Since the acquittal of George Zimmerman Saturday for the death of Trayvon Martin, there have been thousands of tweets, dozens of blogs. Some are relieved by the verdict; others try to explain the legal basis. But most are part of a collective scream of outrage and grief. Of these latter, the predominant feeling is one of disbelief – how can the facts of the matter not bring some sort of punishment for Zimmerman? Any at all? How is he not guilty of taking the life of another human being who had done nothing to him of his own accord? As much as I get the legal reasoning – often delivered to us sanctimoniously and condescendingly by both legal scholars and those simply wanting to say the system works – we just don’t understand how fair it is – my reaction to the verdict is very much that of Lawrence Bobo: “The most elemental facts of this case will never change. A teenager went out to buy Skittles and iced tea. At some point, he was confronted by a man with a gun who killed him. There is no universe I understand where this can be declared a noncriminal act. Not in a sane, just and racism-free universe.” Bobo’s point, clearly, is that we do not live in that kind of universe, despite the opinion of those who feel that the election of Barack Obama to the White House is a sign of a progressive evolution of history. And that we no longer need legislative aids like the Voting Rights Act to address the persistent effects of racism – history has moved us beyond that. But for me the Zimmerman verdict proves otherwise. Jelani Cobb put it well: “The decision the six jurors reached on Saturday evening will inspire anger, frustration, and despair, but little surprise, and this is the most deeply saddening aspect of the entire affair. From the outset – throughout the forty-four days it took for there to be an arrest, and then in the sixteen months it took to for the case to come to trial – there was a nagging suspicion that it would culminate in disappointment. Call this historical profiling.”
A sensitivity to the deep and persistent history of racism and its ongoing destructive effects, and an understanding of the law, often seem to be as mutually exclusive as oil and water. We are told we cannot let our emotions cloud the issue. We are given good reasons to constrain our subjective perception of things. In this case we are told to just stick to the facts presented to the court. The problem is (and this is something even legal experts admit) there was a paucity of evidence, and most of it came from the defendant’s mouth. As the LA Times reported, “Prosecutors could not prove Zimmerman was driven by ‘ill will or hatred’ – the necessary elements of a murder case – when he got out of his vehicle on a rainy night and went after the teenager.” Well if we only have Zimmerman’s carefully coached words to describe his motive and no other voices to rebut him? The report continues: “In the confrontation that followed, they also could not prove Zimmerman struck the first blow. If the teenager turned in fear to attack the stranger who was pursuing him, Zimmerman could claim he acted in self-defense. If the jurors were in doubt as to who struck first, they were obliged to hand down an acquittal.”
Let’s set aside for the moment that Zimmerman’s “ill-will” somehow was not evinced by his recorded comment that he regarded the young black figure that he spotted as “one of those assholes who always gets away.” Turn instead to the supposition, granted by most, that “the teenager turned in fear to attack the stranger who was pursuing him.” The point I want to drive is not that Trayvon Martin should be seen to be defending himself. That would seem obvious. It is rather that Martin’s act of self defense is no alibi for Zimmerman to have used lethal force to defend himself. Even if, reasonably so, Martin might have tried to use a piece of the sidewalk to defend himself. Who went after whom in the first place? The jury felt that, despite the dispatcher’s stern message to Zimmerman that he did not need to and should not pursue Martin, Zimmerman had a reason to follow, and eventually kill Martin. In order for them to do so, they would have had to not just accept his reasoning, but also, I would argue, put themselves in his shoes. “Reason” here includes an empathetic connection to a killer.
It’s a puzzle to me how an all-female jury was selected. My guess is that both sides felt they could play to maternal instincts. I can see how the prosecution could feel that they had made a wise move in stacking the jury with women. After all, Trayvon was a young man, just grown from boyhood. Wouldn’t they feel a certain amount of empathy – it could have been their boy, or nephew, or grandchild, coming home with snack food, stalked by an anonymous man in the middle of the night, registering his fear to his friend as he spoke to her on his cell phone?
But instead, to the shock and amazement of many of us, the jury seemed to side with Zimmerman. Was there not a weird inversion taking place then? The perpetrator become the victim. He was the one who was overcome with fear and his suspicions and the actions that followed were warranted by the very presence of Trayvon Martin. There was indeed premeditation on Zimmerman’s part, but it was a disposition to harm and punish that began back at the origins of his racist fears, and seems to have festered since then. Again, Jelani Cobb: “The most damning element here is not that George Zimmerman was found not guilty: “It’s the bitter knowledge that Trayvon Martin was found guilty. During his cross examination of Martin’s mother, Sybrina Fulton, the defense attorney Mark O’Mara asked if she was avoiding the idea that her son had done something to cause his own death. During closing arguments, the defense informed the jury that Martin was armed because he weaponized a sidewalk and used it to bludgeon Zimmerman. During his post-verdict press conference, O’Mara said that, were his client black, he would never have been charged. At the defense’s table, and in the precincts far beyond it where donors have stepped forward to contribute funds to underwrite their efforts, there is a sense that Zimmerman was the victim. We can understand the verdict to mean validation for the idea that the actions Zimmerman took that night were those of a reasonable man, that the conclusions he drew were sound, and that a black teen-ager can be considered armed any time he is walking down a paved street.”
When the defense team said they felt the jury would have acted just as Zimmerman did – out of a sense of protection and “standing ground,” sadly we have to say they there right. That the jury could not believe beyond reasonable doubt that Zimmerman was guilty of something, and that he deserved to be freed without legal consequence, only goes to show how far our fears have sanctioned violence not against individual agents, but against the racial stereotypes for which a young man like Trayvon Martin seems to be an example. In the eyes of George Zimmerman, Trayvon Martin was a type, not a person. And if Trayvon Martin was a proxy for “those assholes,” then those who approve of Zimmerman’s actions, who feel that Zimmerman might well be their proxy, are simply using his demeaning and incriminating words to ventriloquize their own fears and animosities.
Once the verdict was announced, I was dumbstruck. Then outraged. Then, as a teacher, I tried to pull out of this what I might draw out as a lesson for both my students, and myself. To simply say it shows that racism is alive and thriving is not enough. To say that the legal system is racist is too broad and not subtle enough. As teachers who work in studies of race and ethnicity, we often think of lessons we can teach that will help our students be teachers themselves, as they encounter events like this and participate in conversations with both like-minded people and people whose views are different from their own. I keep coming back to a haunting and memorable line, the very first line of Alice Walker’s remarkable story about the need to always refresh the historical record of racism. The title of the story is “Elethia.” It means not forgetting, it means uncovering a lost or suppressed history. Here is how the story begins: “A certain perverse experience shaped Elethia’s life, and made it possible for it to be true that she carried with her at all times a small apothecary jar of ashes.” The ashes are of a racist statue that she and her friends have stolen and burnt (the story is actually much more complex than that, and I encourage you to read it). The part of this line that I draw my students’ attention to most, however, is that small phrase, “made it possible for it to be true.” Not “made it the case that.” What I want to ask my students, as we discuss the Zimmerman verdict, is what made it possible for Zimmerman’s story to ring true, reasonable, in the jury members’ heads? What made Trayvon Martin’s story irrelevant, muffled, erased? And why are we still living in a universe that is decidedly not “a sane, just and racism-free universe”? And the issue is not just about our belief systems, what we take to be true or likely, it is rather how we then interpret how others act, and how we act ourselves. In this case, there were two murders; Trayvon Martin was killed, and so was his voice. Who knows, the jury might have been compelled by the sight of Martin’s family weeping. But their sympathy went to the devil.