Monday, April 16, 2012

Trayvon Martin, George Zimmerman, and race in America

Unless you have been living under a rock, you’re no doubt aware that something happened in Florida a while ago that has had far-reaching national implications. First, the facts:

On February 26, 2012, in Sanford Florida, an unarmed African-American male named Trayvon Martin was shot dead by an armed White or Hispanic American (his mother is from Peru, his father is a white man and a retired judge) named George Zimmerman. Trayvon Martin had been walking home from a convenience store. George Zimmerman was in his car, called the non-emergency police dispatch line, and reported that there was a youth acting strangely and dressed suspiciously. He left his vehicle and followed Martin, despite the dispatcher telling him he shouldn’t. There was a fight, and Martin wound up dead. Zimmerman was taken into custody by police but not arrested. Police did not perform a background check at that time. No drug or alcohol screen was performed. The lead homicide investigator recommended that Zimmerman be charged with manslaughter. Instead, Zimmerman was released.

Nothing more was going to be done about this until the family of Trayvon Martin, and their attorney, successfully brought national attention to the issue, through the use of a petition. I’ve heard from people that this entire thing was a media creation for bigger ratings and money. I find it hard to believe that, absent a public outcry, the media would have cared about just another dead black man. They certainly have not in the past. People die in horrible ways in this country all the time, the only time it becomes a major media issue is when it’s either a lot of people dying at the same time, or if it’s a missing angelic blond (or more rarely brunette) white girl.

Now sides are being taken, and that’s messed up. There are a lot of people who seem to think, and say things to this effect, that it’s okay that Trayvon Martin died, and that George Zimmerman killed him. Others aren’t willing to come right out and say it, so they blame the media for making this news, or for editing a tape to remove a meager bit of context, or for running old pictures of Martin. White supremacists are lining up around the block to support Zimmerman, and black supremacist groups are doing the same to oppose him. But I think they miss the group here that really dropped the ball. A lot of fault should lie with the Sanford police department.

Stand Your Ground laws have taken a lot of heat in this case because the police department used them as justification to let Zimmerman walk. If you get out of your vehicle and pursue somebody, you are no longer standing your ground. You’re acting like a cop. Zimmerman had completed a Sheriff’s department course in “citizen’s law enforcement”, and was captain of the neighborhood watch, it’s quite possible (but this is speculation) that he considered himself a sort of unpaid police officer. However, he was not, he was a private citizen who tried to be a cop and got somebody else killed; although it could just as easily have been Zimmerman who died, if Martin had actually been a criminal. The people who should have pointed out to Zimmerman that he was not a police officer but was instead a private citizen who got an unarmed youth killed were the police who arrested him.

Instead, the police kept him and questioned him for a few hours, but they ultimately let him go. And that was a mistake. No background check was run, or they may have found that Zimmerman had a history of domestic violence. That was a mistake. The investigator who recommended manslaughter charges was ignored. That was a mistake. If Zimmerman had been charged, and faced trial, then none of this would have gone as far as it has. But the police fucked up.

I’ve seen people holding up cases where African-Americans have beat up white people in the wake of Martin’s killing as… something. They claim that black community leaders would never speak up about it or the media make a big deal over it, but the reason there was such a big deal over the Martin killing was because nobody was charged. A person was dead and it looked like nobody would be held accountable for it in the eyes of the law. In all the cases so far I’ve seen where white people get beat up or mugged, the people responsible have been charged. There are people looking at jail time for it. Prior to very recently, that wasn’t the case in the Martin killing.

I think what is being missed in all the sides-taking over this incident is the core issue at stake here: In America, we have two different sets of law, two different faces to the police force, two different standards of criminal justice. There’s the standard for whites, and the standard for minorities. By way of example, John McNeil was a black man in Georgia who shot a white man who had come at him with a knife in his pocket, on McNeil’s property, and who was a man who had previously threatened McNeil repeatedly. John McNeil is now in jail on a life sentence.

As a white man, I have little to no fear of being stopped “randomly” by police for a variety of minor reasons. I have even less fear of winding up dead as a result of that traffic stop. If I’m ever caught with an illicit drug, I’m statistically significantly more likely to get probation than face jail time. These are the benefits of what Kurt Vonnegut described in his novel Hocus Pocus (an excellent read for familiarizing yourself with racial injustice in America) as the “uniform of the skin”. Meanwhile, for African-Americans in the US, it is harder for one without a criminal record to get a job than it is for a white with a criminal record.

If Zimmerman had been more clearly a minority, if Trayvon Martin had been a white kid named Steve Gustafson or something, and if Zimmerman’s father was not a judge, I have little doubt that the case would go differently. If the suspicious youth had been white and Zimmerman had been black, he would probably be facing the death penalty. Or perhaps already dead, shot by police after they arrived on the scene.

This is the heart of the problem. There are two separate sets of laws in this country, and there are plenty of people out there who think that’s just fine. That needs to change, but instead we look like we’re speeding towards a culture/race war, an unending cycle of action and reaction that can only be ultimately destructive.

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