Trayvon Martin – Playing the Race Card
The reaction to George Zimmerman’s sentencing (or lack thereof) in the Trayvon Martin case is not without precedent.
Discussion of Stephen Lawrence’s murder is never very far from earshot, for example. And it was the, widely considered unlawful, shooting of Mark Duggan in Tottenham Hale, which sparked the biggest display of rioting that Britain has seen since the ‘80s.
Anger over Zimmerman’s acquittal has led to demonstrations in over 100 US cities, with public figures such as Beyoncé and Jay-Z taking part and prompting statements from Barak Obama and other leading politicians.
It is fair to say that Martin’s shooting has prompted a much needed, country-wide discussion about racial politics, profiling and the fact that the battle for equality is far from won.
What is not so clear, though, is whether it is fair that Zimmerman become the “hate-figure” emblem of this next step within the civil rights movement.
The Case Itself
Trying to use Google to educate yourself about the Trayvon Martin case will have you wading through a quagmire of information, gossip, misrepresentations and a s___heap of totally irrelevant information.
Unlike many cases, there is, in fact, a great deal of readily available factual information. It just so happens that both Martin and Zimmerman were on the phone, in the lead up to the incident, describing the course of events for the person on the end of the receiver.
Zimmerman’s phone call was to the police, which means that there is not only a transcript, but a recording which has been made available to the public of the entire conversation.
What We Know
On February 26 2012 George Zimmerman, driving back to his home in the gated community of The Retreat at Twin Lakes, Sanford, Florida, spotted a person who he deemed to be suspicious.
He made a phone call to the police to report this sighting, explaining that he had recently noticed a couple of young people (“punks”), potential burglars, peering into an empty house in the neighbourhood and that he was worried that this might be a similar sighting.
The person he had spotted was Trayvon Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old African American boy who was staying with his father’s fiancé, a resident of The Retreat.
We know that Zimmerman left his car to see which direction Martin was heading in, he told the police as much, and then we know that the police officer on the phone informed him that they did not need him to pursue the suspicious party.
This is where the phone call recordings end. After this point, what we know for sure is that there was a scuffle – Zimmerman had a bloody nose and injuries to the back of his head and Martin was found with a graze on one of his knuckles – and then we know that Zimmerman released one bullet at close range which hit Martin, fatally, in the chest.
Zimmerman was licensed to carry a gun and had, in fact, been instructed to do so by a law official after he complained about a loose pitbull in the area.
The problems surrounding the case are twofold.
Firstly, it is important to understand which of the two parties involved was the fight’s instigator, otherwise Zimmerman’s self-defence plea falls down. We do know that Zimmerman had started to follow Martin, which looks like an aggressive move, but we aren’t clear as to whether he then heeded the police officer’s advice to stand down.
He claims that he did and that Martin then appeared, as if out of nowhere, as Zimmerman was on his way back to his car and that Martin then initiated a fight which required the use of physical force in return. There seems to be no way of knowing for sure if this is true – except that none of the evidence contradicts this, including a stress-test (lie-detector test, in other words) that Zimmerman was asked to complete when he was questioned.
The second problem is obviously the issue of race. Was Zimmerman’s conviction about Martin’s suspicious behaviour founded upon the fact that he was black? The Guardian would have us believe so. They are quoted saying that Zimmerman’s call to the police was based on “the assumption that the very presence of a black teenager in a gated community was sufficient cause for alarm.”
If Zimmerman isolated Martin, purely on the basis of his skin colour, then this is obviously an issue of racial profiling. If he then followed him, continued to do so against police orders, and started the fight, then he is guilty of the hate crime that many have accused him of.
Race in this Case
Unfortunately for those playing the race card, the evidence just is not as cut and dry as all that. Race can certainly be underlined as a factor, but it is not easy to say how much it motivated Zimmerman’s actions.
Firstly, the suggestion that seeing a black teenager in The Retreat was alarming doesn’t quite hold up. Unlike many of America’s gated communities, this one was relatively ethnically diverse – around 49 % white, 23% Hispanic (as Zimmerman is himself), 20% black and 5% Asian. So, thanks Guardian, but your statement is more than a little subjective (read sensationalist).
In fact, just the year before, Zimmerman protested against the beating of a black homeless man by the son of a white police officer.
What is more, Zimmerman makes no reference to Martin’s race in the phone call to the police. He describes him as a “real suspicious guy…[who] looks like he is up to no good or he is on drugs or something.”
After explaining that “we’ve had some break-ins in my neighbourhood”, he goes on to exclaim: “These assholes, they always get away.”
Note he accuses Martin of being suspicious, a potential drug taker and/or burglar and an “asshole”, but doesn’t stop to meditate on or describe his skin colour.
This does not, of course, mean that Martin’s race fails to come into the picture. It is more than likely that Zimmerman will have consciously or subconsciously viewed Martin as more suspicious owing to his ethnicity. America as a whole still has a huge problem with racial profiling. As Obama himself said: “There are very few African American men who haven’t had the experience of being followed in a department store.”
Stop and search tactics based on race abound and it is highly probable that some of this, still rampant, racial discrimination will have filtered into Zimmerman’s mind through social conditioning.
The Bigger Picture
There are many failings that have come to light throughout the course of the Trayvon Martin case. Some of them have obviously been Zimmerman’s. As most will agree, he should never have left his car to pursue what was, in his mind, a potential criminal, on foot and on his own.
Most of the flaws and inefficiencies, however, which have been uncovered thanks to this case, have been on the part of the police and the government.
Eric Holder, the US attorney general, has rightfully launched an attack on Florida’s “stand-your-ground” self-defence laws, which many perceive as encouraging violent altercations, rather than seeing the threatened retreat to a safe distance.
It has exposed an investigation into the Sanford Police Department, who have been accused of protecting relatives of police officers who have been in altercations with African Americans.
We are obviously looking with renewed vigour at the laws governing gun control – it is important to understand, despite how horrific it is to imagine killing someone stemming from an assumption that they look suspicious, that Zimmerman was within his rights, thanks to US laws, to carry and use that gun. That he had a gun at his disposal was not his fault, it is the fault of the government that deemed it acceptable to encourage your average Joe to possess firearms.
On an even more macro-level, racial discrimination in the US is still rife. It is absolutely worthwhile to discuss these problems on the back of this case. As Obama said: “there is a history of racial disparities in the application of our criminal laws. A lot of African-American boys are painted with a broad brush.”
For example, last year in New York City, 80% of the stops made by the NYPD were blacks and Latinos. 85% of those were frisked, compared to a mere 8% of the white people stopped.
What is more, African-Americans are 21% more likely than whites to receive mandatory minimum sentences and 20% more likely to be sentenced to prison than white drug defendants.
This is clearly unjust and it is terribly sad that this last tragedy seems to have sent the message to black parents that their children are not safe to walk the streets in America without the potential to be stopped or to occasion violence based on their skin colour.
That Zimmerman deserves to be the focus for these parents’ anguish is less obvious. Whether his actions were racially motivated, or whether they stemmed from a genuine belief that he had encountered a potential burglar, we can’t say. But we cannot ignore the fact that a jury found it more likely to be the latter.
It may well just have been a horrible sequence of, unpremeditated, avoidable events. As Sanford Police Chief Lee put it: “I’m sure if George Zimmerman had the opportunity to relive Sunday, Feb 26, he’d probably do things differently. I’m sure Trayvon would too.”