Reaction to George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the killing of Trayvon Martin seems to have cleaved largely along two lines. The first, most obvious, and most predictable reaction was among racists, conservatives, and gun rights advocates who have backed Zimmerman from the beginning, who saw Zimmerman as acting in a way that they wish to preserve for themselves a right to imitate, and who raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for Zimmerman’s defense, to say nothing of the millions of dollars they have invested in creating a legal climate in Florida and in other states that favors a shooter. I will not address myself to this group in this posting.
A second group was persuaded that the prosecution had failed to establish guilt beyond a reasonable doubt and raised questions about how the prosecution had handled the case. My exemplar for this view is Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University. Particularly in light of Florida’s law on self-defense, this group seems not to see Zimmerman’s decision, against the advice of a police dispatcher, to leave his car and pursue Martin as aggression. As Turley put it,
While many have criticized Zimmerman for following Martin, citizens are allowed to follow people in their neighborhood. That is not unlawful. It was also lawful for Zimmerman to be armed. The question comes down to who started the fight and whether Zimmerman was acting in self-defense.
But, from a third group, another law professor, Ekow N. Yankah, from a not-so-well-known school, tries reversing the races of Zimmerman and Martin. He writes,
Whether the law judges Trayvon Martin’s behavior to be reasonable is also deeply colored by race. Imagine that a militant black man, with a history of race-based suspicion and a loaded gun, followed an unarmed white teenager around his neighborhood. The young man is scared, and runs through the streets trying to get away. Unable to elude his black stalker and, perhaps, feeling cornered, he finally holds his ground — only to be shot at point-blank range after a confrontation.
Would we throw up our hands, unable to conclude what really happened? Would we struggle to find a reasonable doubt about whether the shooter acted in self-defense? A young, white Trayvon Martin would unquestionably be said to have behaved reasonably, while it is unimaginable that a militant, black George Zimmerman would not be viewed as the legal aggressor, and thus guilty of at least manslaughter.
This is about more than one case. Our reasons for presuming, profiling and acting are always deeply racialized, and the Zimmerman trial, in ignoring that, left those reasons unexplored and unrefuted.
In a legal frame of mind, the case against Zimmerman was about him and Martin, completely outside any social context. We do not know who initiated the confrontation. Turley again:
Various witnesses said that Martin was on top of Zimmerman and said that they believed that he was the man calling for help. He had injuries. Not serious injuries but injuries to his head from the struggle. Does that mean that he was clearly the victim. No. It does create reasonable doubt on the question of the struggle.
But let us assume, for the sake of argument, that Martin ambushed and assaulted Zimmerman. Even this scenario must be weighed against a very real fear that any black man faces in navigating a racist society. Melissa Harris-Perry, a political science professor at Tulane University, writes,
Trayvon Martin was not innocent. He was guilty of being black in presumably restricted public space. For decades, Jim Crow laws made this crime statutory. They codified the spaces into which black bodies could not pass without encountering legal punishment. They made public blackness a punishable offense. The 1964 Civil Rights Act removed the legal barriers but not the social sanctions and potentially violent consequences of this “crime.” George Zimmerman’s slaying of Trayvon Martin—and the subsequent campaign to smear Martin—is the latest and most jarring reminder that it is often impossible for a black body to be innocent.
In short, for Blacks in the U.S., and for Black men in particular, the fear of lynching remains real. This is true not only on the streets but in a criminal injustice system that is systematically racist and classist at every step, from what actions are criminalized, to which crimes are investigated, to who is suspected and investigated, to who is arrested, to who is charged, to who is convicted, to who is sentenced how harshly. Zimmerman, by the simple act of getting out of his car, following, and pursuing Martin, posed an existential threat to Martin, at least in part because it is always open season on Black men in the United States. Yankah thus understates the matter when he writes,
The anger felt by so many African-Americans speaks to the simplest of truths: that race and law cannot be cleanly separated. We are tired of hearing that race is a conversation for another day. We are tired of pretending that “reasonable doubt” is not, in every sense of the word, colored.
Or as New York Times columnist Charles Blow put it,
The idea of universal suspicion without individual evidence is what Americans find abhorrent and what black men in America must constantly fight. It is pervasive in policing policies — like stop-and-frisk, and in this case neighborhood watch — regardless of the collateral damage done to the majority of innocents. It’s like burning down a house to rid it of mice.
As a parent, particularly a parent of black teenage boys, I am left with the question, “Now, what do I tell my boys?”
We used to say not to run in public because that might be seen as suspicious, like they’d stolen something. But according to Zimmerman, Martin drew his suspicion at least in part because he was walking too slowly.
So what do I tell my boys now? At what precise pace should a black man walk to avoid suspicion?
And can they ever stop walking away, or running away, and simply stand their ground? Can they become righteously indignant without being fatally wounded?
Is there anyplace safe enough, or any cargo innocent enough, for a black man in this country? Martin was where he was supposed to be — in a gated community — carrying candy and a canned drink.
The whole system failed Martin. What prevents it from failing my children, or yours?
I feel that I must tell my boys that, but I can’t. It’s stuck in my throat. It’s an impossibly heartbreaking conversation to have. So, I sit and watch in silence, and occasionally mouth the word, “breathe,” because I keep forgetting to.
- Lizette Alvarez, “New Bond of $1 Million in Trayvon Martin Killing,” New York Times, July 5, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/06/us/zimmerman-granted-1-million-bond.html; Lizette Alvarez, “Zimmerman Not Guilty in Killing of Trayvon Martin,” New York Times, July 13, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/14/us/george-zimmerman-verdict-trayvon-martin.html; Charles M. Blow, “The Whole System Failed,” New York Times, July 15, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/16/opinion/the-whole-system-failed.html; Audra D.S. Burch, Evan S. Benn and David Ovalle, “George Zimmerman not guilty in murder of Trayvon Martin,” Miami Herald, July 13, 2013, http://www.miamiherald.com/2013/07/13/3499109/george-zimmerman-not-guilty-in.html; Liam O’Donoghue, “Most disgusting reactions to Zimmerman acquittal,” Salon, July 13, 2013, http://www.salon.com/2013/07/14/most_disgusting_reactions_to_zimmerman_acquittal/; Adam Weinstein, “How the NRA and Its Allies Helped Spread a Radical Gun Law Nationwide,” Mother Jones, June 7, 2012, http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2012/06/nra-alec-stand-your-ground↩
- Jonathan Turley, “Reasonable Doubt: Why Zimmerman Should Be Acquitted,” July 12, 2013, http://jonathanturley.org/2013/07/12/66986/↩
- Weinstein, “How the NRA and Its Allies Helped Spread a Radical Gun Law Nationwide.”↩
- Turley, “Reasonable Doubt.”↩
- Ekow N. Yankah, “The Truth About Trayvon,” New York Times, July 15, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/16/opinion/the-truth-about-trayvon.html↩
- Turley, “Reasonable Doubt.”↩
- Turley, “Reasonable Doubt.”↩
- Melissa Harris-Perry, “Trayvon Martin: What It’s Like to Be a Problem,” Nation, March 28, 2012, http://www.thenation.com/article/167085/trayvon-martin-what-its-be-problem↩
- Jeffrey Reiman, The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison, 7th ed. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2004).↩
- Serge F. Kovaleski, “Martin Spoke of ‘Crazy and Creepy’ Man Following Him, Friend Says,” New York Times, May 18, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/19/us/trayvon-martins-friend-tells-what-she-heard-on-phone.html↩
- Yankah, “The Truth About Trayvon.”↩
- Blow, “The Whole System Failed.”↩