Thursday, July 18, 2013

The Travesty and Tragedy of George Zimmerman

The tragedy of George Zimmerman is that he probably really did feel threatened by a seventeen year old black man wearing a hoodie, walking through his neighborhood.

At its most banal retelling, George Zimmerman was a passably inept member of his neighborhood watch, who thought it was suspicious that a dark-skinned teenager would be in the area, walking calmly through the rain. He stalked this man, was confronted by this man, and this resulted in George's gun going off at close range, killing Trayvon Martin.

Media and the public at large are furious that Zimmerman was acquitted of murder charges, but trying Zimmerman for murder now in a federal court with hate-crime statutes attached is not really going to make anyone but Trayvon's family feel better. It does not guarantee that actual racists will think twice before casually murdering anyone and then relying on "good ol' boy" regional politics to claim self-defense.

George Zimmerman is actually proof that our society is evolving to hold its members to an ethical standard higher than the bare minimum of the law.

By all accounts, George handled his situation … badly. Let's just say that. He unnecessarily engaged in pursuit of a "suspect," entered what he believed to be a dangerous situation against police advice, and then failed to identify himself while accusing the victim in a generic and contextually racist [in hindsight] manner. George Zimmerman was something of an idiot. I think that's a fair judgement to apply.

But George Zimmerman did not commit a hate-crime, he did not seek to murder a young black man, at least as far as anyone involved in the case can really discern. He was, for all the condescension the phrase lends, playing cops and robbers like a fucking child.

I mean to be profane, I am sorry, for the case calls for such. It is profane that a grown man who claims to suffer from Adult ADHD and require medication to remember things such as the street he lives on can acquire a firearm, or that he be allowed to join even an amateur, volunteer organization dedicated to safety. It is profane that he has come to perceive through media and social stigma a black man in a hooded sweatshirt as "suspicious" for his neighborhood.

I will now stoop to prove a point:

George Zimmerman is half Peruvian, that half being one-quarter African-Peruvian. His father is German Catholic. He is a registered Democrat. A twenty-eight year old Afro-Hispanic Democrat thought that a sweatshirt makes a black man suspicious enough to warrant investigation for recent burglaries. This is a simplification, but the disgusting fact is not by much.

George Zimmerman might have watched a lot of Law & Order, or The Wire, or Saved By the Bell for all we know. For whatever reason, this man thought another man was behaving suspiciously at the very best because he was out looking to find people behaving suspiciously, at the worst because Trayvon's being black was suspicious enough.

The sad truth is George probably really did feel threatened by a seventeen year old black man wearing a hoodie, walking through his neighborhood. He put himself in a stupid situation, handled it poorly, reducing the number of possible outcomes to the one wear he ended up on trial for murder, because what seems to have happened was staggeringly less likely than the idea that he was simply a violent racist.

George Zimmerman did behave like a racist when he profiled Trayvon Martin as "up to no good." He internalized every image of gangbangers or hoodlums or early '90s gangster rappers and he broadened that imagery to include a young black man when he assigned himself the role of a police officer.

That we as a public want George tried in a federal court after a jury found his actions to fall short of either second-degree murder (intentional) or manslaughter (even involuntary), shows that we are "uncomfortable" with this outcome, to say the least. Many wish him tried because they feel his racial profile led to the encounter which escalated into (in)voluntary manslaughter. Others will demand a retrial on grounds that the prosecution handled its case badly, or that local law enforcement was less than equal in the pursuit of justice.

Yet I'm pretty sure a great deal of this unrest lies in the nagging feeling that we have perpetuated even now a culture of casual racism and its acceptance that could allow an event such as the ending of Trayvon Martin's life.

The idea that "urban" means "Angry Black Man in Flashy Clothes."

The idea that "gangbanger" has any real meaning outside the most destitute, war-torn ghettos of American metropolises.

The idea that–let's just say it–black people are criminals. Violent criminals. That white men are gentlemen thieves stacking banking regulations against themselves, but anyone of relatively-recent African descent is automatically predisposed to acts of base ignorance, cruelty, inconsideration, and physical damage.

Trayvon Martin's death was not a murder, though that would leave us all more settled, having a wrong, racist, vile murdered to condemn as out-of-step with the rest of us. If his death was not a crime, by the letter of the law, then that means we have, as a progressive and just society, have allowed social perceptions to skew so terribly and so covertly that a hate crime can be committed in our eyes by accident.

The tragedy of Trayvon Martin was his horrible death. The tragedy of George Zimmerman is that he really was doing what he thought was right, and it was all legal.

Dave Zucker

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