February 26, 2012. In a gated community in Sanford, Florida, a 19-year-old teenager named Trayvon Martin went to the local 7-Eleven at night for some Skittles. On his way home, he took a shortcut by walking behind some houses instead of on the street. George Zimmerman, the neighbourhood watch captain, found it suspicious that a person he “didn’t recognise” was “behaving like that” given the recent spate of break-ins, and proceeded to call 911 for advice. On the line, Zimmerman talked about Martin, stating “these assholes, they always get away” and “these fucking punks”; in a separate phone call to his friend, Martin said that he was scared because he was being followed by an unknown male and didn’t know why. The dispatcher asked Zimmerman if he were following the boy and, when realising that he was, stated “okay, we don’t need you to do that”. According to the prosecution, he ignored this and confronted Martin; according to Zimmerman, Martin confronted him and began to beat him against the sidewalk. The evidence isn’t clear. Hundreds of articles have been written supporting one story or the other, using reports from both cases. However, one fact remains undeniably apparent: in both accounts, Martin was shot, and he died. And here’s the kicker: Trayvon Martin was black, while George Zimmerman was a white-passing Latino.
After the recent verdict, another twist has emerged. In July this year, Zimmerman was found not guilty by a jury of his white, female peers, resting largely on Florida’s ‘Stand Your Ground Law’—which didn’t even form part of his defense.
He didn’t even receive manslaughter. You can hit someone with a car and still be charged with manslaughter. You can accidentally strike a swimmer unconscious and still be charged with manslaughter. But chasing down a teenager after being told not to by 911 and shooting him in the head? Apparently not.
It’s often said that one should trust the justice system, but trust should not be confused with blind faith. This is one of those times.
It’s hard not to bring the race issue into something that is so deeply entangled in it. Had it been a white teenage boy walking down the street at night, minding his own business, would Zimmerman have been as quick to racially profile him as a criminal? Would he have followed him at night? Would he have continued to do this despite being given instructions to the contrary?
But let’s put that to one side and think of it in simple terms. What is illegal about a young man walking, unarmed, through his own neighbourhood at night? Nothing. What is wrong with disregarding direct orders from 911? Plenty.
Furthermore, an issue that must be addressed is that of Martin being unarmed at the time. Had Zimmerman not begun to follow him, Martin would not have been scared, and—depending on which account you’re following—may or may not have decided to confront his believed aggressor. Each of these events, suspended in their own parallel worlds of statements and phone calls, turn on the one wheel; that is, they were precipitated by Zimmerman’s unauthorized pursuit.
For the defense to then attempt to tip the case on its head by pointing out Martin’s recent suspensions from high school, the trace amount of THC in his blood and Zimmerman’s professed ‘love’ for the black population is obscene. Martin’s personal experience with the law is not relevant in this case—he had a clean juvenile record and other smaller offenses such alleged petty theft were not deemed permissible—and is akin to telling a rape victim they were ‘asking for it’ due to a past history of promiscuity. Moreover, trace amounts of THC can remain detectable in the blood for up to 30 days and does not mean that Martin was on drugs at the time. Are we going to tell American teenagers that if they have marijuana in their system then they are fair game to being pursued and shot? And the idea that a person can be acquitted of murder because he’s been ‘nice’ to that racial minority before is like denying you’re racist because you used to live next to a Filipino family.
If there’s one thing to take away from this morass of ‘who did what’, it’s that Zimmerman didn’t win this case by proving his innocence. He won because his attorney was able to justify that Martin deserved to die – that he was partially to blame for his own death. For what, I’m not sure. Minding his own business whilst on a trip to 7-Eleven, taking a shortcut through his own neighbourhood or fitting the racial profile of a criminal? Take your pick.
It was like this before the trial, and will be for long after. Time and time again, cases like these prove that the system will always fail those that it was not meant to protect. Protests have been organized nation-wide—and even internationally—to demand justice for not only Trayvon, but for every black man, woman and child in America. As a picket at the Times Square sit-in rightly reads, justice for Trayvon is just the first step.