Those folks who are long time readers know that I cannot limit my blog to matters of administrivia and academe all of the time. Sometimes, the real world calls out for discussion, and I simply have to respond. This is one of those times.
I have been following the story of Trayvon Martin with a sense of despair and anger that makes it difficult to concentrate on other issues. As the anchor says in the ABC news coverage, the story focuses on a black 17-year old boy who was shot to death in “a gated community where his father lives.” The shooter was George Zimmerman, a 28-year old white (or Hispanic) man who was the self-appointed captain of the neighborhood watch. Martin was returning from the store with a pack of skittles and an iced tea, whereupon he was profiled as “up to no good, on drugs or something,” as Zimmerman told the 911 operator.
Zimmerman clearly followed the teen by car and then on foot. There was a confrontation that turned physical, and then Zimmerman says he shot Martin “in self-defense.” I keep imagining what I would do if a woman was following me by car and then by foot, carrying a gun. I would be worried, scared, and probably more than a little pissed off. And I am a white, upper-middle-class, 40-something woman, unused to the indignities of being followed in shops and profiled in “gated communities.”
Witness testimonies have conflicted with police assertions, and the police have yet to release an official story of what happened in the incident that took place LAST MONTH. What is notable is that, even though the shooting of the unarmed teen took place in late February, Zimmerman has not been arrested or charged with a crime. There is going to be a grand jury investigation, though that is cold comfort. It is difficult to imagine a situation where a black man shot a white, unarmed teenager in front of witnesses and didn’t get arrested on the spot and quickly charged with a crime. Even if the nature of the shooting was in question, I would expect several things to occur: testing the shooter (not the victim) for intoxication or drugs; gathering witness statements without comment or correction by police; clear and honest information provided to the family of the victim. None of these happened in this case.
In this racially diverse town (45% Non-Hispanic White, 30% Black, 20% Hispanic, 3% Asian, and .5% Indigenous), there is a history of conflict between the communities of color and the local police. With this history, the police have very little room to mess up in this way. Further, Zimmerman’s assumptions that a young black man is up to something illicit are riddled with a unconscious racism that he likely shares with other members of the larger community. Zimmerman’s father argues that, as Zimmerman is Hispanic and grew up in a multiracial family, he cannot be acting on racialized beliefs. Not sure that argument will fly, as even black people can harbor racist ideas and internalized racism. The mythology of white supremacy is pervasive, and its worldwide adoption shapes all of us in ways we don’t always understand or acknowledge.
So why haven’t the police arrested Zimmerman? Initially, ABC News reported:
Sanford police did investigate but have declined for now to arrest Zimmerman who says he acted self-defense last month when he shot 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. Police say they have no evidence to disprove his assertion. They have since turned the case over to the State Attorney’s Office, and a spokeswoman said it could be weeks before a decision is made on whether to file charges or present the case to a grand jury.
This is a striking assertion to me. No evidence to disprove his assertion, eh? Really? So, if I provoke someone–stalking them in my car, then on foot, and have a confrontation that I precipitated become physical (assuming Martin actually did physically assault Zimmerman)–I can then shoot the person in “self-defense” with impunity? Really? Hmm. Don’t I have to prove that I am in fear for my life? Not fear of being slapped or hurt, but fear of dying? I am reminded of a court case where a female sex worker was assaulted by a john, and she defended herself by hitting him with her high heels. She actually wound up beating him to death. She was arrested and charged with manslaughter, because she used excessive force in defending herself. Isn’t it incumbent upon Zimmerman to show that he actually did need to use deadly force when he shot and killed an unarmed young man?
Perhaps not. The New York Times explains that Florida has an especially expansive understanding of self-defense, “allowing [people under duress] to take action if they have a reasonable fear that their lives are in peril.” The Sanford sergeant is quoted as saying that charging Zimmerman could lead to a lawsuit. Yet, that seems like a pretty shallow concern to me. Hell, they face a lawsuit now by the family of the deceased.
What to do now? Shouldn’t the district attorney arrest Zimmerman and charge him with some crime? Manslaughter? Discharging a weapon? Something? Even if he is released on bond while they investigate and build the case to determine the best charges, the act of arresting him for shooting an unarmed teenager would show the community (and the rest of us) that such behavior isn’t tolerated lightly. They clearly need evidence, but it seems to me that they have enough evidence to bring charges.
The community itself needs help to reduce the divisions and build some community across racial and ethnic divisions. But racial reconciliation work cannot happen without those in charge following the letter and the spirit of the law. I remain hopeful that a grand jury will decide to indict, so the truth can be determined in a court of law. You will have to excuse me if I am a little hesitant to take the opinion of the Sanford police at face value. I don’t know whether Zimmerman acted properly, in self-defense, but I think Trayvon Martin deserves a thorough investigation of his death.
Further, I have to disagree with Tenured Radical in her thoughtful, but I believe flawed, critique of the hoodie meme that has emerged in the wake of many other folks feeling as I do regarding Trayvon Martin’s murder. While I don’t think that internet memes ever save the world, I think they can focus public attention where it is needed. I believe that the public outcry, aided and abetted by the hoodie meme, is what has convinced the federal and state governments to review the evidence and has led the way for a grand jury hearing on the case. Case in point? Bobby Rush in the hoodie on the floor of Congress, testifying. He was not embodying or playing Trayvon. He WAS embodying a black man in a hoodie, which our culture has decided is threatening, representing a potential for violence. I think speaking about about the ways in which our stereotypes (black man + hoodie = thug) and fears (thugs will hurt you for no reason) become violence (read: murder) against that group is powerful. I doubt that people who engage in the hoodie meme, even if they hold signs saying “I am Trayvon Martin” are saying the ARE Trayvon Martin in some simplistic way. It seems to be that black people are saying, like President Obama, “This could be my child” or Bobby Rush, “This could have been me.”
I think that white people, like former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm, are saying, “I am appalled at what happened to Trayvon Martin. I identify with him as a person whose life was taken away as a result of racist stereotypes and fear, and I reject these stereotypes and fears. By donning the hoodie in solidarity, I affirm Trayvon’s humanity. And I am calling on my friends and family to do the same.” And isn’t that part of what we need white people to do?