By Arturo R. García
And now, the waiting begins. Again.
Once again, a young person of color is dead, and hundreds of thousands of people are hoping for justice to be served. Less than a year ago, it was Troy Davis. This week, it’s Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old Florida boy shot and killed by George Zimmerman, who remains free after authorities were criticized for allegedly protecting Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch aptain.
Tuesday night, the U.S. Justice Department announced it would investigate the slaying of Martin. And, especially in light of what we’ve learned about not only Zimmerman, but the social climate around him that enabled him to not only feel justified in an abhorrent sense of paranoia toward young black men, but to continue walking the streets after bringing about the worst possible outcome of that entitlement, the question comes to mind again: Will they get it right this time?
Trayvon Martin was a teenaged boy who was walking home from a convenience store. He was not engaged in an unlawful activity. He was in a place where he had a right to be – near the home of his father’s fiancée. George Zimmerman followed him, even after being told by the 911 dispatcher not to. Zimmerman left his vehicle holding a loaded gun and began pursuing Martin on foot. It is plausible to infer that Zimmerman, not Martin, initiated the attack. The tapes indicate that Zimmerman may have been the aggressor in initiating contact with Martin. Assuming the published reports are true, Martin, not Zimmerman, was exercising his lawful right to “stand his ground and meet force with force” by engaging in an altercation with Zimmerman.
By questioning why Martin didn’t simply stop and answer Zimmerman’s questions, and characterizing Martin as the aggressor, Sanford Police Department Chief Bill Lee Jr. appears to have assessed the Martin case using the standards that apply to law enforcement officers. This is wrong. Martin was under no legal duty to obey or to cooperate with Zimmerman in being questioned, because George Zimmerman is not a law enforcement officer.
Being the local neighborhood watch captain does not elevate him to that status. Nor was Zimmerman asked by any law enforcement officer to assist in detaining Martin – in fact, he was specifically told not to follow Martin. Zimmerman is entitled to none of the presumptions available to law enforcement officers under Florida law. The presumptions of acting in good faith that are afforded to law enforcement officers do not apply to Zimmerman.
– Carolyn Edgar, CNN
I got a lot of emails about Trayvon. I have read a lot of articles. I have seen a lot of television segments. The message is consistent. Most of the commentators, writers, op-ed pages agree. Something went wrong. Trayvon was murdered. Racially profiled. Race. America’s elephant that never seems to leave the room. But, the part that doesn’t sit well with me is that all of the messengers of this message are all black too. I mean, it was only two weeks ago when almost every white person I knew was tweeting about stopping a brutal African warlord from killing more innocent children. And they even took thirty minutes out of their busy schedules to watch a movie about dude. They bought t-shirts. Some bracelets. Even tweeted at Rihanna to take a stance. But, a 17 year old American kid is followed and then ultimately killed by a neighborhood vigilante who happens to be carrying a semi-automatic weapon and my white friends are quiet. Eerily quiet. Not even a trending topic for the young man.
We’ve heard the 911 calls. We seen the 13 year old witness. We’ve read the letter from the alleged killer’s father. We listened to the anger of the family’s attorney. We’ve felt the pain of Trayvon’s mother. For heaven’s sake, for 24 hours he was a deceased John Doe at the hospital because even the police couldn’t believe that maybe he LIVES in the community.
There are still some facts to figure out. There are still some questions to be answered. But, let’s be clear. Let’s be very, very clear. Before the neighborhood watch captain, George Zimmerman, started following him against the better judgement of the 911 dispatcher. Before any altercation. Before any self-defense claim. Before Travyon’s cries for help were heard on the 911 tapes. Before the bullet hit him dead in the chest. Before all of this. He was suspicious. He was suspicious. suspicious. And you know, like I know, it wasn’t because of the hoodie or the jeans or the sneakers. Cause I had on that same outfit yesterday and no one called 911 saying I was just wandering around their neighborhood. It was because of one thing and one thing only. Trayvon is black.
– Michael Skolnick, GlobalGrind
The coverage of the story—in passing on national news networks, in depth among black critics—highlights both the integral need for diversity of experience in the media, and the consequences of a media without enough people who can speak to issues which are unique to certain American narratives that those in the outgroup will never understand.
Several reasons exist for the divide in black and white media regarding how they approach this story. For one, the reasons for Martin’s death necessitate an understanding of racism that only black people—particularly black men—fully understand. As a white Latina, I can say, without a doubt, that no one looks at my skin (or my name, for that matter) and feels fear. I can understand bringing that out in people for immutable traits— I know what it’s like to forget I’m in a rural place and speak Spanish, prompting bad service at a store or “this town is going to Hell” comments from locals. I know what it’s like to see your dad stopped by a cop for having a mustache. But, for the most part, no one knows I’m not “the right kind” of white without an extra clue. People like me don’t have to deal with “it,” usually. Given that my family barged into the American history narrative almost a decade after the Civil Rights Act passed, they likely could have avoided dealing with it had they been here, too.
– Frances Martel, Mediaite
Zimmerman may have benefited from some of the broadest firearms and self-defense regulations in the nation. In 1987, then-Gov. Bob Martinez (R) signed Florida’s concealed-carry provision into law, which “liberalized the restrictions that previously hindered the citizens of Florida from obtaining concealed weapons permits,” according to one legal analyst. This trendsetting “shall-issue” statute triggered a wave of gun-carry laws in other states. (Critics said at the time that Florida would become “Dodge City.”) Permit holders are also exempted from the mandatory state waiting period on handgun purchases.
Even though felons and other violent offenders are barred from getting a weapons permit, a 2007 investigation by the South Florida Sun-Sentinel found that licenses had been mistakenly issued to 1,400 felons and hundreds more applicants with warrants, domestic abuse injunctions, or gun violations. (More than 410,000 Floridians have been issued concealed weapons permits.) Since then, Florida also passed a law permitting residents to keep guns in their cars at work, against employers’ wishes. The state also nearly allowed guns on college campuses last year, until an influential Republican lawmaker fought the bill after his close friend’s daughter was killed by an AK-47 brandished at a Florida State University fraternity party.
Florida also makes it easy to plead self-defense in a killing. Under then-Gov. Jeb Bush, the state in 2005 passed a broad “stand your ground” law, which allows Florida residents to use deadly force against a threat without attempting to back down from the situation. (More stringent self-defense laws state that gun owners have “a duty to retreat” before resorting to killing.) In championing the law, former NRA president and longtime Florida gun lobbyist Marion Hammer said: “Through time, in this country, what I like to call bleeding-heart criminal coddlers want you to give a criminal an even break, so that when you’re attacked, you’re supposed to turn around and run, rather than standing your ground and protecting yourself and your family and your property.”
– Adam Weinstein, Mother Jones
Licensed to carry a firearm and a student of criminal justice, Zimmerman went door-to-door asking residents to be on the lookout, specifically referring to young black men who appeared to be outsiders, and warned that some were caught lurking, neighbors said. The self-appointed captain of the neighborhood watch program is credited with cracking some crimes, and thwarting others.
But the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin left the boy’s family and attorneys convinced that the volunteer developed a twisted sense of entitlement, one that gave him a false sense of authority to enforce the rule of law in his tiny gated community. Trayvon’s family’s attorneys believe that led to racial profiling and murder.
“He would circle the block and circle it; it was weird,” said Teontae Amie, 17. “If he had spotted me, he’d probably ask me if I lived here. He was known for being really strict.”
– Frances Robles, The Miami Herald
Take for example this 2012 campaign bumper sticker.
The challenge in getting stuck on this show of ignorance is that most racism isn’t that visible. And because it isn’t, white folks (like the many I saw comment on this photograph on facebook) can tell themselves that this is isolated racial ignorance.
They don’t have to contend with the ways that our legal justice system continues to renege on its promises of equality and justice for all, through the enactment of supposedly color-blind policies like stricter voter registration laws that are designed to exclude folk of color from voting, through campaign suggestions that racialize the welfare system, and through sentencing disparities that criminalize Black and Brown folks for life. White folks can see this bumper sticker and never think about the ways in which every one of these deadly racial encounters (which seem to be a not infrequent occurrence in Sanford, Fl.) constitutes a “Re-Nig(gerizing)” of the Black male body.
Trayvon Martin “looked suspicious,” Zimmerman told the 911 Dispatcher. In fact, to say “suspicious” and “Black man” in the same sentence, feels redundant.
All these (short but long) years later, the racial logic remains the same. Black men are threatening. And murder is a proper response to that threat or a least an understandable one. Ida B. Wells could’ve told us that. And she did. But that soundtrack has been remixed to accompany us into a new era.
How does it feel to be white?
Whiteness, Critical Race Theorist Cheryl Harris tells us, is a “form of property.” In the classical sense, whiteness, like property, confers “all those human rights, liberties, powers, and immunities that are important for human well-being including freedom of expression, freedom of conscience, freedom from bodily harm, and free and equal opportunities to use personal faculties.” (CRT Reader: 279-280)
Does it feel like freedom? Whiteness.
Well it certainly looks like justice.
The kind of justice that we want for Trayvon.
– Crunktastic, The Crunk Feminist Collective