Much of the country reacted in horror several months ago when Trayvon Martin, an unarmed 14-year-old Florida boy, was shot and killed by Neighborhood Watch volunteer George Zimmerman. Martin was black and wearing a hoodie, which led Zimmerman to conclude he did not belong in his neighborhood and was probably up to no good. Zimmerman followed Martin and accosted him, even after being told by police not to do so. Following a disputed altercation, Zimmerman shot Martin in the chest, killing him.
Closer to home, Oakmont resident Harry Smith is accused of chasing Toraj Soltani, a Santa Rosa delicatessen owner, and running him down as he rode his bicycle in Oakmont. According to police accounts, Smith first screamed at Soltani and bumpted him with his car. Soltani attempted to escape the automotive assault by turning onto a golf cart path. Not to be thwarted, Smith drove onto the golf course in pursuit, accelerated and ran Soltani down. This resulted in serious injuries to Soltani, requiring the surgical implantation of a titanium plate in his wrist. Of course, had his luck been even worse, Soltani could have been killed.
Investigators say they learned that Smith was driving with a suspended license due to previous incidents of road rage, including one in which he accosted Santa Rosa attorney and cyclist Rose Zoia.
Fortuitously, upon reading The Press Democrat's coverage of Soltani's injuries, Zoia recalled that several months previously she had been screamed at by a man matching Smith's description as she rode her bike in Oakmont. She says she tried to talk calmly to him as a "good will ambassador for cycling."
But he would have none of it — he continued to rant at her for being "too young" to be riding in Oakmont. It bears noting that Oakmont's streets are public and within the city limits of Santa Rosa. Upon reading of Soltani's attack, Zoia called the police and reported the previous incident. This ultimately lead to Smith's arrest.
Zoia was too young. Trayvon Martin was too black. Smith appears to have joined Zimmerman as a self-appointed vigilante with presumed authority to decide who had the right to be in their communities and to deal violently with those they saw as trespassers and not members of their tribes. We prefer to associate such tribalism with barbarously hateful people in foreign lands.
But the allegations against Zimmerman in Florida and Smith in Oakmont reveal the folly of such self-assured confidence. Were Zimmerman and Smith merely toxic outliers in their communities? Zimmerman has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars, mostly from small donors, for his legal defense fund. Smith lived only a few blocks away from the scene of his alleged crime, which occurred in broad daylight.
He was identified and apprehended only after a previous victim called the police to report him. His easily identifiable car, with a broken side view mirror and golf course debris stuck to its bottom, was parked in his garage. He was being driven away by relatives as the police arrived.
Smith's neighbors, when interviewed by The Press Democrat, reported what a fine fellow he was, who could be "a bit testy, but no more testy than many of us." Let us work to prove that neighbor's characterization wrong.
If he's found guilty, Smith was far more than a bit testy. He was a violent, self-appointed vigilante and a potentially murderous criminal. We must reject fully the tribalism that Zimmerman and Smith represent.
To see a list of all winners, click here.