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“Fear And Consequences”: George Zimmerman, The Not-So-Faceless Bogeyman, And The Protection Of White Womanhood

My first week of college, I had a heated debate about abortion with two new friends—both were white, and one, Nancy, was extremely pro-life. I was feeling pretty proud of myself for having such an “adult” conversation—we disagreed, but everyone was being respectful. Then my other pro-choice friend asked Nancy what she would do with a pregnancy if she was raped. I will never forget what Nancy said: “I think it would be cute to have a little black baby.” When we expressed outrage at her racism, Nancy shrugged. It never occurred to her a rapist would be anyone other than a black man. (DOJ statistics show that 80 to 90 percent of women who are raped are attacked by someone of their own race, unless they are Native women.) When this young woman imagined a criminal in her mind, he wasn’t a faceless bogeyman.

I hadn’t thought of this exchange in years, not until I was reading the responses to George Zimmerman’s acquittal—particularly those about the role of white womanhood. When I first heard that the jurors were women, I naïvely hoped they would see this teenage boy shot dead in the street and think of their children. But they weren’t just any women; most were white women. Women who, like me, have been taught to fear men of color. And who—as a feminist named Valerie pointed out on Twitter—probably would see Zimmerman as their son sooner than they would Trayvon Martin.

Brittney Cooper at Salon expressed the same sentiment: “I am convinced that at a strictly human level, this case came down to whether those white women could actually see Trayvon Martin as somebody’s child, or whether they saw him according to the dictates of black male criminality.”

And indeed, Anderson Cooper’s interview with juror B37 sheds light on who was considered deserving of empathy and humanization. Hint: it wasn’t Trayvon Martin. As Igor Volsky of Think Progress pointed out, “B37” used Zimmerman’s first name in the interview frequently and twice used the phrase “George said” even though Zimmerman didn’t testify. She also indicated that she wasn’t moved by Rachel Jeantel’s testimony because of her “communication skills” and that “she was using phrases I had never heard before.”

Perhaps most tellingly, though, “B37” told Cooper that Zimmerman’s “heart was in the right place, but just got displaced by the vandalism in the neighborhoods and wanting to catch these people so badly that he went above and beyond what he really should have done.” (The phrase “above and beyond” is interesting, given it’s generally understood as a positive.) To her, Zimmerman was a protector. Sure, maybe he went a bit overboard but “Trayvon got mad and attacked him,” and Zimmerman “had a right to defend himself.”

This juror’s comments cannot be divorced from our culture’s long-standing criminalizing of young black men, and white women’s related fears. As Mychal Denzel Smith pointed out here at The Nation and on MSNBC’s Up With Steve Kornacki, defense attorneys stoked this fear deliberately and broadly.

To my disgust, O’Mara literally invoked the same justification for killing Trayvon as was used to justify lynchings. He called to the witness stand Olivia Bertalan, one of Zimmerman’s former neighbors, who told the story of her home being burglarized by two young African-American boys while she and her children feared for their lives. It was terrifying indeed, and it had absolutely no connection to the case at hand. But O’Mara presented the jury with the “perfect victim,” which Trayvon could never be: a white woman living in fear of black criminals. Zimmerman had offered to help her the night her home was robbed. Implicit in the defense’s closing argument: he was also protecting her the night he killed Trayvon Martin.

They carefully made Martin—the victim—into that not-so-faceless bogeyman. Now, I don’t know what was in the jurors’ hearts—but the story the defense told and that juror B37 parroted is not a new one. It’s a story that ends with fear trumping empathy and humanity. (A fear that even now is being grossly defended as justified.)

Yes, white women—all of us—are taught to fear men of color. We need to own that truth, own that shameful fear. Most importantly, we need to name it for what it is: deeply held and constantly enforced racism.

I’d like to think if I was on that jury I would look at pictures of Trayvon Martin and see him for the child he was. I hope I would.

 

By: Jessica Valenti, The Nation, July 16, 2013

 

July 22, 2013 Posted by | Zimmerman Trial | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“A Sense Of Hopelessness”: The George Zimmerman Trial Is The Worst Fear Of Every Black Family

The Trayvon Martin case has been nothing short of heartbreak from the very beginning. Regardless of what anyone believes about Trayvon’s past, his innocence or George Zimmerman’s, the fact remains that a teenager is dead. I honestly didn’t think I would get emotionally broken up more than I was over the story that Rachel Jeantel’s friendship with Martin stemmed from the fact he was one of the only people who never picked on her. The story painted such a tragic picture of friendship and two people whose lives will never be the same.

Then came this week’s testimonies and reactions from Trayvon Martin’s parents to leave me – and so much of America – floored. On Friday morning, Sybrina Fulton took the stand to talk about her son. As part of her testimony she had to identify her child’s screams in his finals seconds of life. Later in the day, Tracy Martin had to sit in court as the medical examiner, Dr Bao, explained how Trayvon died in severe pain and was alive for minutes after getting shot in the chest.

Essentially, Friday – almost as much as the day Trayvon was shot – was any parent’s nightmare. Trayvon’s parents had to come face to face with their son’s murder while Fulton got questioned over whether or not her son actually deserved to get killed. Tracy had to sit in the same room as the man who shot his son in the chest, unable to retaliate or let the rage he has to be feeling out.

Yes, this is the worst imaginable day for a parent. But it’s one the parents of an African-American child has been conditioned to accept as a possibility.

I have a son who was born in October, a couple of weeks before the prosecutor and defense met in court to argue if Martin’s school records should be admitted so the case was in the news again. As I watched more details about the case emerge and the argument that a child’s prior school record may be used to justify his death, I would feel a sense of hopelessness.

There are always fears about being a parent, but raising a black male in America brings about its own unique set of panic. Growing up, my parents and older siblings made sure to warn me about places where I’d be profiled and could face danger as often as they warned me about neighborhoods known for crime. But in the end, no planning or words of advice can save me or my son from getting wrongfully gunned down while trying to buy a bag of candy.

While most parents are up at night wondering how to protect their children from the uncontrollable like drunk drivers or muggings, Trayvon’s parents, my parents and parents of black males across the country are also living in fear that their children won’t come home because someone thought they were dangers to the community.

So there they were, two parents of a black male, sitting in court living out the culmination of that fear. And the realization that the man who shot their child could get off for killing him. To make things worse, they had to hear the defense question their parenting, whether or not Fulton actually knows what her son sounds like and field online reports that Tracy may not have been the best parent.

Since Martin’s death, the boy these two people raised, loved and saw for his beauty as a young male has been portrayed as a thug. A violent kid. A pothead who couldn’t behave in school. Someone who, according to the defense, caused his own death.

It’s all just excruciating to watch. My heart breaks for Trayvon’s parents and watching them in court this week has brought all of my fears of being the parent of a Black male to light. We’ve watched them look at a picture of their son’s dead, bloody body sprawled out on the Florida pavement. We’ve watched Trayvon’s mother struggle to compose herself while hearing her son’s last screams.

As my son gets older and out into the world, I’ll always have the memories of Trayvon and his parents. And the fear that one day, America will put us through what the Martin family is enduring.

 

By: David Dennis, The Guardian, July 7, 2013

July 7, 2013 Posted by | Gun Violence, Zimmerman Trial | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The Zimmerman Trial”: We Will Never Hear Trayvon Martin’s Side Of The Story

This first week of testimony in the George Zimmerman trial has proved to be nothing short of fascinating.

On one level, the case is simple: if Zimmerman had not pursued — some say stalked — Trayvon Martin that dark, rainy night, Martin would still be alive.

That’s the logical argument. The legal one is more complex. The case, it seems to me, spins on some crucial questions, some of which we may never completely know the answers to.

What was it about Martin in particular that Zimmerman found “suspicious” in the first place? So far, there has been no testimony that Martin was doing anything other than walking slowly and talking on a phone to a girl, as teenage boys are wont to do. Did Zimmerman consider every person walking thusly in the neighborhood to be suspicious? If not, what made Martin different? Was some sort of bias at play, whether an explicit one or an implicit one?

Why did Zimmerman leave his car, armed with his gun, and follow Martin? When the dispatcher realized that Zimmerman was in pursuit and told him, “We don’t need you to do that,” did Zimmerman stop?

Did Martin know that he was being followed, as his friend Rachel Jeantel testified, and did he feel threatened by the stranger following him?

In fact, the threat levels are a larger, more complex issue altogether. Who felt threatened, the teenager with the candy and the soda or the man pursuing him with a gun and a live round in the chamber? The answer on the surface would seem obvious, but it’s possible that both felt some level of threat. It’s also possible that threat responses washed back and forth between them like water in a tub, neither of them knowing about the other what we know now — that Zimmerman was armed and Martin was not.

If Martin was running away, as Zimmerman has said and Jeantel has testified, did he at some point stop fleeing, turn and approach Zimmerman?

There has been testimony establishing that there was some sort of verbal interaction between Zimmerman and Martin before a physical one. Who struck the first blow and why? If Martin struck the first blow, as the defense contends, could that be considered an act of self-defense?

Regardless of who struck the first blow, some testimony suggests that Martin was getting the best of Zimmerman. In that scenario, could the right to self-defense switch personage? Florida law seems to suggest it can. The law states that the use of force is not justified when a person “initially provokes the use of force against himself or herself, unless such force is so great that the person reasonably believes that he or she is in imminent danger of death or great bodily harm and that he or she has exhausted every reasonable means to escape such danger other than the use of force which is likely to cause death or great bodily harm to the assailant.”

Even assuming that Martin was winning a physical fight with Zimmerman, did Zimmerman “reasonably” believe that he was in “imminent danger of death or great bodily harm”? Zimmerman was injured, but how do you evaluate the degree of those injuries? Independent assessments may or may not deem Zimmerman’s injuries severe, but did Zimmerman, in the middle of the fight, believe them to be? Had Zimmerman “exhausted every reasonable means to escape”?

Who was yelling for help? Keep in mind that it is possible to be both winning a fight and simultaneously yelling for help.

During opening arguments, John Guy, a prosecutor, stated that investigators found none of Zimmerman’s blood on Martin’s hands or on the cuffs of his sweatshirt. How will the defense explain that?

The bar may be high for the prosecution, but the logic is basic: there has been no suggestion or testimony that Trayvon Martin was doing anything wrong the night that George Zimmerman caught sight of him and grew wary of him, pursued him and came into contact with him.

Zimmerman set that night’s events in motion and rendered them still with the ring of a gunshot. Now, as Zimmerman sits in a Florida courtroom, Martin sleeps in a Florida grave. We will never hear Martin’s side of the story, about the level of his fear or the feel of the bullet ripping through his body.

Morally, Zimmerman is by no means without guilt. Legally, it remains to be seen whether he will be found guilty of second-degree murder.

By: Charles M. Blow, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, June 28, 2013

July 1, 2013 Posted by | Gun Violence | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Rachel Jeantel Explained, Linguistically”: She Made A Lot More Sense Than You Think

Let’s face it, none of us would want to be Trayvon Martin’s friend Rachel Jeantel in the last couple of days. Much of the country is laughing at the “ghetto” black girl who keeps getting tripped up in her story. But Jeantel has made a lot more sense than it may have seemed.

Yes, she was dissimulating in pretending that Trayvon Martin’s referring to Zimmerman as a “creepy-ass cracker” wasn’t “racial”—of course it was. Cracker is today’s “honkey,” a word now about as antique as The Jeffersons in which George used it so much. It is both descriptive and pejorative, although it’s important to note that according to Jeantel, Martin was not calling Zimmerman a cracker to his face but when trying to give his friend on the phone an update on the situation.

The origins of the word in reference to persons as opposed to snacks is obscure, but most likely started when cracking could mean bragging in Elizabethan English. Upper-crust colonial Americans had a way of referring to lower-class British immigrants to the South as loud-mouthed “crackers,” as in boastful beyond their proper station.

Pretty soon the word just referred to the people, period, with elegant Central Park architect Frederick Law Olmsted even casually writing in 1850 after a Florida jaunt that “some crackers owned a good many Negroes.”

Jeantel may well have heard some whites in Florida using the word for themselves with a kind of in-group pride – just as black people use the N-word that way. But surely she knows that’s a different meaning, just as anyone who claims it’s okay for Paula Deen to have used the N-word because Jay-Z does is faking it.

The important thing is that it made perfect sense for Martin to use that word to describe a white man chasing him for no reason. Few fully understand that the tension between young black men and the police (and by extension, security guards, traffic cops and just about any sort of watchman) is the main thing keeping America from getting past race. If ten years went by without a story like the Martin case we’d be in a very different country.

There are several possible reasons why Jeantel feigned on whether calling someone a cracker was racially-motivated. It could be because she wants to protect her dead friend. It could be because she’s extremely uncomfortable. Much of her irritable reticence is predictable of someone of modest education reacting to an unfamiliar type of interrogation on the witness stand. As natural as many educated people find direct questions, they are culturally rather unusual worldwide, an artifice of educational procedure. In oral cultures – i.e. most cultures— direct questions are processed as abrupt and confrontational. In that, Jeantel is operating at a clear disadvantage.

Yet one problem Jeantel is not having is with English itself. Many are seeing her as speaking under some kind of influence from the Haitian Creole that is her mother’s tongue, but that language has played the same role in her life that Yiddish did in George Gershwin’s – her English is perfect.

It’s just that it’s Black English, which has rules as complex as the mainstream English of William F. Buckley. They’re just different rules. If she says to the defense lawyer interrogating her “I had told you” instead of “I told you” it’s not because it’s Haitian—black people around the country use what is called the preterite “had,” which I always heard my Philadelphia cousins using when I was a kid.

If you think Black English is primitive, here’s a test – is it “I ain’t be listening that much” or “I don’t be listening that much”? It’s don’t, and Jeantel and millions of other black people nationwide could tell immediately that using “ain’t” in that sentence is “off.”

This was what defense attorney Don West failed to understand yesterday when he asked Jeantel:

“Are you claiming in any way that you don’t understand English?”

“I don’t understand you, I do understand English,” said Jeantel.

“When someone speaks to you in English, do you believe you have any difficulty understanding it because it wasn’t your first language?” asked West.

“I understand English really well,” said Jeantel.

She understands it as well as West or anyone. So now who’s the dumb one?

 

By: John McWhorter, Time, June  28, 2013

June 30, 2013 Posted by | Racism | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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