Blackness on Trial
I have tried to keep myself as detached as possible from the Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman case during the media circus of the trial. It affects me deeply, and it’s been tough to synthesize the basic facts of the case on an emotional level in order to really accept the legal proceedings. The basic facts of what happened that night are sad enough to me. That a man could disregard police warnings and go out lethally armed on a night and follow and kill a frightened boy and have a solid chance of walking without any penalty deeply depresses me. What we do know beyond circumstantial evidence is that had Zimmerman not been so overzealous in his misplaced fear and had just done what he was supposed to do, Trayvon Martin would still be alive. However, the burden is on the state to prove that Zimmerman’s version of events that allow for his self-defense argument are false. It’s hard to do that when one of the two witnesses with reliable firsthand knowledge of the entire event is dead. The “moral” facts of the case may not matter, and logically I have to accept this. Doesn’t make it any easier to digest.
The problem is that as the trial has progressed, it has become so much more than just a case of Zimmerman’s account being found believable or lacking. Along the way, the character and intelligence of a key witness has come under racially motivated attack. It seems that Trayvon’s image has been on trial as much as Zimmerman has. Side debates about the offensiveness of racial epithets have sprung up. Games and jokes about “Angry Trayvon” and “dead niggers” came into existence and have blossomed into full-bodied racist fantasies about Zimmerman as a righteous white man rightfully killing a “criminal”. Endless hype-machines like CNN have purposefully fomented a racially tense atmosphere that has turned the trial from a legal and courtroom drama to more of a public race war, where a lot of the nasty things we thought were buried somewhere when we became “post-racial” have suddenly resurfaced. Somewhere along the way, we forgot the basic facts of the case or became insensitive to him.
The fact is that a terrified, innocent boy was killed while getting snacks, just for being considered “suspicious”. No matter how you spin it, no matter who you vilify; no matter if you have concluded that Trayvon was the first to succumb to his fear and fight; what happened was an overwhelming tragedy.
Let’s get this out of the way, because there is no sugarcoating it. The only folks I’ve encountered who are openly and brazenly rooting for Zimmerman are members of the Conservative, racist side of the country that pushes for laws like stand your ground and promotes the propagation of guns to the hands of “good” people to use against “criminals”. While the laws certainly aren’t racist or xenophobic by code, they are so by nature and practice. What we’ve seen in the trial is a microcosm of that policy debate today. In order to stack the deck against minorities and carefully associate “criminality” with non-Whiteness and “otherness”, the very concept of Blackness has been deconstructed over the past few days. Just search Twitter. Trayvon is being described as a thug, a criminal, and 1000 different combinations of synonyms, plus “nigger” — all because he smoked, was disciplined at school, and took a picture with a gun. Because of his Blackness, he isn’t given the benefit of a doubt that white kids would be. They’d be described as “mischievous” or “boys being boys.”
The defense has relied on this steady othering of Trayvon by way of his Blackness to implant the idea that he somehow deserved death that night, or that his life was worth less than that of George Zimmerman. Meanwhile, Zimmerman has been transformed from an over-eager guy with an obviously irrational and deep fear of Black men, whose stupidity caused a death, to a saintly guy who was right in all of his actions. It’s how the fact that Trayvon called Zimmerman a “cracka” was construed to have obvious racist malevolent intent, but Zimmerman calling him a “fucking punk” and an “asshole” was considered benign. This won’t technically be the issue jurors have to decide on, but it’s certainly in their mind. And it’s certainly in ours, too.
Such marginalization and maligning is what allows things like the absolutely despicable “Angry Trayvon” game to happen. The fact that it was created doesn’t say much. There are always stupid people who do stupid, insensitive things. But in this case, many folks downloaded and defended the game. They considered it ok. A lot of folks are saying wild, outlandish things about Trayvon that they actually believe. These are all symptoms of an illness, one where people reflexively create monsters out of people so they can shed their empathy for them. It’s the same illness that allowed people to make carnivals out of lynchings. When you stop seeing people as people, it’s easy to hate them. It’s easy to make George Zimmerman into some type of dragon-slayer who killed righteously. And the artificial gravity that CNN and other news outlets create that almost forces us to settle on one side or the other only makes things worse. The more connected we are to each other and to the case, the more easily that illness will spread like it’s a contagion. Perversely, CNN might be counting on that very fact.
As the trial comes closer and closer to a conclusion, it does make me think about what will happen afterwards. Whether Zimmerman is found guilty or not, can we willfully delude ourselves into believing the post-racial fantasy again? After we have seen that the justice system has always and still does become distorted when it has the task of protecting minorities, will we question whether it is even equipped or intended to do so? Now that we’ve seen a dead boy’s race put on trial as much as the intent of his killer, where do we go? The prognostications say folks might riot. Florida has already put up signs dissuading folks from doing so. But part of me thinks the talks of riots and the plans against them are all part of the illness. Similarly to when much of slave law as we know it (and its progeny, Jim Crow) was created to quell any rebelliousness via brutality, perhaps those infected prefer to think in the “us versus them” mentality of fears of rioting and strategies to stop them instead of making truly constructive measures to confront the real problems. Perhaps only time will tell.