There is something about America and trials and court decisions. The 1733 trial of Peter Zenger in New York City laid the foundation for the First Amendment. The Dred Scott decision in 1857 shamefully affirmed the legitimacy of slavery in this country. The Brown v. Board of Education case in 1954 began to finally dismantle the infrastructure of institutionalized racism in this country.
There have been many “trials of the century” – Sacco-Vanzetti, the Scopes “monkey” trial, the trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg – but there was something about the murder trial of O.J. Simpson which mixed a rich combination of circus plus drama plus the most prodigious exploitation of racial taboos since the heyday of the Ku Klux Klan. That O.J. Simpson was acquitted of killing a blonde white woman has struck many white Americans as the greatest miscarriage of justice in the history of the planet.
This bit of retrospective is important in looking at the Zimmerman trial because even though a black man is not on trial, the defendant’s perception of black men is a central factor in this case. Unlike the O.J. Simpson case the Zimmerman case is not a whodunit. It is clear and freely admitted that George Zimmerman intentionally fired the fatal shot that killed Trayvon Martin.
The question in the Zimmerman case is whether the defendant had the legal right to kill Trayvon Martin. The defense has argued that his fear and mistrust of a “suspicious” black person caused him to confront the murder victim. The defense has further argued that once he engaged in a confrontation with Trayvon Martin he had a right to kill him since he was in fear of his life.
It is important to note that in the South it was legally impossible for a white man to be convicted of killing a black man until 1865. After that it was virtually impossible for a white man to be convicted of killing a black man and the number of exceptions to this brutal rule would not take up much space in this column.
The Zimmerman case must be seen within this historical context – in the South white men (including Latino white men) have had an historical right to kill black men even if they are the aggressors, the instigators or even the terrorists (see the Ku Klux Klan). The fear of inherent blood lust that resides in every black man has been seen as sufficient justification for killing black men who talked back to a white man, looked askance at a white man or struck a white man.
Seen within this context, it is understandable how the local police did not even arrest George Zimmerman at the time of the murder. It is understandable how the laws and public perception work in another of the benighted former Confederate States so that the killing of a young black man is considered justifiable simply because the shooter said so.
The toxicity of this situation is compounded by the almost ubiquitous presence of guns in America and in Florida in particular. Combined with the “Stand Your Ground” law which no longer requires individuals to try to avoid confrontation, it is perfectly understandable how Trayvon Martin was killed and why George Zimmerman shot him. And it is perfectly clear that if there was no gun Trayvon Martin would still be alive as it is doubtful that George Zimmerman would have ever approached him in the first place.
The only remaining question is whether the jury – a six member panel comprised of six women, five of whom are white – will somehow find George Zimmerman to have some responsibility for the death of Trayvon Martin. It is hard to believe that the devaluation of the lives of black men, a tradition that dates back to slavery, still slithers through the subconscious minds of too many white Americans.
For those who would argue against this assessment consider the Martin-Zimmerman fact pattern and reverse the racial identity of the actors. Does anyone doubt that the “black” George Zimmerman would have been arrested for killing the “white” Trayvon Martin?
The answer may be the harshest lesson that we learn from the George Zimmerman trial.
9 thoughts on “Lessons from the Zimmerman Trial”
Thanks for this important historical context and bringing it into plain view today. I value your insight for those like me that didn’t at first see this reality so clearly.
Exactly! Flip the script and see how the story, the media, and the actions of the cops all change.
Zimmerman left home that evening looking to murder someone.
Wallace, you definitely make an important point. Nonetheless, I think you do not come to grips with the fact that while Zimmerman followed Martin (because he had a gun) even though he had been instructed not to do so, according to Zimmerman, Martin punched him in the face. Whether Martin punched him once or 3 or 4 times and banged his head on the sidewalk once or many times, Martin clearly punched Zimmerman first. I don’t understand why this young black man thought that was the best or only way to address the fact that this “creepy cracker” was following him. Zimmerman didn’t pull the gun until after he was punched. If Martin had known Zimmerman had a gun, I assume he would not have punched him in the first place. Martin punched Zimmerman because he thought correctly that Zimmerman was a scared little chubby guy who could not fight. I assume Zimmerman panicked and shot Martin, since once he had drawn the gun Martin surely would have backed down. Once Zimmerman had drawn the gun, I don’t see how he can plausibly claim that he still feared for his life or that it was necessary to kill the boy to eliminate the threat. I think he ought to be convicted of 2d degree murder, although I have no confidence that he will be.
“…clearly punched Zimmerman first….” How can George say “clearly” — yes, from Zimmerman’s point of view, perhaps, but what did Zimmerman physically do in addition to confronting Trayvon verbally? NO ONE knows, but for George to scold the murdered teen for not employing effective conflict resolution techniques is ludicrous. Additionally, BIG assumption on George’s part — especially not knowing Trayvon’s mindset at that moment — that Zimmerman (who was much leaner than initial depictions of him and not such a “chubby guy”) was seen as an easily vanquished foe by Trayvon.
Zimmerman wanted to kill that night and Trayvon was in the wrong place.
History has taught us not to be very optimistic in these cases…but….
You are right, I was not there, so I do not know the precise chain of events. Zimmerman had a broken nose, and I do assume he did not do it himself. I also assume that if Zimmerman had drawn the gun, Martin would not have punched him. I did not intend to scold anyone, especially the dead boy. My point was that punching Zimmerman was not the best way to deal with anything Zimmerman might have said or done. If he had not punched Zimmerman, I’m not sure he would be dead today, however much Zimmerman was looking for someone to kil.
Wouldn’t it be great is some mysterious neighbor emerges who saw the confrontation and can speak for Trayvon.
Agreed. It would be even better if Travon were alive to speak for himself.
…from your lips….
The entire case has saddened me from the beginning. I too have a young son and how do you explain this insanity to a 6th grader? A 10th grader? I will pray for the Martin family. I know our teens may not know the historical context that we now live in…perhaps we should take the brief history lesson presented in this post and make it standard reading for our young men and women. So easily it is to forget this sad reality when you are bombarded by BET/Love and Hip Hop and other “entertainment” pursuits. Maybe we go back to the pre-Civil Rights act years and sternly encourage our youth to make wide-arcs around these “creepy crackers.” I don’t know. I will simply go pray.