball cap and a hooded sweat shirt, like a lot of young people his age. He worked days and weekends, and when he went out at night to meet his friends, we had the regular drill:

Do you have your ID? Is your cell phone charged? Do you have one of my business cards? What's with the pants? Is that sweatshirt warm enough?

He knew what I meant, and would shake his head and make some adjustments. And I'd watch him and blink -- and see his little boy face singing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" in his sweet, little kid voice.

I was relieved that there were no "Stand Your Ground" laws in New York and New Jersey, but still worried that Julius might be stopped and frisked by the NYPD -- not because he'd done anything, but because (according to the language of "Stop and Frisk") he could be stopped if the police had a "reasonable suspicion" of . . . something.

A visible bulge in his pockets.

Something called "furtive movements."

"Inappropriate attire off-season." Hmm. He's wearing long pants and it's 90 degrees. Better stop and frisk.

How is that "reasonable?"

And by the way: the whole "up to no good" connotation with "hoodies" thing? I blame the Unabomber. He's the creepy guy who first ruined that article of clothing for everybody, but somehow black kids in hoodies have taken the lead in the negative assumptions category.

And "Stop and Frisk" statistics show how effective those assumptions are: According to the New York Civil Liberties Union, from 2003-2011 close to 90 percent of those stopped were black and Latino, and about 88 percent of those people were totally innocent.

That's not only awful, but woefully inadequate.

But when the law in Florida goes even further and gives a person permission to preemptively act on their assumptions in the name of "standing your ground," that can make for a deadly climate -- especially for young men of color.

Having said that, as a black woman of a certain height I've dealt with people's assumptions for years. On any given night, walking home on the streets of Manhattan, I'd catch glimpses of people ahead of me looking over their shoulders. As I entered my building, sometimes to panicked faces, I'd hold my apartment keys in the air to prove that I actually lived there and wasn't a purse snatcher.

Even riding an elevator can be a mini-drama: I'm alone, doors open, a white person looks at me and decides not to get on, doors close. Or, I'm the one alone in the elevator, doors open, two young black men enter wearing hooded sweatshirts and jeans balanced precariously over their boxers, doors close. I look at the men and now I'm the one making assumptions.

It doesn't matter that they're black and I'm black. I'm a little uneasy. And I don't like that I'm uneasy. So I try to chat them up: about the weather, their tattoos, or those cool-looking sneakers, and the tension has eased by the time the doors open.

I've gotten tweets and emails since the verdict, some insisting that Trayvon Martin started the confrontation and "threw the first punch," some assuming that he was "looking for trouble," and some tweets from total strangers who assume my opinions about the case are based solely on race. Should I then assume that their opinions are based solely on their race? It's not that simple.

Complete CBSNews.com coverage: George Zimmerman trial

The Florida statute JUSTIFIABLE USE OF FORCE, in section 776.013, number (3) states that:

A person who is not engaged in an unlawful activity and who is attacked in any other place where he or she has a right to be has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.

There's that word "reasonable" again.

When you assume .... a lesson from Felix Unger on "The Odd Couple."
Paramount Television
Reasonable can mean wildly different things to different people. Maybe standing his ground and defending himself from a stalker was the "reasonable" choice of Trayvon Martin on that tragic night.

Going forward, maybe we can all start with this simple idea: don't "assume." When you do, you really do make an "ass" out of "u" and "me," like that lesson on the chalkboard taught us.

And worse still, when you assume, sometimes a teenager walking home after a 7-11 snack run can be murdered.

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