Sunday, July 14, 2013

George Zimmerman Acquitted: What Difference Does it Make?

“Michael Vic was convicted of killing a dog, and he did three years in jail, but then you got a guy named Zimmerman who can shoot an African-American child and he walks free.” - Former DC homicide detective Rod Wheeler

I was in a car riding to a friend's house to play cards when the conversation about the trial came up. My friend is white, so I was interested to hear his perspective on on the George Zimmerman trial. When he asked why the fascination with one dead kid when there were more than fifty shootings last weekend I answered  it was the 911 calls. On a deeper level it has to do with identification.

It's easer to say "I am Trayvon Martin" when we could hear his voice screaming for help. It was easier to feel the anger when we heard Zimmerman's racist perspective in the calls to police. It became real for people.  There's a lot of misinformation about the case because we're not interested in the details, but in the narrative this tell about race. It is a compelling narrative that some inconvenient facts can get in the way of telling. The impressions of Trayvon as much smaller in stature than Zimmerman seem to be stuck in peoples' minds because the photos of Martin were three years old. We grew a lot from ages 14 to 17 and it never seemed to register with us after the initial pictures were shown. Still, that narrative doesn't have to be factually true to be true in a larger sense. We're not putting Zimmerman on trial, we're discussing what it's like to be black in a racist country. This can and often does happen to black kids, and we should talk about this more generally rather than arguing over the facts of this particular case.

Crime statistics became tears when people's identification with the victim was complete. I found some of the tributes to Trayvon Martin to be part of groupthink that made everyone want to buy sweatshirts. Then I remembered that I already had one. I wear it lots when it gets cold. I like wearing it when I walk at night. I saw that it wasn't so much herd mentality as it was a universal aspect of our shared experience. All struck me as essentially human. From the fear of being followed at night to the sadness of grieving parents. The details that make us identify emotionally are the ones we latch onto. Why mention Skittles and not just any candy? It's because it quickly identifies him with youthful innocence. There were mistakes in the photos shown of Martin making people think he was smaller than he was, but in a way it allowed us to easily see him as vulnerable, which is still essentially true.

The title question is one I ask myself when contemplating difficult situations. We are often tied to our beliefs so strongly that we have to challenge them constantly to remain focused on our situation. Is this trial all sound and fury, signifying nothing? Is there something we can contribute to ending the endless cycles of violence and outrage repeated over and over in the media? My only contribution may be my own experience of being black in America. My experience, while not exactly unique, does include walking home at night and wearing hoodies. It quickly occurred to me that I could easily be this kid. When Zimmerman was acquitted it was a blow to my sense of safety and justice. How can this not encourage more people to act as Zimmerman did if there are no consequences?

There are real consequences, of course. When I read a tweet saying that someone gives Zimmerman a year at most before something bad will happen to him, I agreed. It makes sense to me because I know that I'm angry and I'm sure a lot of other people are too. So what can we do? Choosing to do nothing has its own consequences. After this trial we have to ask ourselves, "What's the next best outcome that this trial could have had? What are we going to do to make this less likely to happen again? Is there anything positive that can be made out of this shitty outcome?" Right now, I'm not sure.

Male Media Mind