On the evening of February 26, 2012 a neighborhood “watch” coordinator by the name of George Zimmerman shot and killed a young black man by the name of Trayvon Martin in a gated community in Florida. On July 13, 2013 a jury acquitted Zimmerman of all charges, essentially declaring that he’d done nothing illegal.
The facts of this case are well known to most people. Zimmerman spotted Martin walking within the gated community and concluded that he was hooligan up to no good. He got out of his car and pursued Martin, they got into a fight, and Zimmerman used his gun to settle the matter.
There is no shortage of commentary or debate regarding this case, but I think one question stands out: What role — if any — did racism have in this tragic event?
There are actually two tragic events here, one is the killing of Trayvon Martin, and the other is the trial process that led to Zimmerman’s acquittal. I think racism was present in both tragedies, but it may surprise you to hear that I think it’s easier to confirm in the trial process.
There are two types of racism involved here, one is personal — Zimmerman’s, the other institutional — the trial process.
Zimmerman’s racism is the more difficult of the two to confirm, but I think it’s more likely than not that Zimmerman was making judgments about Trayvon based on racial profiling. We know that Trayvon was simply walking home from a convenience store and Zimmerman made a series of bogus assumptions: Zimmerman thought Trayvon looked like he was up to no good, maybe on drugs, and one of “those assholes” who always gets away — all wrong.
While Zimmerman never actually says anything about the man’s race, all we have to do is ask ourselves whether or not Zimmerman would have made the same assumptions about a white man wearing a Polo shirt or a white woman in a jogging outfit? Trayvon was wearing a “hoodie” and it’s true that anyone can wear a hoodie, but we have to pretend that stereotypes don’t exist in order to conclude that Zimmerman was making no racial assumptions. Then we have to ask whether or not Zimmerman would have made the same bogus assumptions about a black man wearing a Polo shirt instead of a hoodie. We know that Zimmerman is a prejudiced observer. Despite the fact Trayvon was simply walking home Zimmerman describes him as suspicious: “wandering around looking about.” When Trayvon runs Zimmerman assumes this confirms his guilt and pursues him. We know racial profiling is a reality within law enforcement. However we have to assume it doesn’t exist in order to conclude that a wannabe cop acting as self-appointed security guard wasn’t profiling Trayvon. We’ve had multiple cases all over the US of police officers profiling and killing unarmed black and Hispanic males. Ironically, if Zimmerman were actually a cop, we’d more likely to recognize his behavior as racial profiling.
While it’s true that we can’t “know” what Zimmerman was thinking, we can draw a strong inference. With the trial process we can actually know how and why the system produced the acquittal. This actually makes it easier to confirm racism in the legal process.
Florida has a “Stand Your Ground” law that allows deadly force whenever and wherever a person thinks or “feels” like their life is in danger. However, a catch 22 is built into the legal system. In order to conclude one way or the other whether nor not Zimmerman thought his life was in danger, he’d have to testify. The problem is we cannot compel the testimony of criminal defendants; Zimmerman never took the stand. This all but guarantees reasonable doubt in the trial process because no one else can testify as to what Zimmerman thought or felt. The law does not allow inference in this matter; we have to conclude beyond a reasonable doubt and that’s impossible without Zimmerman’s testimony. This is why so many legal observers keep saying the jury had no choice.
So where does the racism come into view? The racism reveals itself when realize that we have a system that gives an obscure epistemological fact more weight than common sense. We have a system that makes an unknowable fact, Zimmerman’s state of mind, the deciding factor in Trayvon’s death. This is actually illogical; it guarantees a failure of justice.
Zimmerman is not a police officer, or even a rent-a-cop security guy. What business does he have pursuing “suspicious” people around the community in the first place? What was Zimmerman going to do, detain Trayvon until the cops got there? He had no authority to do that. Trayvon ran, and at one point lost Zimmerman, yet somehow the two ended up in a fight. That could only happen one of two ways, either Zimmerman pursued and caught Trayvon, or Trayvon inexplicably turned around and decided to find and attack Zimmerman. According Zimmerman himself that’s not what happened. We know Zimmerman actually caught up to Trayvon after a pursuit. This means that Zimmerman’s initial decision to observe and follow Trayvon led to the confrontation, yet that fact is considered to be legally irrelevant in this process. Why?
Here’s the thing: the only way we can as human beings ignore Zimmerman’s culpability is if we assume that Trayvon is responsible for his own death. How can Trayvon be responsible for his own death? Basically he refused to recognize Zimmerman’s authority and submit to it. THAT’S where the racism enters the equation. In fact Zimmerman had no legitimate authority whatsoever. He’s just another guy wandering around the neighborhood: he’s not a cop, nor is he security. It’s clear the jury in this case, and I know there were black women on the jury, made decisions based on Trayvon’s behavior, not Zimmerman’s. We have to ask why they did that.
According to at least one juror Trayvon was partially responsible for his own death because instead of reacting to Zimmerman as if he were a cop or security, Trayvon reacted to Zimmerman as if he was just another guy, possibly even an assailant. The problem with Trayvon is he acted like a white male instead of a black male. Would we expect that a white male would submit to Zimmerman’s non-existent authority, and do what? Present some kind of ID and explain why he was walking through his own neighborhood on the way to his own home? Would a white male be interrogated by Zimmerman or detained until the cops arrived? Presumably this is what Trayvon needed to do in order to save his life. The only survivable outcome here would have been for Trayvon to run into his house or submit to Zimmerman’s interrogation and detention. The problem is for all Trayvon knew Zimmerman was a thug posing as some kind of neighborhood watch guy. And remember, Trayvon is not required to retreat, he’s allowed to stand his ground as well. We would not expect a white male to either run away or submit to Zimmerman’s non-existent authority. Look, all that really happened here is Trayvon stood his ground, and he got killed for doing so. Zimmerman got off because black men aren’t supposed to run from danger or stand their ground, they’re supposed lie on the ground with their hands behind their heads.
The jury could have convicted Zimmerman of involuntary manslaughter. According to Florida Law:
To establish involuntary manslaughter, the prosecutor must show that the defendant acted with “culpable negligence.” Florida statutes define culpable negligence as a disregard for human life while engaging in wanton or reckless behavior. The state may be able to prove involuntary manslaughter by showing the defendant’s recklessness or lack of care when handling a dangerous instrument or weapon, or while engaging in a range of other activities that could lead to death if performed recklessly. [Findlaw.com]
How is it NOT a dangerous and reckless activity for an armed man with no legal authority to pursue what he considers to be a dangerous criminal, by himself, through a residential area at night? Is a man carrying a gun NOT handling a dangerous instrument or weapon? A civilian with a gun chasing people through a neighborhood at night contrary to police advice is inherently dangerous and reckless with predictably BAD outcomes; yet this was not judged to be Culpable Negligence resulting in Manslaughter. Why?
This question was never raised because racist assumptions put Trayvon on Trial instead of Zimmerman and Florida’s legal process allowed it. Trayvon was standing outside his house, Zimmerman was practically in Trayvon’s back yard, yet it was Zimmerman who was standing his ground? Trayvon’s behavior as a black man blinded the jury to Zimmerman’s behavior as a vigilante. What if Trayvon had been legally carrying a gun and shot Zimmerman out of fear for his life? Who would’ve gone on trial? What if Trayvon had been white and shot Zimmerman out of fear for his life? Would there have even been a trial? Trust your instincts, we know who would have been on trial in these different scenarios, and we know why. That’s the second tragedy and it may be the bigger of the two because it’s likely to be repeated and it tells us that racism is built into the system.
This post was written by Paul Udstrand and originally published on Thoughtful Bastards.
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