Unarmed 17-year-old male walks home from a 7-Eleven in the rain in Sanford, Florida. He carries a bag of skittles and a can of iced tea. He’s wearing jeans and a hoodie.
A volunteer neighborhood watch captain calls the police, telling the operator that he spied a “real suspicious guy” who “looks like he’s up to no good, on drugs or something. It’s raining and he’s just walking around looking about…”
The dispatcher tells Mr. Neighborhood Watch – now in pursuit with a 9mm handgun – not to pursue the guy. They’re on it; they got it.
But he does. And a squabble ensues. Mr. Neighborhood Watch shoots. Unarmed 17-year-old male is killed. Shooter claims self-defense.
Now let’s color in this outline.
The male’s name is Trayvon Martin, a skinny Black kid weighing 140 pounds. An A-B student. Had no criminal record.
Mr. Neighborhood Watch is George Zimmerman. He is 28, a big guy; he weighs about 250 pounds. Folks say he was pressed to be a police officer. He was a self-appointed Neighborhood Watch captain. He’d called the police 46 times in the last 15 months. According to the Huffington Post, Zimmerman had been the subject of complaints from his neighbors about his aggressive tactics. His neighbors also claimed that Zimmerman, a white dude, was “fixated on crime and focused on young, black males.” Fixated on crime? “Focused” on young, Black males? This cat didn’t have no authority to do shit. He was “fixated on delusions of grandeur, and focused on being a fucking dick” is how that should have read.
But this isn’t just about George Zimmerman’s inability to deal sufficiently with his dreams deferred, and turning into the over-aggressive community hall monitor as a result. Zimmerman bet on a racist stereotype and came up wrong. Way wrong.
For the moment, I’m not going to play the “if Trayvon was white” game with you. The injustice in this case is that George Zimmerman is protected – by law – for his bet on a racist stereotype. And Trayvon Martin is dead because of it.
Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” or “Shoot First” law allows folks to play cops and robbers with real lives and real guns. And sure, you may be able to find a justifiable reason for vigilantism like Carl Lee Hailey did in “A Time to Kill.” But in George Zimmerman’s case, from the very outset, the wrongdoing is his own. He killed a guy who was unarmed because he had this line of reasoning: Black guy –> “just walking around” in my gated community –> suspicious.
*ding* *ding* *ding* There’s your problem. Institutional racism is psychological. It sneaks up on you; it sneaks up in you.
To be sure, one could make the case that the law itself has some issues. But I’ll be honest with y’all: if it was Trayvon Martin or Robert Downey, Jr. breaking into my house in the middle of the night, I’ma want “Stand Your Ground” to protect me if some shit pops off. That is if, in fact, Trayvon Martin or Robert Downey, Jr. was breaking into my house. In fact. Not figment of imagination.
Zimmerman’s psychological prejudice against that young man, coupled with his police officer fantasy, allowed him to profile Trayvon Martin without a second thought. These practices, racism and racial profiling, are both lazy and dangerous, as this case so clearly proves. They rely on presumptions of guilt based in weak, opaque information.
The suspect is or might be a young Black male who is or might look between the ages of 16 and 35, and is possibly wearing a shirt with button on it.* Put out an APB to patrol and tell Zimmerman over in Sanford to be on the lookout.
With a little investigation, “the suspect” may later identify himself (because he’s still alive, you see) as:
Oscar Grant; or
They could clear up the misunderstanding, and force “security” to work smarter at its job. They could force it to rely less on fear, which can be a terribly irrational emotion, as sole judge and jury.
We don’t know exactly what transpired between George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin in the seconds and minutes between 911 calls. What we do know, thanks in part to the 911 recordings, is that it was Trayvon Martin who attempted to defend his life by howling for help. And it was George Zimmerman who had the criminal record, the gun, the weight advantage, and presumably, the strength advantage. Yet, the boy is dead, and George Zimmerman’s irrational fear, according to Florida law, makes him justified in causing it.
Now I’ll play the “what if Trayvon Martin was white” game with you because Black people’s claims of racism are often met with eye-rolling and irritation. A lot of “here we go again” and “is Rev. Al marching yet?” First, let me assure you that there is no perverse sense of enjoyment reaped when prejudice is responsible for a death. We rally and we march, and Al Sharpton shows up because the fact that folks still aint acting right needs some attention. And because, by and large, Black life isn’t valued in the same way non-Black lives are. Remember the final court scene in “A Time to Kill,” when Jake Brigance shares the awful details of an assault on a little girl, and his final words are, “now imagine if she were white.” What’s left unsaid in that moment, but resonates nonetheless is “now do you get it? Now do you understand the tragedy before us?”
What if some asshole with an itchy trigger finger hunted down and killed any other teenage boy with the same résumé as Trayvon’s, namely teenage boy walking home in the rain?
Are you outraged yet? Now do you get it? Now do you see the tragedy before us?
George Zimmerman should be arrested. He should have to stand trial for his actions on February 26, 2012.
*(yes, racism and prejudice still play a role when the officers or aggressors are Black. See what I said about the normative gaze in my Rihanna and Chris Brown post .)
**That’s really what George Zimmerman said. “….And he’s a Black male, he’s got a button on his shirt.