George Zimmerman. Reuters/Joe Burbank/Pool
Not long after George Zimmerman was charged with killing Trayvon Martin, his wife, Shellie, called him in jail with an update on the money flooding into his PayPal account.
“After this is all over,” Shellie later told him, “you’re going to be able to just have a great life.”
But in the nearly three months since his acquittal, the Zimmermans’ life hasn’t looked so great. It’s been unraveling in a style and at a pace that, in different circumstances, might have one day earned them a reality show. But Keeping Up With the Zimmermans is no joke. Shellie, who admitted to perjury for lying about not knowing how much money George had before the trial, has since filed for divorce, accusing him of having an affair with his ex-fiancée—the same one who filed a domestic violence report against him in 2005.
Within the past six weeks, Zimmerman has been caught speeding twice and has been taken into custody after punching his father-in-law in the nose and threatening to shoot him and Shellie. Zimmerman claims they were the aggressors.
“He’s in his car and he continually has his hand on his gun and he keeps saying step closer…and he’s gonna shoot us,” Shellie told the 911 operator. “I don’t know what he’s capable of.”
But we do. The violence, recklessness, inadequacy and preening self-regard exhibited over the last few months by Zimmerman are precisely the kind of attributes that would lead an armed man to chase an unarmed boy, confront him, shoot him dead and then claim self-defense. The police chief in the city where he now lives agreed he was “a ticking time bomb” and a “Sandy Hook waiting to happen.”
But the more we delve into George Zimmerman’s psychology, the further we stray from the politics that makes his slaying of Trayvon important and his acquittal outrageous. For the key problem with Zimmerman is not that he’s a bad person.
Racism is not about bad manners, but a system of privilege, discrimination and brutality embedded in American society and across its institutions that operates to exclude, demean and restrict. It does not need a pointy hood and burning cross to work, or mean-spirited people to ensure it runs smoothly. Likewise, its victims do not need to lead lives of unblemished innocence to be worthy of defense. Racism finds them guilty of being black—the rest is gravy.
There is a crucial distinction here between the legal and the political. Legally, speculation as to Zimmerman’s intentions that night are central to the case. But politically, to dwell on his state of mind is to enter a fruitless discussion about who he is. As Jay Smooth, in his great vlog How to Tell People They Sound Racist, points out, you can’t win that discussion because nothing can be proven and everything is subjective. Worse still, you are drawn away from talking about what kind of racist society America is, and into talking about what kind of person Zimmerman is. Juror B-37 insisted his “heart was in the right place,” while Shellie Zimmerman argued that racial profiling is “just not his way.” We can’t speak with any authority about his heart or his way, but it’s incumbent on us to continue having a meaningful discussion about what he did. For in his pursuit, apprehension and killing of Trayvon, what we saw was a freelance stop-and-frisk that turned into a stop-and-shoot. Zimmerman didn’t know Trayvon, but he assumed he was “a punk.”
Just a few months before Zimmerman’s trial, these very assumptions were tested in a Manhattan courtroom. According to the Center for Constitutional Rights, which brought the class action lawsuit over stop-and-frisk, nearly nine out of ten stopped-and-frisked New Yorkers were innocent of any violation, let alone a crime. There have been more than 5 million such stops in the past decade, mostly of black and Latino youth. I’m sure all of these policemen had loved ones who would swear to their good hearts and gentle manners. Most could produce a friend of color who could testify to their inherent decency. Some were black or Latino themselves. It doesn’t matter. The problem isn’t as much systematic as systemic.
Black men in America are more likely to be stopped, searched, arrested, convicted and executed and less likely to be educated or employed than any other group. Almost one in ten is behind bars. Compound this with lax gun laws, vigilante statutes like “stand your ground,” racial disparities in wealth and income, and segregation, and the system is set up for entirely this kind of incident and this kind of acquittal. Zimmerman’s assumptions about Trayvon are not simply the product of a sick mind but of a sick society. This excuses nothing that he did as an individual, but it finds a more substantial explanation for his actions in a defective pattern rather than a defective personality.
The Zimmerman verdict came down the opening weekend of Fruitvale Station, a film about Oscar Grant’s shooting at the hands of Oakland police. Six weeks earlier, Darius Simmons, 13, was shot dead in front of his mother by a 75-year-old neighbor who accused him of burgling his home. Two months after Zimmerman’s verdict, Jonathan Ferrell was shot dead by police after seeking help following a car crash. When he knocked on a stranger’s door asking for help, the homeowner didn’t call the ambulance, but hit the panic button.
There are only so many isolated incidents you can talk about before you have to start talking about a trend. We don’t need to pontificate about what kind of person Zimmerman is because we know what kind of country America is. Racial profiling—and its lethal consequences—may or may not be “his way” but it’s the American way.