In 2008, with the election of our nation’s first black president, it appeared that our nation might truly be on the road to seeing beyond the color of one’s skin. Yet in the years since Obama’s ascent to the highest office in the land, it seems a mechanism was released that has allowed more hate and bigotry to seep into our collective fabric as a nation, to the point it almost seems as if the bigots (overt and covert) have said, “We let you have a black president; now we will make you pay for it so dearly you’ll never want one again.” It was bad enough already with the Voting Rights Act getting gutted by the Supreme Court and Texas first in line to implement regressive measures that will mostly impact non-white voters, but then, this past weekend brought a painful reminder that despite what we hoped, we haven’t moved nearly as far as many of us would like to believe when it comes to race.
That reminder came in the form of George Zimmerman, the former neighborhood watch volunteer, who was found not guilty in the death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. This case was fraught with issues from the beginning, including the fact that it took intense pressure from social media and other outlets to even get the police department to charge Zimmerman. Initially the case received scant attention, but thanks to the powers of social media, that quickly changed. In the end, though, the prosecution did not prove its case and the defense did its job, which was to prove reasonable doubt.
In the end, though, as much as I despise his actions, I don’t believe Zimmerman is evil.
He really was a scared man who defended his life, never thinking that perhaps Martin was a scared teenager. The problem is that he was scared because he created a situation of conflict that put him at risk, all because he profiled a teen and assumed him to be criminal. Martin was probably scared, too, because an unknown white man was stalking him.
And so Zimmerman was a grown man in the safety of his vehicle, armed with a gun, who after calling the police ignored instructions to stay in his vehicle until officers arrived, and made a choice that proved fatal for Martin. He made that choice because he turned Martin into a villain in heartbeat, as we were reminded on the first day of the trial when prosecutors echoed Zimmerman’s words that night to the police dispatcher: “Fucking punks. Those assholes, they always get away.” And so a teenager armed only with an iced tea and a bag of Skittles is dead.
No, Zimmerman wasn’t evil that night. But he was a careless, lethal bigot.
The implications of this case are chilling for the African-American community. This certainly isn’t the first case of an unarmed black boy or man being killed for the act of “looking suspicious.” Just last year in New York City, 16-year-old Kimani Gray was shot a total of seven times as he left a friend’s birthday party in Brooklyn. Nineteen-year-old Kendrec McDade, a college student, was shot and killed last year by California police officers responding to a call of an armed robbery; however, McDade wasn’t armed with anything more than his cell phone. Even 14 years after the fact, the horrific case of Amadou Diallo is a sharp and stinging memory — a West Indian immigrant in New York City shot more than 40 times by police while reaching for his wallet. So many black men in the past decade-and-a-half alone have been killed not because they were armed or presented a threatening demeanor but because they were automatically perceived as a threat. All because of the stereotypes tied into their mix of gender and skin color.