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Deadly reflexes we all must change

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By ELIJAH GOSIER, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published June 11, 2002

There are some things I can't change, other things I won't.

I am black, I am a man, I am big. I can't change any of those aspects of myself, wouldn't change them if I could (although I would consider some redistribution of the bigness), even though the combination makes some people nervous, and in certain circumstances, outright frightens a lot of them.

I cannot change any of that.

I dress casually. (Some would argue that I'm being way too kind to myself.) I could change that, but I won't. I see no reason to. Maybe because of my country upbringing I see clothes as serving two basic functions: covering nakedness and providing some degree of protection from the elements. Beyond that, I don't have much use for them, even though I know some people judge me by the version of modern-day loincloth that I choose to wear.

But I won't change. If you're shallow enough that I can impress you with the clothes I wear, then you're someone I don't particularly care to impress. What you think of me, or anything else, is likely to be tethered to the same helium-filled cerebration, and doesn't really matter.

Or does it?

We live in a time when perception can quickly become deadly reality. That was illustrated tragically in Tampa last week when a man delivering a pizza fatally shot a high school student whom he thought was an imminent threat to him.

Two divergent accounts of those events have surfaced, and this in no way an attempt to weigh one against the other. That task falls to the police and possibly the courts.

The undisputed basics of the story are these: Adel Ahmed, 22, was delivering a pizza to an unfamiliar address in a predominantly black neighborhood. Tyrone Stephens, 15, approached the car and grabbed a pizza.

Apparently thinking he was about to be harmed, Ahmed fired a shot that killed Stephens. It was the tragic ending, always potentially present in scenes played out on various stages every day: Another young man -- innocent by witness accounts, not so in the driver's eyes -- senselessly dead.

As in most of the other times this drama plays out, the lines spoken, the details within the story line, are not of real importance. The pivotal question is whether the ending could have been rewritten, and beyond that, who should have done the rewrite.

Much of what transpired was fueled by perception. The driver perceived himself in a dangerous neighborhood, a neighborhood where drugs are sold and where crime lurks for innocent victims wandering through. It is predominantly black, predominantly poor, with young black men on the street.

Thus primed by perception, the reality quickly materialized when Stephens walked up to the car.

Those of us who are older and bigger than Stephens have learned the danger our mere presence brings to some otherwise inert situations.

Still, we are often caught off-guard, as I was a few years ago when I admired from nearly a block away the stamina and energy of a woman who appeared to be close to 80 years old walking ahead of me. She was almost jogging, which matched my comfortable walking pace.

After a couple of blocks of admiring her prowess, it suddenly dawned on me -- from her frequent looks over her shoulder, but more from the distress I finally saw in her face -- that her pace was driven by a desperate desire to stay out of my reach.

Although I was completely innocent and harmless and had chosen purely by coincidence to walk the same route as she, I felt some guilt, and some responsibility, for her welfare. So I turned and walked a different route, hoping I had not caused her harm by pushing her to overexertion.

As innocuous as the incident was, the day could have taken a much different course. She could have had a heart attack. She could have turned to the nearest door and reported that a big black man was following her, opening the possibility of other unpleasant consequences.

The same kind of dynamics took the life of a St. Petersburg man who was killed when he was hit by a second car. The first vehicle struck him as he attempted to cross the street; the second hit him when its driver speeded up, thinking the people trying desperately to wave him down had sinister motives.

America's complex history has brought us to this point where distrust and fear of one another deprive us of much of the freedom we would otherwise enjoy. We sacrifice freedom of movement because we perceive some places are dangerous. We sacrifice freedom of association because we perceive some people are dangerous.

It is a tough line to walk, judging when to fear for your life or fear offending others. All of us need to be more aware of the impression we project and learn ways to disarm it. All of us need to be conscious of our own inaccurate perceptions and learn ways to corral them.

Sometimes that is as easy as a smile and greeting on the elevator to an apprehensive co-rider. But it's not always so easy.

Should the pizza delivery driver, perceiving he was in danger, have just pulled out of the area? Lawsuits against cab companies and pizza stores have been successful against such behavior.

Should the young man have realized he was the personification of danger and known that darkness and location intensify that image? Should he have known that reaching into a car, either for larceny or as a joke, imperiled his life? Should he have stayed as far away from the car as possible and assumed a posture as nonthreatening as he could muster? People have been accused of pandering to unkind stereotypes for that behavior.

But if each had recognized the danger in their paths crossing, perhaps two lives that were destroyed would be intact today.

The reality, of course, is that black men are a greater threat to other black men than to anyone else. The same applies to whites and other identifiable groups. Yet white Americans' fear of becoming the victim of a black criminal is far out of proportion to the reality reflected by crime statistics.

Until we let that reality sink in, our misguided perceptions will be reality and, sometimes, they will continue to be deadly.

But I'm still not going to stock up on suits and ties.

-- To reach Elijah Gosier, call (727) 893-8650 or e-mail

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