by: Valerie Elverton-Dixon on July 30th, 2013 | 11 Comments »
My tears waited.
In March 2012 when the story of Trayvon Martin’s murder became national news, I waited to comment. Like those who took to the streets in hoodies, I could not understand how George Zimmerman could shoot and kill an unarmed teenager who was simply walking home from the store, be taken into custody by the police, and then go home to sleep in his own bed the same night without being charged with a crime. Zimmerman told the police that he acted in self defense, and that was enough. Trayvon Martin’s family had to hire a lawyer and the lawyers had to contact national civil rights leaders before a prosecutor brought charges. I did not comment.
Trayvon Martin’s parents said they had faith in the criminal justice system. They wanted a trial. When I learned of the verdict on Sunday morning, July 14, my delayed praying tears ended their wait. I wept. I grieved for Trayvon Martin and for all the teenagers whose lives are lost to gun violence, and I grieved for our criminal justice system and for our nation.
Before the trial
Nothing happens outside of a context, and the context for this tragedy is race in America. Race is not nature. It is a construction. It is a way to order the world in ways that allow a particular system of power relations to stay in place. It came into being and remains so to allow people to continue to make money from inequality. Human beings have always defined ourselves in relationship to group identities. Race understood as a biological classification based on physical characteristics was a way to understand the differences between Europeans and the various other peoples they met in the Americas, Africa, and Asia. When slavery became racialized – the black African could not run away and easily hide among the indigenous people or among the white population – a human hierarchy took hold where the enslaved were thought to be not only different but inferior, even vicious by definition.
This definition assigned Africans to a subhuman category. Thus Africans were seen as essentially and inherently ugly and vicious. David Theo Goldberg writing in Racist Culture: Philosophy and the Politics of Meaning says: “Inherent nature admits to no exceptions” (31). It became easy to rationalize the enslavement of an entire category of human being if these humans were – without exception – not equally human.
The rationalization of a racialized system of slavery that fueled the economies of Europe and of a nascent United State, north and south, coincides with a discourse on human equality and human rights. However, if Africans and Others are inferior human beings then the self-evident truth of human equality does not apply. Thus, they have no rights.
Classical liberalism was the ideological engine driving the concept of unalienable rights, of individual rights that limited the power of the monarchs and of the state over the individual. The social contract of the United States – the Declaration and the Constitution – was written with the idea that the state existed to secure and to preserve rights.
Racial segregation allows for little opportunity for people of various races to get to know one another as individuals. Therefore, it is easy for racial stereotypes to form and to take hold on the imaginations of people of both races. In 1933 African-American poet, literary critic, and educator Sterling Brown identified seven stereotypes of African-American people common in American literature: contented slave; wretched freeman; comic Negro; brute Negro: tragic mulatto; local color Negro; and exotic primitive. Over time, these stereotypes have changed very little. The young thug is a 21st century variation of the brute Negro. He is young, super-physical, and violent. He is thought to be especially menacing if he is dressed in a particular fashion. He belongs to a marginal group for whom there are no individual rights. See: (http://testaae.greenwood.com/doc_print.aspx?fileID=GR0210&chapterID=GR0210-46&path=books/greenwood)
Moreover, when we think of the concept of rights, we are thinking of individuals who belong to the dominant group. The disadvantaged group cannot be seen as individuals because the perceived inherent nature of their inferiority allows for no exceptions. All individuals in the group are perceived as the same. Even before Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman met, they both were caught in a historical web where Zimmerman though of mixed ethnic background – Latina and European American – enjoyed white skin privilege, and Trayvon Martin did not.
In the closing arguments, the defense painted Trayvon Martin as the aggressor. Mark O’Mara demonstrated the difference in height between Martin, a teenager and Zimmerman, a grown man. He dragged out a block of concrete to argue that the sidewalk was Trayvon Martin’s weapon. He played on the myth of the super-physical black man to argue that Zimmerman was in fear of his life so he killed Martin in self defense.
In his closing argument John Guy quoted Voltaire saying: “To the living we owe respect; to the dead we owe the truth.” In my thinking regarding just peace theory, I say that just peace rests on three pillars – truth, respect, and security. We owe the living these three. Since the dead have no need for security, we owe both truth and respect to the dead. The question for the jury was how can they know the truth of what happened that night? There was no evidence to show who started the fight between George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin.
John Guy made a compelling case that there was no way for George Zimmerman to reach a gun that was holstered behind him if he was on his back on the ground and Trayvon Martin was on top of him. The only way for Zimmerman to have access to the gun was if Martin was getting off of him. We did not get the truth because there was no respect for Trayvon Martin in death just as Zimmerman showed him no respect in life. The jury believed George Zimmerman’s claim of self defense and found him not guilty.
After the trial
So, how are we to understand this verdict? The late French philosopher Michel Foucault writing in an essay entitled: “About the Concept of the ‘Dangerous Individual’ in Nineteenth Century Legal Psychiatry” takes us back in time to the moment where psychiatry, criminal, and civil law came together to shift focus from the crime to the criminal, from act to motive, from fault to risk. Foucault traces a genealogy that takes us to an earlier moment when in thinking of crime and punishment the only question was whether or not an individual committed a criminal act, and if s/he did, s/he suffered the punishment. After psychiatry meets the criminal justice system the actual crime recedes, but the psychology of the criminal becomes the focus. This means that now those who will render a judgment want to know whether or not the act was an integrated part of the “global behavior” of the accused, or was it an accident, a one-time freak thing.
When civil law meets criminal law meets psychiatry, the question turns to the relationship between accident and legal responsibility. Who is at fault becomes less important than the cause of the event. Cause is determined by a chain of facts. The import of this chain of facts is determined by an assessment of the creation of risk to the society as a whole. Since risk cannot be completely eliminated, we are left to assess causal probability. This takes us into the realm of criminal anthropology. Is the accused a natural born criminal who presents an unacceptably high risk of further harm to society? Is the accused a dangerous individual? Thus, the criminal justice system no longer judges act and actor, but also judges what the actor is.
In the George Zimmerman trial, at least one juror clearly did not see Zimmerman as a dangerous individual. In an interview with Anderson Cooper, juror B37 said that she believed that George Zimmerman’s “heart was in the right place.” She thinks Zimmerman is guilty of using poor judgment by leaving his car and following Trayvon Martin, but that he did nothing unlawful. She cited stand-your-ground law as a reason for the not guilty verdict. It is important to note that four other jurors wrote a note saying that juror B37 does not speak for them. As of this writing, the only juror to show her face and give her first name is juror B39. Her name is Maddie, and she thinks that Zimmerman got away with murder. She said that her vote went from guilty of 2nd degree murder to not guilty because her understanding of the instructions was that Zimmerman was not guilty if he had no intent to kill Trayvon Martin.
However, the reason that many people see this verdict as unjust is because they see Zimmerman as a dangerous individual, and they see this not guilty verdict as increasing the probability that more young unarmed African-American men will be profiled, followed, and shot dead with the killer able to walk away from responsibility by claiming self-defense. My son reminds me that for African-American men, many police officers are dangerous individuals.
Let us consider stranger danger. Talking to a family friend who is raising two young African-American sons, we talked about what we ought to teach our children now. He said that he teaches his sons that if they are followed by a stranger to run and to yell for help. Trayvon Martin did these things, yet he was not safe. Juror B37 thinks that Trayvon Martin was complicit in his own death because he confronted Zimmerman. Why did he not simply go home? For Trayvon Martin Zimmerman was living breathing stranger danger following him. Trayvon thought Zimmerman was “creepy.” He was not about to lead a creepy stranger to the home of his 12-year-old soon to be step-brother and his father’s fiancé. His confrontation of Zimmerman was his way of protecting his father’s fiancé and her son. Yet, if there was any doubt about who started the fight, and if there was any doubt who was in danger of serious physical harm, the benefit of that doubt, according to the jury instructions, went to George Zimmerman.
Our personal and societal responsibility
The Trayvon Martin killing is a horrible tragedy. Every killing diminishes us all. However, we are not powerless. We can take matters into our own hands by changing the way we see people. We ought to see every individual we meet as a human being created in the image and likeness of Divine Love. When we begin to think in stereotypes, we ought to remind ourselves of this particular individual’s holiness. We can join forces with Dream Defenders, the young people who as I write this are occupying Governor Rick Scott’s office in Florida, to repeal stand-your-ground laws across the nation. We can work for common sense gun regulations that would address concealed carry gun laws. We can elect congress members who will pass legislation that will bring jobs, beautiful and effective schools, health care, and good quality healthy foods to poor communities, thereby addressing the structural violence that leads to personal violence. We can support the production of arts and entertainment that show us people of color beyond the types identified by Sterling Brown in the first half of the twentieth century. We can work to change the common sense of the society from confrontation to conciliation. This means that in a culture of confrontation, of stand-your-ground, it makes sense for both individuals to face each other and fight it out. If the culture had been one of conciliation, the common sense thing to do would have been to wait on the police, or if George Zimmerman had spoken to Trayvon Martin, to speak to him with respect, to explain his concern to Martin.
Finally, we can love every child– even and especially teenagers in hoodies– with a radical love and allow that love to crowd out our fear.
For a longer version of this essay visit: http://justpeacetheory.com/files/On_Trayvon_Martin_and_the_George_Zimerman_Verdict.pdf
Valerie Elverton Dixon is the founder of justpeacetheory.com and the author of Just Peace Theory Book One: Spiritual Morality, Radical Love, and the Public Conversation.