The Monsterization of Trayvon Martin
Rachel Jeantel first met Trayvon Martin in the second grade. They had reconnected only a few weeks before his death, when he had reached out because he remembered her birthday. She revealed a quick, shy smile when she recalled that: a fleeting moment of girlishness and vulnerability. From Rod Vereen, the attorney representing her, we also know that Jeantel particularly valued Martin’s friendship because she considered him one of the very few people who never bullied or teased her about her weight or dark skin. But that distinctly gentle side of Martin was something the prosecution never brought out in court.
Jeantel was the witness who told of Martin complaining that he was being followed by a “creepy-ass cracker.” The colloquial lingo she and Trayvon spoke was jarring in the formal setting of the courtroom, and she seemed to know it. It tongue-tied her; her voice fell to an inaudible low; and she grew more and more uncomfortable as the prosecutor had to translate her hesitant whispers, as the judge exhorted her to speak up, and as the defense attorneys leapt up and objected time and again in undisguised exasperation, insisting that they couldn’t see, couldn’t hear, couldn’t understand.
As “fucking punk” met “creepy-ass cracker” and swirled through the echo chamber of collective imagination, Don West rose to cross-examine Jeantel. With chilling condescension, he asked her if the encounter with Zimmerman was not “racial” only because “Trayvon Martin put race in it.” By this time, and after several hours on the stand, Jeantel took on an increasingly traumatized, deeply self-protective demeanor—that of a person who’d spent her life being yelled at or ignored. She became yet more remote and addled, resentful and sad all at the same time. She rolled her eyes in disdain even as she wept; and she wept angrily, impatiently confessing that she’d lied to Martin’s parents when she told them she hadn’t come to their son’s wake because she’d been in the hospital. “I didn’t want to see the body,” she said. She felt conflicted and guilty, she explained, because it was unbearably distressing “to be the last person he talked to.”
By any legal measure, Jeantel was a disastrously poor witness. If Trayvon Martin had never teased her, the same cannot be said for media outlets, both large and small. Mocking her cruelly became an instant online blood sport.
Yet for all her dismal performance, her testimony was quite moving. When Trayvon Martin’s father bowed his head and sobbed as she spoke, I found myself crying too. I cried for Trayvon Martin and for all those whose sons might also look like moving targets. I cried, too, for those who do not or cannot see their sons in him, and for those who are not able to see a skittish, fearful, so-unhappy daughter in Rachel Jeantel. I cried for those whose human curiosity extended only to the caliber of bullet used to bring Martin down, as though he were big game, quarry, prey. I cried for Martin’s parents as they sat in that courtroom listening to this random friend of their son’s—a sullen, miserably self-conscious young woman, so utterly unready for prime time—the tiny banality of their conversation subject to disproportionate scrutiny. It was such an offhand phone call, an idle chat with a friend Martin had not seen in years—a little break from the NBA All-Star Game he was watching—when unspeakable calamity intervened; and that casually imperfect contact was transformed into his last and most important interlocutor.
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There are many tellings of Aesop’s fable about the hungry wolf who encounters a new spring lamb drinking from a river. “How dare you muddy my water?” he demands of the lamb. ”I have not muddied it,” replies the lamb, “for I am downstream of you.” “Well then,” said the wolf, edging nearer, “you spread evil rumors about me last year.” “It was not I,” replied the lamb, “for I was not yet born.” “Well, if it wasn’t you, it must have been your father,” said the wolf, and with that, he pounced upon the lamb and devoured him.
I thought of that story when listening to the trial, to the repeated insistence that Trayvon Martin must have been guilty of something, to Don West speaking sneeringly to Rachel Jeantel.
It was he who fouled the water with racism, did he not? And if it wasn’t he, it must have been one like him, isn’t that correct?
Rachel Jeantel had no answer to that or any other question. There remains that cold, sad silence at the center of it all.
Blogger Mychal Denzel Smith writes that Trayvon Martin’s name, now a lament, should become a rallying cry.