George Zimmerman waits for the resumption of his second degree murder trial in Sanford, Florida, July 1, 2013. (Reuters/Joe Burbank)
Yesterday, the jury in the George Zimmerman murder trial heard, at length, Zimmerman describe in his own words what happened the night he shot and killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. He didn’t take the stand, but the prosecution played for the court three separate audio and video recordings of Zimmerman’s interviews with the police and read aloud his written statement from the night of February 26, 2012. His description of the events were generally consistent with the story he has repeatedly told. But to my mind, the case really comes down to what the jury will believe happened in one specific moment.
Zimmerman says that after the 911 dispatcher told him he did not need to follow Trayvon, he continued walking to find an address so that he could be more specific regarding his whereabouts. Then he got off the phone. It’s during this time that Zimmerman claims that Trayvon came out of either the bushes, or the darkness, and said something to the effect of, “What’s your problem, homie?” to which Zimmerman responded, “I don’t have a problem.” Says Zimmerman, Trayvon replied, “You’ve got a problem now” and proceeded to punch Zimmerman in the face. Zimmerman’s version of the story is contradicted by the state’s key witness, 19-year-old Rachel Jeantel, who took the stand last week. Jeantel, who was one the phone with Trayvon that night for the duration of this event, says Trayvon was attempting to elude Zimmerman, whom he had described as a “creepy ass cracker.” Trayvon, according to Jeantel, believed he had lost Zimmerman, only to then notice that he hadn’t, at which point he told Jeantel, “The nigga is following me.” Jeantel says she then heard Trayvon say, “Why you following me for?” to which Zimmerman replied “What are you doing out here?” She then heard what she described as a bump and wet grass before the call was lost.
Jeantel’s testimony is key because it directly refutes Zimmerman’s version of the event and calls into question who was the aggressor in the resulting tussle. It’s clear that Zimmerman sustained some injuries, while not necessarily consistent with his assertion that Trayvon punched him twenty-five to thirty times and slammed his head on the concrete. It’s likely that a fight took place. But who started it?
On her show Sunday morning, Melissa Harris-Perry asked a question that gets at the heart of why this case is of national importance. Talking with Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman, Harris-Perry said: “It does seem like part of what hinges here is whether or not Trayvon Martin hit George Zimmerman and whether or not he did so first…but why is it that if this person hit someone who was prepared to use lethal force against him…why wouldn’t he have a right to stand his ground? Is that not racialized?” Do black boys get to defend themselves?
Because it’s clear that, whoever instigated the altercation, Zimmerman followed Trayvon that night. He was instructed not to, but he did anyway. That Zimmerman fumbled for an answer when the lead investigator asked whether he thought Trayvon was afraid of him is emblematic of the way society has trained us to think about black manhood. Of course he didn’t think Trayvon could be scared. Young black men never are. They are the danger. Which is also why, for some, Zimmerman’s story, even with the cartoonish language he ascribes to Trayvon, doesn’t sound far-fetched. A black man jumping from behind the bushes to sucker-punch someone they don’t know and attempt to kill them only a short distance from their home. It makes perfect sense if you believe that black men are preternaturally violent.
The jury will have to decide who they believe in this instance, Jeantel or Zimmerman, and it is this that has me concerned. Brittney Cooper, writing for Salon, captured it succinctly: “…black womanhood, black manhood and urban adolescence are always on trial in the American imaginary.”
Zimmerman’s innocence rests on the notion of Trayvon’s criminality. And in this country, it’s not that difficult to convince six people of the criminality of a 17-year-old black boy.
Want more from the Zimmerman trial? Read Mychal Denzel Smith’s defense of Rachel Jeantel.