The Zimmerman Trial Jurors, Obama, and the Invisibility of Racism
First, a little personal story that helps to illustrate how racism can be so pervasive as to escape notice. A faculty colleague of mine at Ohio University where I was a Visiting Professor for a year told me a story about a brain tumor that he had when he was much younger. This was back in the day before CAT Scans and MRIs and physicians had to rely solely for pictures of the body on X-rays. He had all of the symptoms of a brain tumor, including blinding, debilitating headaches, but each time they X-rayed his head, the doctors could find no evidence of a tumor. Finally, frustrated by the negative test results, his primary physician said that “you must have a brain tumor” and ordered another X-ray of his brain. Back then, a brain X-ray involved draining fluid from the skull ahead of time so it was excruciatingly painful to undergo. This time, convinced that it had to be there, they realized why they had missed seeing the tumor before: it was so large that it filled the film’s frame. The doctors had been looking for something smaller and missed it because it was so large.
The first juror in the Zimmerman case to be interviewed,[i] identified as Juror B37[ii], tried to get a book deal from her experiences but the public backlash towards her made her agent withdraw from the deal and the juror back away from her hopes for profit. More to the point, she told Cooper, as summarized by CNN.com:
“[S]he had ‘no doubt’ he [Zimmerman] feared for his life in the final moments of his struggle with Trayvon Martin, and that was the definitive factor in the verdict.”
You have to wonder about her certainty that Zimmerman “feared for his life.”
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Did Trayvon fear for his life? Who had more reason to fear for their life? The stalker or the one being stalked? The guy with the gun or the one with the Skittles? If self-defense is warranted here in this struggle, which is what the verdict says, then how come the teenager who was minding his own business and not stalking anyone had no right to his own self-defense, including, if necessary – and clearly it was necessary because Zimmerman killed him – using deadly force?
Some people have mimicked defense attorney Mark O’Mara’s assertion that the real aggressor was Trayvon because he allegedly could have gone home minutes sooner. You’re the aggressor because you’re not behind closed doors a few minutes earlier? You become the predator by being outside? By the same token, Zimmerman could have decided not to track Trayvon. He could have gone home long before, he could have listened to the police dispatcher who told him to stay out of it, but Zimmerman has the right to be out packing a gun but a black teen doesn’t have a right to go to the store for snacks?
The only way that you can find Trayvon guilty for his own death and Zimmerman not guilty of murder is to buy into a fanciful theory that is contradicted by the physical evidence that Trayvon became the stalker.
Zimmerman’s lawyer famously demonstrated with a concrete slab how Trayvon supposedly threatened Zimmerman, but no physical evidence supports that imagined scenario. Zimmerman’s cuts were so superficial as to warrant only a bandage, as the medical expert testified. Under the law, what a jury is supposed to decide is based upon the physical evidence, not concocted scenarios that contradict the physical evidence. The certainty of B37’s conclusion that Zimmerman “feared for his life” is not indicated by any of the physical evidence: his entire body, his gun, and its holster only have his own DNA on them and Trayvon’s fingernails had no DNA of Zimmerman’s. That is the physical evidence. In other words, if Trayvon attacked Zimmerman, he managed to do it without leaving an iota of his own DNA on Zimmerman anywhere. That is what a jury is supposed to draw its conclusions from, not a fraudulent concrete slab dramatically depicted by defense attorneys. As Revolution Newspaper points out:
“Let’s soberly assess what was upheld in the Sanford courtroom. Opening and closing remarks by Zimmerman’s lawyers claimed that Trayvon’s ‘deadly weapon,’ the sinister tool used in his alleged assault upon Zimmerman, was the sidewalk! One of his lawyers pulled out a slab of cement and dropped it on the floor in front of the jury. He sneered, ‘That’s cement. That is a sidewalk. And that (meaning Trayvon) is not an unarmed teenager with nothing but Skittles trying to get home.’
“This is not just a ridiculous courtroom stunt. Think of the implications of this almost insanely malevolent claim. Any Black youth walking on a sidewalk could be claimed to be “armed and dangerous” by this standard—and living in a permanent open season—by racist vigilantes like George Zimmerman!”
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A gun in an admitted stalker’s hands is not a deadly weapon. A fictional slab of cement, however, is.
The “definitive factor in the verdict” according to Juror B37 is illogical on its face. If Zimmerman feared for his life and it was he who created this encounter, then who was truly in fear for his life and who had the sole right (or, at the very least, the greater right) to self-defense? If Trayvon had a right to self-defense that exceeds or at least equals that of Zimmerman (if Zimmerman as the aggressor had a right to it at all), then the jury would have to have found logically that Zimmerman was the aggressor and the murderer. If a rapist has the tables turned on him in the course of his attempted rape of a woman and she fights back and the rapist fears that he is in trouble now, does he have the right to put a gun to the woman’s heart and pull the trigger on the grounds of “self-defense”? Asking the question that way answers the question, doesn’t it? To claim that Zimmerman had a right to self-defense as the aggressor is absurd.
She said she believes Zimmerman’s “heart was in the right place” the night he shot Martin, but that he didn’t use “good judgment” in confronting the Florida teen.
“‘I think George Zimmerman is a man whose heart was in the right place, but just got displaced by the vandalism in the neighborhoods, and wanting to catch these people so badly that he went above and beyond what he really should have done,’ she said.”
Instead of seeing Zimmerman as the aggressor here, B37 saw Zimmerman as an over-zealous community defender against whom? An innocent young boy carrying snacks. Zimmerman is the guy “whose heart was in the right place” who told the police dispatcher “Fucking punks. These assholes. They always get away.” And by “they” – can there be any question? – Zimmerman means black people. And “ditto” says Juror B37.
“B37 went on to say that three voted Zimmerman guilty of something but got persuaded by the other three into an acquittal.
“Three of the jurors first voted Zimmerman was guilty, while three voted he was not guilty, she said. Juror B37 was among those who believed he was not guilty from the start.
“‘There was a couple of them in there that wanted to find him guilty of something and after hours and hours and hours of deliberating over the law, and reading it over and over and over again, we decided there’s just no way, other place to go,’ she said.”
She also stated that she believed that Zimmerman was motivated by the burglaries that had been committed in the neighborhood and not by racism:
“‘I think all of us thought race did not play a role,’ the juror said. ‘We never had that discussion.’”
“The juror said she did not believe Zimmerman profiled Martin, who was African-American, because of the color of his skin.”
The defense put on the stand a neighbor who complained about burglaries by blacks. What does this have to do with Trayvon except via racial stereotyping that all blacks are to be feared as criminal?
Since the judge ruled at the start of the trial that a) the race of potential jurors could not be challenged as possibly prejudicial to Trayvon’s race, resulting in the empaneling of a jury of five whites and one Latina and no blacks, and b) that the term “racial profiling” could not be used but “profiling” could, the question of race was ruled off the table from the start. Thus, given the combination of the judge’s ruling and the jurors’ lack of anyone who was black or sophisticated enough about race to bring it up in their panel and deliberations, it’s unfortunately not surprising that these jurors failed to discuss at all what millions correctly consider the central issue in this case. Think about that: The two most important elements in this case: race and who the initiator and aggressor was, are, in the first instance, not once even discussed or explicitly considered by the jury and, in the second instance, they treat in reverse of logic.
Race, nonetheless, was the elephant in the room, but its role was invisible to the jurors who acted out racial stereotypes but did so unconscious to the fact that they were doing so. When you are either naïve or opportunistic enough to claim that race plays no role in contemporary American society, you are enacting a racial code but doing so in a covert and generally unconscious way: race for some Americans does not seem to exist because it does not exist in a way that harms them personally.
But have these Americans oblivious to the invidious consequences of racism’s ongoing presence consider an encounter between a black youth and a white/Hispanic man with a gun, and bingo, we know who the true aggressor here is! This not only explains the jurors’ peculiar and outrageous verdict, but it helps to explain the difficulty that many Americans evidence in their upholding this atrocious verdict as fine and definitive. The courts “have spoken.” The law has done its job: Zimmerman’s innocent. Some people badly need to wake up and examine the deadly concealed weapon they’re carrying around with them everywhere called white skin privilege. That concealed weapon resides not only on peoples’ person, in their heads specifically, but also can be found subtly or not subtly in the laws and institutions that rule this country.
And Obama, the first black U.S. president, while acknowledging some of the discrimination that black Americans experience, falsely characterizes the situation as “getting better” when this case and so many others, most of which never go to trial at all, show how the situation is not getting better. It’s better for him – he’s the President and an ex-U.S. Senator. But to claim that race relations are getting better and that this verdict deserves “calm reflection” rather than determined outrage, is itself an outrage.
i After B37’s interview on Anderson Cooper’s show, four other jurors issued a statement stating that B37’s statements do not reflect their own views. They did not elaborate further. While B37’s attitudes and values are evidently more reactionary than the other four jurors, the other jurors nevertheless went along with the decision to exonerate a murderer, in part at least due to the constricted terms upon which the judge allowed the case to proceed – robbed of its essence.
ii B37 described the protests in Sanford, Florida after Trayvon’s deaths as “rioting” during jury voir dire. Peaceful protest against the murder of an innocent young black teen is “rioting” but gunning down that black teen is acting with your heart in the “right place.” Zimmerman knows right where the heart is all right. He put his gun directly up against Trayvon’s and pulled the trigger.
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