The Monsterization of Trayvon Martin
Officers stand guard behind a banner and on the steps of the Los Angeles federal courthouse during a rally to protest against the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial. Reuters/David McNew.
There was a small, crystalline window of time, as I sat waiting for the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial, when it felt as though we were perched between two worlds of possibility. As I watched the media blare, there was a breathless, swooping, nearly operatic transport to the moment; pundits recapitulated all the reasons to be afraid, very afraid. Anticipating acquittal, they eagerly imagined crescendos of erupting terror, riot and civil collapse. Florida was under lockdown. Magical legions of hydra-headed Trayvon Martin–shaped “thug wannabes” were assembling at the edges of the badlands.
In this still-undecided, Schrödinger’s cat box of suspense, a lonely, against-the-odds voice inside me wondered what might happen if the jury were to find George Zimmerman guilty. Would the pundits and politicians fear armed uprisings in select white neighborhoods? Would rabid online purveyors of hatred toward Martin and Eric Holder and President Obama be construed as dangerous to public order? There were, after all, those fanatics who wanted to “impeach” or “impale” Judge Debra Nelson, a Republican appointee. An Ohio PAC called the Buckeye Firearms Foundation was raising money to supply Zimmerman “with the funds he needs to replace his firearm, holster, and other gear.” Bestselling novelist Brad Thor would offer to buy Zimmerman “all the ammo he wanted.”
But Zimmerman was found not guilty, and there were no riots, save the riot of hyperbole portraying peaceful protests as violent. Trayvon Martin remains in his grave, although many have tried to resurrect him as the active principal in his own death. And while the legal process rendered formal justice, there remain important, unresolved issues embedded in the widespread sense of delegitimacy, dissatisfaction and unfairness that lingers in the verdict’s wake.
Much of it comes down to an all-too-familiar double standard. Sociologist Troy Duster recently summarized the difficulty confronted by prosecutor Bernie de la Rionda when he asked the jury to reverse the circumstances and imagine that an armed 28-year-old black man followed an unarmed 17-year-old white teenager, shot him dead and then pleaded self-defense: “The problem with this invitation to speculate,” he said, “is that it asks that we break frame with ‘common sense.’” For all the legal language of the courtroom, racialized narratives will emerge and form along the very same lines that Gordon Allport and Leo Postman identified in their research more than sixty years ago: in the “retelling,” a razor will leap “from the white man’s hand to… a colored man’s hand.”
And so, by the end of the trial, the 200-pound Zimmerman, despite martial arts training and a history of assaulting others, was transformed into a “soft,” retiring marshmallow of a weakling. The 158-pound Martin had been reimagined as an immense, athletically endowed, drug-addled “thug.”
Consider, by way of inverted contrast, the 2007 conviction of John White, a black man who shot an unarmed white teenager in New York in 2006. According to The New York Times, the victim, Daniel Cicciaro, “showed up at Mr. White’s house just after 11:00 p.m. to challenge his son Aaron, then 19, to a fight.” Waking up to “threats, profanities and racial epithets,” Mr. White “grabbed a loaded Beretta he kept in the garage of his house in Miller Place, a predominantly white hamlet on Long Island.” At the trial, which the Times described as “racially charged,” the prosecution successfully argued that the case “did not hinge on race but the rash actions of a quick-tempered man who kept an arsenal in his house in preparation for such a situation.” White, unlike Zimmerman, was convicted of manslaughter.
The same double standard permeates Florida’s so-called “stand your ground” law, controversial long before the Zimmerman trial for its leniency in the face of acts that might otherwise be charged as outright murder. Seventy percent of those asserting a “stand your ground” defense in a homicide are never charged at all. But a seven-year case review of “stand your ground” claims by the Tampa Bay Times showed that prosecution depends less on the merits of the case than the perpetrator’s color, the color of the victim and where the shooting happened. If the victim is black, the killer is much more likely to go free. If the shooter is black, the chances of conviction are much higher.
Women fare badly as well: two months after Trayvon Martin was killed, a 31-year-old black woman named Marissa Alexander was sentenced in Florida to twenty years in prison for firing a “warning shot” into a wall during a fight with her estranged husband, a man who had a history of physical abuse. Charged with aggravated assault in which a weapon was discharged—by the very same prosecutor’s office that charged Zimmerman—her “stand your ground” defense was dismissed by a judge, and a jury convicted her after just fifteen minutes of deliberation.
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