When I think about the recent horrific shooting of young Ralph Yarl, a young black man who went to the wrong house to pick up his siblings and was shot by an elderly white man, my thoughts go to a similar experience I went through growing up and also to my late elderly father.
Let me explain.
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When I was 14, I was on the cross-country team at my high school in Flint, Michigan. I was never a good long-distance runner, but I did enjoy it. That summer of 1984, the team went to a state park in Northern Michigan to train. One evening, a group of guys went up to the lodge about two miles from our campsite. The group decided to check out the lake with some local girls while I was in the bathroom. When I got out, the group was gone. I decided to just go back to the campsite, but that meant going down a long dark road by myself. I ran down the road and remember stopping at a house that was on the way. I can’t remember why I stopped, but I did. It was night and pitch black outside. I was scared and I think I might have asked for directions or maybe a lift to the campground. I remember the woman who answered was somewhat hesitant. I ended up leaving and running the rest of the way back to the campground and perceived safety.
I have to wonder what that woman felt when she opened the door. Was she scared of anyone coming to the door late at night? Was she scared that a young black man was at the door? Luckily she didn’t have a gun ready to blow me away, which is what happened to young Ralph who simply went to the wrong house and was treated not simply with suspicion but rage and hatred because he was perceived as a threat.
This isn’t the first time that something like this has happened to a young black man. A similar case happened in the Detroit suburbs a few years ago.
Looking at my Facebook page, there isn’t a lot of sympathy for the elderly man who news reports say could face life in prison for what he did. While I can understand the calls for no mercy (which surprisingly can come from even clergy) I do have some feeling for this man even though I think he was clearly in the wrong. My sympathy comes from observing and caring for my elderly parents.
I can remember the day my late father asked me to look after a small pistol he had. My husband and I were moving my parents out of the home that I grew up in. The neighborhood in Flint had grown dangerous over the years. Dad had this pistol for years, but I thought a lot about why brought it up now. There is a part of me that wonders if Dad had brought this gun out of storage and had it somewhere just in case. As I said, the neighborhood wasn’t safe anymore. Dad was worried that someone could come and harm both he and Mom seeing these two old people as a couple that could be taken advantage of if not harmed.
Aging can be a scary prospect. The world that once seemed benign can become full of threats both real and imagined. I think about this man in his mid-80s, maybe living alone and maybe scared. I think about the fact that there are many elderly people for whom life is filled with dangers and who feel they have to use locks and bars and even guns to protect themselves in a world that seems dangerous.
I am not saying race doesn’t factor in here. I think it does. Nor am I saying the old man shouldn’t face penalties for what he did. But I don’t want to immediately dismiss him either. I can’t dismiss that I’ve been in a situation that young Ralph found himself in, but I also can’t dismiss the fear that the old man felt because I know how older people can feel when they no longer feel able to tackle the world around them.
Fear is the real enemy in this story. The question I am left with is how to best respond to that fear.
Heartfelt, honest and sensible. Thank you.