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Sunday, July 21, 2013

Regressions: The Acquittal of George Zimmerman


In 2000, as part of a presentation for my U.S. Women Poets class, I presented on and offered an analysis of Audre Lorde's poem Power. Written in 1978 (the year I was born), it spoke of an acquittal of a police officer who shot a 13 year-old black boy and hinted to the rage of the black community in being denied justice and fair treatment.

I presented on this poem, because nearly 22 years later, three police officers had been recently acquitted in the shooting 23 year-old African immigrant Amadou Diallo in the doorway of his building in New York City. He was chased after by cops, who suspected him of being a reported serial rapist (he was not) because he matched the general description of the suspect (translation: he was black). When reaching to show his ID (which the officers asked him to furnish), one of the officers said Diallo was instead producing a gun (he was unarmed) and Diallo's body was then besieged with over 40 bullets. Police officers were found to have just cause for their suspicions. Diallo's character was marred by conservative media for his participation in selling hot goods, which I guess somehow justifies his gory and premature death.

I still try to have hope we as a nation can progress to a point where racism is not an institutionalized behavior promoted by mass media and condoned by the court system. But I am losing that hope.

On Saturday, July 13th, at approximately 10pm, well over a decade after the Diallo case, George Zimmerman was acquitted of murdering 17 year-old Trayvon Martin. The verdict came on the heels of draconian laws passed in Texas that effectively would shut down a majority of the abortion clinics in the state. Both of these incidents have led me to feel like I have woken up in the 1950s, before civil rights became a mainstream societal ideal and when women and blacks were still second-class citizens.

In an age of social media, it is impossible not to witness and be sucked into the muck of the Martin/Zimmerman case. I had expected some strong words; however, I have been bowled over by the amount of vitriol toward Martin on Facebook commentary and the automatic assumption that the physical altercation that occurred between Zimmerman and Martin was somehow the latter's fault.

Piggybacking on that I have seen post after post decrying Martin as a punk or "thug" who smoked marijuana (along with about half of American teens, regardless of race), was suspended (for tardiness and truancy), and (seriously) had a grill, as if those things could possibly be extrapolated to justify the bullet in his chest.

Martin's transgressions or "youthful indiscretions" (the term coming straight from the lips of former president George W. Bush on describing his own criminal and drug record) had no bearing on the case. The facts of the case are that a man with a history of racial profiling and aggressive behavior, including a restraining order against him and a battery charge against a police officer, stalked a minor through the dark and in the rain. Specifically, he left his truck and gave chase to a minor who was actively fleeing him (which would suggest Martin was not looking for a confrontation, at least initially) in direct opposition to the advice of the police dispatcher, and armed with a loaded gun.

I've seen more moderate comments on Facebook, Twitter and the blogosphere that contend Zimmerman shouldn't have followed Martin, but that Martin in turn should have not have attacked Zimmerman. And here's where the double standards begin to crop up that reek of racial under- and over-tones. Even the wording used smack of double standards -- that Zimmerman merely "followed" Martin, but Martin "attacked" Zimmerman, thereby outright ignoring Zimmerman's role as instigator and aggressor since the term "attacked" presumes no provocation, which has already proven to not be the case here.

It is several steps beyond "following" someone when they run from you and you leave your vehicle to chase after them. So why is it, that Zimmerman, emboldened under Florida's Stand Your Ground laws, can stalk and chase a minor with a gun, but under this same law, Martin, in fear of bodily harm, is not allowed to defend himself? The insinuation here is that if you are a black male, you must subject yourself to whatever stereotyping or scapegoating you are subjected to, up to and including hostile pursuit, and if you in turn, attempt self-defense, you forfeit your life.

Evidently, Stand Your Ground and self-defense laws in Florida only apply to light-skinned males of Caucasian descent. (As a sidenote: the media emphasis that Zimmerman was half-Latino as if that somehow absolves him of racial profiling, in and of itself is an ignorant and racist notion. A minority can be racist against another minority, and even ethnicities within a minority, as evidenced by Zimmerman's own record of profiling and airing racist epithets against/stereotyping of Mexicans. Additionally, it belittles and ignores how race plays out on the ground and in politics. Namely, how racial dynamics in this country is most directly influenced by visual perception--that is, the color of one's skin.).

The facts remain that Martin's DNA was not found on Zimmerman's gun, nor was any of Zimmerman's DNA found underneath Martin's fingernails, that would have supported Zimmerman's version of events in which Martin grabbed Zimmerman's gun and had subjected Zimmerman to a life-threatening beating that would have justified murder in self-defense. The fact also remains that despite sensational media reports about Martin's "bloody" or "bruised" knuckles (that would prove Martin heavily beat Zimmerman), the actual autopsy report only notes one small (approximately quarter inch size) abrasion on the fourth finger of Martin's left hand. Though there's no doubt Zimmerman and Martin had a physical altercation and that Martin successfully struck Zimmerman, according to the medical examiner in the case, Zimmerman's injuries were "insignificant" and not life-threatening.

The Zimmerman supporters I have engaged with online without fail have evaded or avoided any sort of dialogue about lack of DNA evidence in the case, and insist on posting articles that report any less-than-saintly behavior Martin engaged in, while also failing and refusing to acknowledge Zimmerman's own sketchy record and dishonesty in the case. So, a white man's word is taken as scripture despite his own contradictions, history of aggression and racial paranoia (apparent in the 46 phone calls to police and 911 over an eight year period, which mainly consist of reporting suspicious activities by black males) and perjuries in the court, while a black teenager is found guilty of daring to strike his armed pursuer. A white man can aggressively pursue a minor armed with a gun, even if said minor was not engaged in any apparent illegal activity, and escape any culpability for the ensuing physical altercation he went out of his way to provoke.That is, a long as the minor is a black male.

The dismissive attitude toward any suggestion Martin was defending itself, comes from a place of privilege, from people who, by virtue of their race, class and gender, and most often a combination of two or more of these, have never been (and likely never will be) in the predicament of being pursued, harassed or profiled. They will never understand the feelings of vulnerability or danger the pursued experiences, especially if the pursued is of a demographic that until not too long ago historically was considered property and denied fundamental rights and routinely subjected to egregious violence and oppression; a demographic that is currently still subjected to a system utterly entrenched in its mission to continue to subjugate that demographic through incarceration, profiling and ubiquitous institutional and cultural bias.

I grew up in a racially diverse neighborhood where white was the minority. I routinely watched cops roll up to the playground across the street from my apartment and harass the kids playing ball, who were mostly Latino and black. This harassment even sometimes extended to roughing the kids up. If any of the kids dared speak back, they were arrested or assaulted (or both). I regularly witnessed cops discharging racial slurs at these kids. My brother, who like me, is white, escaped the lion's share of this treatment by the cops. As a teenager, my brother also smoked pot, did graffiti, got in trouble at school for truancy, and even shoplifted a couple of times. Like most urban teen males, my brother engaged in a lot of mouthy posturing. And if he had been ruthlessly pursued at night, his character back then suggests that he might have easily swung at his pursuer. And he wouldn't have deserved a bullet in his heart for doing so...

I myself have been chased in my neighborhood, by other teens. I have also been stalked and followed as an undergraduate, more than once, walking home on my campus. I have turned around at times to confront the person following me. I have pushed people, Punched people. I have made use of my pepper spray. Luckily, I am still alive.

But then again, I am a white female.

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