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Trayvon Tragedy Reignites Debates on Race

Times Square July 14

Saturday night, the verdict on the fate of Trayvon Martin's killer came in: Not guilty! The very next day, in New York City, masses of demonstrators gathered in an emotional march from Union Square to Harlem, and around the country, actions took place in at least 76 cities. On Monday, people gather once more in the Bronx

To focus on whether or not George Zimmerman was motivated by race is to miss an important part of this uniquely American story. The Trayvon Martin case exposed the racism that is rampant in America and especially within its justice system. But the media discourse around this case has been even more revealing. From the character assassinations to the online comments, the country exposed itself as a nation complicit with racist white privilege. The fact of the matter is when black young people are killed by anyone other than a fellow black person, the killer more often than not is treated with impunity. But if a black person shoots someone and calls it self-defense they go to jail. Period.

Here are some notable perspectives emerging in this important national debate.

How It All Began

Dispatcher: Sanford Police Department. ...

Zimmerman: Hey we've had some break-ins in my neighborhood, and there's a real suspicious guy, uh, [near] Retreat View Circle, um, the best address I can give you is 111 Retreat View Circle. This guy looks like he's up to no good, or he's on drugs or something. It's raining and he's just walking around, looking about.

Dispatcher: OK, and this guy is he white, black, or Hispanic?

Zimmerman: He looks black.

Dispatcher: Did you see what he was wearing?

Zimmerman: Yeah. A dark hoodie, like a grey hoodie, and either jeans or sweatpants and white tennis shoes. He's [unintelligible], he was just staring...

Dispatcher: OK, he's just walking around the area...

Zimmerman: ...looking at all the houses.

Dispatcher: OK...

Zimmerman: Now he's just staring at me.

Dispatcher: Yeah we've got someone on the way, just let me know if this guy does anything else.

Zimmerman: Okay. These assholes they always get away. When you come to the clubhouse you come straight in and make a left. Actually you would go past the clubhouse.

Dispatcher: So it's on the lefthand side from the clubhouse?

Zimmerman: No you go in straight through the entrance and then you make a left...uh you go straight in, don't turn, and make a left. Shit he's running.

Dispatcher: He's running? Which way is he running?

Zimmerman: Down towards the other entrance to the neighborhood.

Dispatcher: Which entrance is that that he's heading towards?

Zimmerman: The back entrance...fucking [unintelligible]

Dispatcher: Are you following him?

Zimmerman: Yeah.

Dispatcher: Ok, we don't need you to do that.

Zimmerman: Ok

Dispatcher: Alright George we do have them on the way, do you want to meet with the officer when they get out there?

Zimmerman: Alright, where you going to meet with them at?

Zimmerman: If they come in through the gate, tell them to go straight past the club house, and uh, straight past the club house and make a left, and then they go past the mailboxes, that's my truck...[unintelligible]

Dispatcher: Okay do you want to just meet with them right near the mailboxes then?

Zimmerman: Yeah that's fine.

Dispatcher: Alright George, I'll let them know to meet you around there okay?

Zimmerman: Actually could you have them call me and I'll tell them where I'm at?

Dispatcher: Okay, yeah that's no problem.

Zimmerman: Should I give you my number or you got it?

Dispatcher: Yeah I got it [redacted by Mother Jones]

Zimmerman: Yeah you got it.

Dispatcher: Okay no problem, I'll let them know to call you when you're in the area.

Zimmerman: Thanks.

Dispatcher: You're welcome

Michael Skolnick

He doesn’t make it. He doesn’t take another breath. He doesn’t get to finish high school. He doesn’t get to go to his prom. He doesn’t get to experience his first day on a college campus. He doesn’t get to marry the love of his life. He doesn’t get to have children. He doesn’t get to grow old. He doesn’t get to die in peace. Stereotypes of a black male, truly understood. Sorry Biggie, this time it ain’t all good. Jordan Davis died when he got to the hospital. He was just 17. Shot by a man who didn’t like his loud music and who said that someone in Jordan’s SUV pointed a gun at him, so he felt “threatened.” No gun was ever found, except for the one that took Jordan’s life....

Truth be told, when Trayvon Martin died, we knew it would happen again. We rallied. We marched. We protested. We signed petitions. We put our hoodies up. But in the back of our minds we knew that it would happen again. There is no comparison between the deaths of any seventeen year old, as every life is sacred and the families deserve to have their own periods of mourning. So don’t confuse this with thinking that I am comparing the two, but something is happening in this country that has to come to an end. We don’t want the fear that some have of young black men to be a disease our country cannot cure.

Shannika

I know that a person doesn't have to consciously think or shout Klansman epithets to hate, fear and distrust Black people, deep down. Indeed, when it comes to young Black men, most people don't have any conscious thought of hating or fearing them. Yet they do. And I know why, as does anyone morally honest.

The black male. A demographic. A sociological construct. A media caricature. A crime statistic. Aside from rage or lust, he is seldom seen as an emotionally embodied person....

Our culture has taught us not to see them, Black men in general and young Black men in particular, as people equally deserving of life.

Well, I want you to see them. I want you to instead of thinking about them, feel them. Know them. 

...I want you to look at their youth, their sometimes baby faces.  I want you to feel, not just detachedly think, about how old they were when they were ripped from this earth not because they were deserving of death, but instead because someone not like them whether by race or class assumed differently in the heat of a moment—which, considering how few apologies the Black community has received over any of their deaths, this culture clearly says is most important.

So, look at them. See them.

The News

The former boss of Florida’s largest police department said he believes the Sanford Police Department’s handling of the shooting death of Trayvon Martin was “a rushed haphazard, or botched, or backwards investigation,” either intentionally or because of a lack of training.

Former Miami-Dade police director Bobby Parker, who served 33 years in law enforcement before retiring from the department, was blunt in his assessment.

A certain right-wing TV host selects this from the court transcript...

Jeantel:  Everybody was trying to forget about it.

(Attorney) West:  Nothing in the news that you heard? 

(Witness) Jeantel:  I don't watch the news.  The only time I watch the news is for weather.

West:  Had you seen any press conferences or any news whatsoever --

Jeantel:  I had told you, I don't watch news!

West: -- where his attorney spoke?

Jeantel: I do not watch news!

Rush:  And we can believe it!  We can certainly believe it.  That's a pretty convincing admission.  "I had told you, I don't watch the news," except the weather.  So this next sound bite, this is when Rachel Jeantel claims that Trayvon called Zimmerman a "creepy ass cracker." During the cross-examination, Rachel Jeantel and Don West had this exchange...

Jeantel:  I had asked him how the man looked like. He looked like "a creepy-ass cracker."

West: Okay. Let me make sure we got that. "Creepy..."

Jeantel: ... "ass cracker."

West: ... ass cracker.

Jeantel: Yeah.

West: Okay. Is that what you recall him saying?

Jeantel: Yes!

West:  Okay.  And that to you mean like a – a white individual?

Jeantel:  Yes!

Brittney Cooper

Some will say that I shouldn’t pick on the jurors. They were only working with the evidence they were given. I say there’s enough blame to go around. Certainly the prosecution didn’t do Trayvon any favors.

All these things considered, the verdict is frankly pretty predictable. So, too, then is Black rage.

Unabashed, unchecked white supremacy will always lead to unabashed, unchecked Black rage. Call it the laws of physics.

My rage is made all the more sure by those who are “encouraging” Black people not to “riot.” They urge us to follow and respect the rule of law.

Because of course, it is Black people who need to be reminded of the rules.

Even though it is we who peacefully assembled by the thousands all over the country and marched in order to turn the wheels of due process. And it is we who waited patiently for 15 months for this case to be brought to trial. And it is we who have yet again been played for fools as we waited fervently for justice to be done.

On the other hand, George Zimmerman deputized himself, sought a confrontation, and then became judge, jury, and executioner for a kid who committed no crimes.

To ask Black people to respect the rule of law is an exercise in missing the point, not to mention an insult.

After the Trial

1. Martin was responsible for his own death

JUROR: It was just hard, thinking that somebody lost their life, and there’s nothing else that could be done about it. I mean, it’s what happened. It’s sad. It’s a tragedy this happened, but it happened. And I think both were responsible for the situation they had gotten themselves into. I think both of them could have walked away. It just didn’t happen.

Mark Vorphal

George Zimmerman has been found innocent of both second-degree murder and manslaughter for the killing of Trayvon Martin....in spite of the fact that he was armed with a gun and Trayvon was not; in spite of the fact that he stalked Trayvon in a way that anyone would find threatening; in spite of his recorded menacing comments about "f...king punks," that "these assholes always get away"; and in spite of his defiance of a 911 operator who told him he did not need to follow Trayvon, Zimmerman is free.

On the other hand, Trayvon has been found guilty. In dropping all charges against Zimmerman, the jury concluded that Trayvon had thrown the first punch in response to Zimmerman's threatening behavior, and therefore Zimmerman was justified in shooting him in self-defense.

If only it could be said that a more perverse and twisted miscarriage of justice by our legal system was hard to find. Agonizingly, it is not. For millions of people this tragic affair was never simply about a confrontation between Zimmerman and Martin. It was the United States justice system that was on trial under charges of institutional racism – and it has proven itself guilty...

If it were not for the mass reaction, Zimmerman never would have been put on trial. With 313 black people killed by police, some security guards, and self-appointed vigilantes in 2012 without legal consequence, the wave of protest following Trayvon's killing is the main factor explaining why events here took a different turn.

Those in power were forced to change their tactics in order to contain popular revolt. The importance of this cannot be overestimated despite the trial's outcome. What the trial revealed is that the system of racial oppression in this country is not all-powerful. It can be challenged and ultimately overturned. It also revealed that what is required to move this process forward is a campaign of mass organizing — with a political perspective that demonstrates a clear path for judicial change if the grassroots can be mobilized to confront our oppressors.

Jenny Davis

Much of the outcry in response to the George Zimmerman verdict centers around the implicit charge of guilt against Trayvon Martin in light of Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law (SYG). The law essentially says that people who feel like they are under bodily threat have the right to fight their attackers with the lethal force of a firearm. Because of this law, the key question in the case was whether or not Zimmerman was acting in defense; whether he was, in fact, under bodily threat. The prosecutors argued that Zimmerman was not under bodily threat, while the defense argued that Trayvon did pose a serious threat to Zimmerman...

Protestors’ critiques highlight implicit racial assumptions perpetuated by the case, and relatedely, the ways in which laws are always subjective and unequally applied. Concretely, protestors demand that we recognize how Martin’s black body, clad in a loose fitting hoodie, came to be construed as a threatening body. A body which deserved to be followed. A body which deserved to be confronted. A violent body, from which any aggressive act—no matter the act’s provocation—was dangerous enough to justify a lethal defensive response...

With regards to this case in particular, the black body, in U.S. culture, is a devalued body. This is evidenced in popular culture representationspoverty rates, and what black mothers tell their sons about clothing choices. Moreover, laws have cultural bodied meanings built into them, as evidenced in particular by the mass incarceration rates of young black men.

Laws of self-defense (such as the SYG law), are intended, no doubt, to protect the rights and safeties of those under attack. They are intended for people like Marissa Alexander of Jacksonville, Fla who used SYG to justify firing warning shots at her allegedly abusive husband against whom she had a protective order. These laws are imbued with values of personal freedom, personal responsibility, and bodily protection...the SYG law became a legal justification for George Zimmerman to kill Trayvon Martin.  While incidentally, the law failed to protect Marissa Alexander, who ultimately received a sentence of 20 years in prison for attempted murder. The mitigating factor, I argue, are the meanings of the bodies/technologies towards which laws are applied.

Oh, did I mention that Marissa Alexander is a black woman?

Laws are imbued not only with values, but also assumptions. In the U.S., laws are imbued with assumptions of equal application (due to embedded values of equality in general). This becomes problematic when, in fact, humans are not equal. Laws cannot be colorblind, because people are not. As such, designations of “criminal” and “victim” can vary wildly, as both interpretations of the conditions of a case, and larger designations of what is or is not deemed criminal activity, are always raced, classed, and gendered, without any explicit claim to their root biases.

Simon Waxman

Had Zimmerman been black, he would have been arrested immediately and charged within days. Because Zimmerman is white—those who wish to suggest he is Latino and therefore the racial “overtones” of the case are exaggerated simply do not understand the difference between race and ethnicity or how race is constructed in America—he was detained for five hours and released without charge or further investigation. Only after six weeks of protests, mostly by black citizens, was he charged, after which he turned himself in.

Recall that in August 2012, Zimmerman claimed to be indigent. His supporters bought his high-priced legal team, but had Zimmerman been typical of the black men who pass through our criminal justice system, as opposed to a cause célèbre, he would have been declared indigent as requested and assigned an underpaid, overworked public defender. After having been charged, black Zimmerman would have languished in prison for several weeks before his lawyer came to him to discuss his case for a half hour or so. This would have precipitated a lengthy process of delays. The lawyer would have sought continuances in order to gain time to make a few more half-hour visits and prepare a case.

Black, indigent Zimmerman would have been denied bail, or else his bail would have been set so high that he would never have been able to pay it. While white Zimmerman prepared his trial from the comfort of his home, black Zimmerman would have spent more than a year behind bars awaiting trial.

But that trial would not have come. As time droned on, the prosecutor—herself overworked, underpaid, and hoping to clear cases by any possible means—would have offered a plea bargain. Black Zimmerman’s lawyer, with a hundred or more defendants vying for his attention, would have encouraged black Zimmerman to take the plea, accept a relatively lenient sentence, and serve his time.

And black Zimmerman would have taken that plea, as 95 percent of American defendants do. A black man knows that, faced with a second-degree murder charge in the killing of a white teenager, he doesn’t stand a chance at trial.

Ta-Nehisi Coates

I think it's important to take a very hard look at the qualifications allowed for aggressors by Florida's self-defense statute:

Use of force by aggressor.–The justification described in the preceding sections of this chapter is not available to a person who:

(1) Is attempting to commit, committing, or escaping after the commission of, a forcible felony; or

(2) Initially provokes the use of force against himself or herself, unless: (a) Such force is so great that the person reasonably believes that he or she is in imminent danger of death or great bodily harm and that he or she has exhausted every reasonable means to escape such danger other than the use of force which is likely to cause death or great bodily harm to the assailant; or (b) In good faith, the person withdraws from physical contact with the assailant and indicates clearly to the assailant that he or she desires to withdraw and terminate the use of force, but the assailant continues or resumes the use of force.

I don't think the import of this is being appreciated. Effectively, I can bait you into a fight and if I start losing I can can legally kill you, provided I "believe" myself to be subject to "great bodily harm." It is then the state's job to prove -- beyond a reasonable doubt -- that I either did not actually fear for my life, or my fear was unreasonable. In the case of George Zimmerman, even if the state proved that he baited an encounter (and I am not sure they did) they still must prove that he had no reasonable justification to fear for his life. You see very similar language in the actual instructions given to the jury:

In deciding whether George Zimmerman was justified in the use of deadly force, you must judge him by the circumstances by which he was surrounded at the time the force was used. The danger facing George Zimmerman need not have been actual; however, to justify the use of deadly force, the appearance of danger must have been so real that a reasonably cautious and prudent person under the same circumstances would have believed that the danger could be avoided only through the use of that force. Based upon appearances, George Zimmerman must have actually believed that the danger was real.

If George Zimmerman was not engaged in an unlawful activity and was attacked in any place where he had a right to be, he had no duty to retreat and had the right to stand his ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he reasonably believed that it was necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.

There has been a lot of complaint that "stand your ground" has nothing to do with this case. That contention is contravened by the fact that it is cited in the instructions to the jury. Taken together, it is important to understand that it is not enough for the state to prove that George Zimmerman acted unwisely in following Martin. Under Florida law, George Zimmerman had no responsibility to -- at any point -- retreat. The state must prove that Zimmerman had no reasonable fear for his life.

Perhaps you have been lucky enough to not receive the above "portrait" of Trayvon Martin and its accompanying text. The portrait is actually of a 32-year old man. Perhaps you were lucky enough to not see the Trayvon Martin imagery used for target practice (by law enforcement, no less.) Perhaps you did not see the iPhone games. Or maybe you missed the theory presently being floated by Zimmerman's family that Martin was a gun-runner and drug-dealer in training, that texts and tweets he sent mark him as a criminal in waiting. Or the theory floated that the mere donning of a hoodie marks you a thug, leaving one wondering why this guy is a criminal and this one is not. (Editor's note: Or the new "Trayvoning" trend among mostly white teenagers.)

We have spent much of this year outlining the ways in which American policy has placed black people outside of the law. We are now being told that after having pursued such policies for 200 years, after codifying violence in slavery, after a people conceived in mass rape, after permitting the disenfranchisement of black people through violence, after Draft riotsafter white-lines, white leagues, and red shirts, after terrorism, after standing aside for the better reduction of Rosewood and the improvement of Tulsa, after the coup d'etat in Wilmington, after Airport Homes and Cicero, after Ossian Sweet, after Arthur Lee McDuffie, after Anthony BaezAmadou Diallo and Eleanor Bumpers, afterKathryn Johnston and the Danziger Bridge, that there are no ill effects, that we are pure, that we are just, that we are clean. Our sense of self is incredible. We believe ourselves to have inherited all of Jefferson's love of freedom, but none of his affection for white supremacy.

Chris Crass

Zimmerman acted logically in a white supremacist society viewing a Black boy as a dangerous threat who needed to be contained and punished if necessary. The jury's verdict is logical in a white supremacist society in which Black people's lives have been and are so systemically devalued and denigrated that when Black people call injustice, the logic of white supremacy is to say "those Black people create racial hostility". When police forces intimidate, harass, threaten and arrest people across the country for protesting and rising up against this verdict they will be acting logically in a society designed to serve the interests of the ruling class and maintain white supremacy as a key principle that helps organize and maintain systemic inequality. 

This is why we and all who believe in justice and equality for all people are “irrational”, “illogical”, “emotional”. This is why we so often feel crazy in these moments of profound injustice. And this is why we must tap into our emotions, into our love and our rage, our seditious emotionality that connects our hearts to one another (against the divisions that work so hard to keep us apart), that connects our pain to the collective pain of people everywhere who know what this verdict means in the lives of children of color who are targeted and the lives of white children and non-Black children who are socialized to hate Blackness (even though we are suppose to feel alone and alienated). This is why we must expand wisdom and historical knowledge and speak truth against the logic of white supremacy (even though we are suppose to believe ourselves incapable of understanding the world around us, let along being actors shaping it). 

Rage against this verdict and every verdict that tells my white son to devalue the lives of the Black children in our community.

Love our people and act with courage, vision, and the logic of liberation that beats in our hearts. Solidarity is the tenderness of the people. Revolutionary struggle building mass people power for systemic change is the soul of the people. White supremacist logic wants us to feel powerless in the face of this verdict. Liberation logic wants us to go deeper into the sources of positive power to advance systemic change. 

To my white people, let us step up in this moment and provide a different leadership in white communities about what this verdict means. Justice for Trayvon Martin! 

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