Why the Zimmerman Trial Made Me Ill
A friend asked me if I'd been keeping up with the George Zimmerman trial. My immediate answer was, “Not really. Watching it was really angering me.” But when pressed, I had to admit I was avoiding the topic to temper my anger. I also didn’t want to try to explain to the white person on the other end of the phone how it feels being black in the USA these days.
Like many others, I believe that Zimmerman is a liar, a racist, and a killer. And I believe that Trayvon Martin had every right to fight for his life with all the strength he could muster. He lost the fight for his life because his killer had a gun, and Martin had only a can of Arizona Iced Tea and a bag of Skittles.
I was a young black boy at one time, and I’ve raised black boys. I know what they face. I know that white supremacy does take us out at will.
When I was coming up, I would hear a young white man proclaim that he’s “free, white, and twenty-one,” and that meant the world was his. For black males, the benchmark is “thirty-five and still alive.”
So in all honesty, I despise Zimmerman, his supporters, and every racist thing they stand for. I’ve seen too many victims of raw, racist power wielded by fools.
My friend, knowing me as well as she does, never took my “not really” seriously. After a few moments, I copped to the fact that I had watched most of the trial. And I told her how excruciating it was to hear the defense argue that Zimmerman had a greater right of self-defense than his victim.
That Martin’s fists and the concrete sidewalk were his “deadly weapons.”
That Martin was basically a “homicidal maniac.”
For all Martin knew, Zimmerman could have been a Jeffrey Dahmer-type.
Yet many Zimmerman supporters will only ever see black boys and men as “dope-smoking,” “gang-banging” “thugs” and “low-lifes” with no right to exist.
That’s what Zimmerman’s father, brother, and backers were saying before the start of the trial. They hired attorneys to assert their demand for white privilege. They even found Channa Lloyd, a young, black, attractive female third-year law student to sit behind them in court. Lloyd claimed in an interview that she asked defense attorney Mark O’Mara, “Is George a racist?” to which he responded, “I wouldn’t work for him if he was.”
Meanwhile, in his closing argument, O’Mara talked about Martin’s “fist and the concrete sidewalk” being his weapons while holding up a big chunk of concrete and a picture of a living Martin shirtless.
In the months leading up to the trial, Robert Zimmerman Sr., the father of the accused, said, “Racism is flourishing at the insistence of some in the African American community.” He called the Congressional Black Caucus “a pathetic, self-serving group of racists . . . advancing their purely racist agenda.” And that “all members of Congress should be ashamed of the Congressional Black Caucus, as should be their constituents,” adding, “They are truly a disgrace to all Americans.” He called NAACP President Benjamin Jealous “a racist” and said his organization “simply promotes racism and hatred for their own, primarily financial, interests” and “without prejudice and racial divide, the NAACP would simply cease to exist.”
Like father, like son. Robert Zimmerman Jr., the defendant’s brother, sent out a series of racist tweets and photos before the trial. He compared Martin with De’Marquise Elkins, a seventeen-year-old detained in the murder of a Georgia infant. Both pictures feature the young men “flipping the bird” at the camera, with the caption “A picture speaks a thousand words. . . . Any questions?” He also posted several tweets saying that “blacks” are worthy of others’ fear, including: “Lib media shld ask if what these 2 black teens did 2 a woman&baby is the reason ppl think blacks might B risky.”
Frank Taaffe, outspoken defender of Zimmerman, publicly said, “The stage was already set. It was a perfect storm,” and in one CNN interview he offered, “Neighbor-hood (emphasizing ‘hood’), that’s a great word. . . . We had eight burglaries in our neighborhood, all perpetrated by young black males in the fifteen months prior to Trayvon being shot. . . . You know, there’s an old saying that if you plant corn, you get corn.” So in Taaffe’s white supremacist world, black people should expect to take a bullet for another black person’s actions even if there’s no connection between them.
Then there’s Fox News, where it seems that the only thing blacks can do to make them happy is to somehow move to another planet or solar system, unless they can find a few who are willing to tear down Obama from the right for money. One of their news hosts, Gregg Jarrett, suggested on air that Zimmerman might have been justified in killing Martin because the teen “may have been violent” from smoking marijuana.
Early on in the trial, before Judge Debra Nelson allowed Martin’s drug test results into evidence, my wife, who works at one of the big department stores, was in the break room on her job. The news played in the background on the television set as she chitchatted with about five co-workers, all black women of various ages, most either mothers or grandmothers. Into the room comes a middle-aged, fifty-ish white female employee who just started up talking about the trial. There was no invitation for her to strike up a conversation. Nor did she notice whom she was taling to. There was just her arrogant, know-it-all, intrusive whiteness sucking the air out of the room. Or as my wife put it, “She was talking at us.”
From the jump, the white woman goes in on Martin saying, “Well you know he smoked that marijuana!” At that point, so I’m told, nobody responded to her. The black women all got up and left the room. And as they got out of the cussing-the-woman-out range, the conversation went:
“White people think they can say and do anything.”
“He [Zimmerman] had no business following that boy.”
“What’s smoking pot got to do with anything?”
“He had no right to shoot that boy.”
“I was about to lose my job by giving her a piece of my mind.”
As I told that story to my friend she became quiet. I joked, didn’t that white woman know she was talking to a group of black mothers? Then I mentioned Martin’s mother, Sybrina. I went on to say how many blacks are extremely proud of the way she and her ex-husband, Tracy Martin, took the high road throughout this ordeal.
“Dignified” is the word most often used, although I see it as one of those words that means they didn’t cuss white folks out. For the most part, the parents have let attorney Benjamin Crump do the attacking. Crump has repeatedly expressed what most blacks feel: If Zimmerman had been killed, Trayvon Martin would have been drug-tested, immediately jailed without bond, and put on trial for first-degree murder facing the death penalty.
I went on to say to my friend that Sybrina Fulton was becoming something of an icon to many black people, much like Mamie Till, the mother of Emmett Till, who died at the hands of racists. I told her that for many blacks, Sybrina represents how they view black mothers and wives. And I said that many black women view themselves going through hell or high water for their kids, as she has done.
In addition, Tracy Martin, though divorced, maintained a close relationship with his son and a respectful relationship with his ex-wife and mother of his child. He wasn’t an absentee father. He seemed to be a good parent. But you knew that a white man was going to play the irresponsible black parent game. Kind of like Barack Obama does from time to time, although a Boston College study done a couple of years back revealed—surprisingly to some—that black fathers not living in the same domicile as their children are more likely to have a relationship with their kids than white fathers in similar circumstances.
I found myself posting photos of the parents and their sons on social media throughout the trial. Many others did as well. I did it because I wanted to remind myself and others what the trial was about. And instead of getting angry at the sight of Zimmerman, I wanted to focus instead on the strength of Trayvon Martin’s parents. I used words like “respect” and “strength” as captions to cut through efforts to dehumanize and denigrate the family and the slain son.
Zimmerman’s defense team wanted words like “gang,” “gang-related,” “gun,” or “drug-related” added to the story because they know that most of the time it strips the accused (who are often black) of their human rights and humanity. They know that if some black kid’s face on the news and the word “gun” or “drug” is mentioned, even blacks, unless they’re family members, most often don’t really care what happens to the kid. The defense’s goal was to flip the script and make Martin the accused.
And the defense couldn’t put the gun in Martin’s hands so they did the next best thing: They tried to bring drugs into the game by advancing the old “Reefer Madness” myth arguing that marijuana makes you violent. Back in the ’80s and ’90s, usually after a cop shot someone, they’d say the shooting victim was on PCP (angel dust) or crack, and it gave them super-human strength. I haven’t seen many super-strong crack heads in my lifetime, but I’ve seen a lot of them wasting away to little or nothing. I haven’t seen all that many super-strong potheads, either.
Painful as it was, I watched defense attorney Don West attempt to paint a prosecution witness, nineteen-year-old Rachel Jeantel, as a stupid liar. Jeantel was on the phone with Martin the night Zimmerman killed him. She was the last person he spoke to. He told Jeantel he was being followed by a “creepy-ass cracker.” Her testimony sparked a courtroom, online, and on-television argument and a trumped-up controversy with the premise that Martin calling Zimmerman a “cracker” made Martin the racist.
Don West’s daughter Molly posted an Instagram photo, with the family enjoying ice cream after West’s contentious and contemptuous cross-examination of Jeantel, accompanied with the description, “We beat stupidity celebration cones…#dadkilledit.”
In response to the smearing of Jeantel, someone posted online a quote by James Baldwin that read: “It is not the black child’s language that is in question, it is not their language that is despised: It is their experience.”
CNN devoted airtime to debate “Does cracker = nigger?”
I sardonically laughed as I told my friend, “A cracker cracks the whip that some poor nigger is at the business end of.”
I posted the Last Poet’s “Niggers Are Scared of Revolution” to CNN’s Don Lemon’s Facebook page as an example of one “appropriate” use of the word.
I saw a New York Times headline on the trial, “Race is an undertone of trial.” Undertone? How about, “White supremacy and race privilege reign in America”?
People, such as that headline writer, who substitute the word “race” for “racism” to soften its meaning and meanness always get to me.
Drug-testing Martin after the killing and not testing Zimmerman is just one of the many privileges of racism and white supremacy granted Zimmerman before a single charge was filed against him. I watched trial video of Zimmerman riding in a cop car after the killing and taking the detective on a tour of the crime scene while crafting his lies. No handcuffs. Front seat. I’m thinking, “Wow, they’d never let a black person do such a thing.”
I believe the Zimmerman trial is of greater racial and civil significance for blacks than the O. J. Simpson trial.
First of all, there’s no epidemic of old black ex-football player movie stars (allegedly) killing their young white wives and their boyfriends.
But there has been a wave of black males killed by whites under “Stand Your Ground” laws. Defendants claiming “stand your ground” as justification for their act of violence against another are more likely to prevail if the victim is black. In Florida, 73 percent of those who killed a black person faced no penalty compared to 59 percent of those who killed a white.
Years ago someone said to me, “White folk believe that most blacks are criminals even if they haven’t ever been charged with a crime or haven’t done time in jail. They just haven’t been caught.” As my lawyer friend Efia Nwangaza put it, “To a racist, the average cop, and even the courts, most blacks are either busted or bustable.” In a nutshell, racial profiling takes away the “benefit of the doubt.”
It’s not so hard to imagine that the not-guilty verdict might just give any stranger white man the ammunition (pun intended) or gumption to approach any black man on the street and ask him anything he wants, like: “What are you doing? Where are you going? Why are you here? Let’s see some ID!” And what if the black man tells his white inquisitor to “step off”—with or without vulgarities, and the white man responds in a menacing way or tries to detain him or attempts to lay hands on him, and the black fellow fights for his life or does something other than surrender himself to the stranger? How is it that he becomes the criminal and the white man has the right to take his life?
It’s reminiscent of slavery and Jim Crow days, when if a white man was walking on a sidewalk and a black person was walking towards him on the same sidewalk, the black person had to step into the ditch or road and give the white man the whole sidewalk to pass. It was a time when blacks had no rights that any white man was bound to respect. But as Vernon Johns, the preacher who preceded Martin Luther King at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, once said, “You have to have a license to hunt rabbits in the state of Alabama, but niggers are always in season.”
I’ve also spoken with some black folks at various points during this tragedy who are quite open about protecting their children, homes, and themselves. They say, “We got guns too.” They aren’t gangbangers. Most are working class, homeowners, prior military, rural, many sort of in the vein of Robert Williams, former president of the North Carolina NAACP, who wrote a book called Negroes with Guns about self-defense.
One young family man, who is not supposed to have a gun or be around one either because he happens to have a couple of drug felonies on his record, said to me: “Look, if it’s about protecting myself or my family and I need or have to use a gun, I’d rather be judged by twelve of my peers than carried by six.”
One other thing that makes the Zimmerman case far more significant than Simpson is that what Zimmerman is accused of—and the police are often guilty of—is denying people of color due process and equal treatment with their use of violence. And they’re often willing to use deadly force even when their lives are not in danger and their victims are unarmed. According to the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, a black man, woman, or child died at the trigger of law enforcement or “the color of law” every twenty-eight hours in 2012. And in most cases, had the alleged perpetrator been adjudicated and found guilty of a crime the sentence wouldn’t have been the death penalty.
As I was talking to some young brothers the other night, they joked that “if Zimmerman had killed a white man, they’d drop the ‘white’ from the ‘white Hispanic’ description of him.”
Despite my contempt for Zimmerman, he was found not guilty.
And the system should protect the rights of the accused whether we like the defendant or not.
Back in the period between the shooting and arrest, former heavy weight boxing champ Mike Tyson (who in 1992 was convicted of raping Desiree Washington, a beauty pageant contestant, and served three years in an Indiana prison) offered a death wish for Zimmerman: “It’s a disgrace that man hasn’t been dragged out of his house and tied to a car and taken away. That’s the only kind of retribution that people like that understand. It’s a disgrace that man hasn’t been shot yet. Forget about him being arrested—the fact that he hasn’t been shot yet is a disgrace. That’s how I feel personally about it.”
Most of the death threats are probably not serious but a few may be.
One Zimmerman hater wrote: “He has proven that he fears blacks and will kill them because of that fear. He’s a danger to black people, and blacks would be within their right to shoot him in self-defense.”
I don’t support the death penalty by the government or revenge seekers.
To me, the only way Zimmerman could’ve escaped the contempt and hatred of black people was by saying at the very start, “I messed up, and I’m sorry.” And certainly, after the verdict, his attorneys and his family should have had the basic decency to say, “There were no winners today. What happened was a tragedy. And our sympathies go out to Trayvon Martin’s family.” Instead, the Zimmerman team danced in the end zone—and on Trayvon’s grave.
But my anger isn’t just about George Zimmerman and his entourage. It’s about the repulsive and dangerous swirl of racism that is in the air right now in America. Sean Hannity was typically ugly when he mocked President Obama’s thoughtful remark that “Travyon could have been me thirty-five years ago” by saying they both “smoked pot and . . . did a little blow.”
My anger is about the racism that still infects our criminal justice system.
Marissa Alexander knows it well. She’s the woman in Florida who in 2010 fired warning shots into her wall to try to scare off her abusive husband. She invoked “Stand Your Ground,” and she’s now doing twenty years behind bars.
So yes, let’s definitely work to wipe out the Stand Your Ground laws. But that won’t be enough. We need to wipe out racism, too.
The Trayvon Martin case has shaken up a generation of young black men and women. You could see them demonstrating at all the rallies around the country after the verdict. They understood, more viscerally than before, the hostility that greets them every day in America.
Kevin Alexander Gray is a writer and activist living in South Carolina. He can be reached at pmproj [at] progressive [dot] org.
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