“He has always feared for his safety.”
I resisted writing about the killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman in Sanford, FL when it happened seventeen months ago, though I had plenty to say about it. I grew up in Altamonte Springs, which is a couple towns over, closer to Orlando, and though I never spent much time in Sanford (there was rarely any reason to), I knew where it was, knew people from there, knew enough to know it was another one of those redneck towns that litter Florida’s sweltering interior, with gun-racks and Dixie flags on every pickup truck and a black folks’ part of town, where they stayed if they knew what was good for them. The notion that a lighter-skinned man could gun down a darker-skinned man without being arrested there was not surprising to me, given the racism embedded in Florida’s political and social culture (and, it now appears, legal precedent, but we’ll get to that later).
I used to joke, growing up, about Florida being the last state in the Confederacy to surrender. It was funny because, while technically true, the rest of the southern states do not consider Florida to be a part of the South, and neither do most Floridians. And, panhandle aside, there are plenty of cultural distinctions. Florida, as I think most people have figured out by now, has its own distinct brand of the crazy (click here for examples). But there are plenty of similarities between Florida and the South, and institutional racism is one of them. The main difference, as I remember it, was that in the South they were open, hell, even friendly about it sometimes, but in Florida we weren’t the South, and so no one talked about segregation or the rampant poverty and crime in black neighborhoods, because the consensus was that their problems were their problems and also their fault. We didn’t have to do anything about it as long as they kept to their part of town. Hell, they had to bus black kids in from across town so my lily-white high school could make diversity quotas and field a football team. We also had the requisite posse of skinheads, like every other high school in O-town.
The middle school I went to was a different story. It was in the black part of Altamonte Springs, and the majority of the students came from the surrounding neighborhoods. But even there I spent most of my time with the other white kids, because they were who were in my classes and shared my lunch period and rode the same bus home. I remember being kind of grateful for the insulation, because I was scared of most of the black kids. I didn’t know much about them, but I knew their lives were much harder and more violent than mine. My bus rode through their neighborhood on the way home from school, and passed by a spot called the Battleground, where there was a fight almost every day, though you couldn’t see the combatants for the raging crowd around them cheering and pitching in from time to time. I once had to walk through that neighborhood on my way home from school; one of the scariest things I’d done up to that point.
We were all kind of scared of the black kids. There was this tacit understanding that they were more dangerous and prone to violence, just basically wilder animals than we were. They may very well have been, too, given the conditions many of them lived in. Anyone would be. Those were some rough neighborhoods. Even now, when I understand that was by design, even some of the how involved, that early training still kicks in sometimes. I recognize it for what it is, and let it pass, but it’s there.
Like most white people, I’d like to think I’m not racist, and, like most white people, I am, at least a little bit. To try and claim otherwise would be lying.
I left Florida a long time ago, but there’s every indication that it’s only gotten crazier (and more racist). In this particular case, the crazy has manifested as the Stand Your Ground legal doctrine (an ALEC project, I believe, Florida being one of the first states to implement this piece of, ahem, model legislation), which revolves around removing the duty to retreat from the provisions for legitimate self-defense. You can literally pick a fight with someone and then shoot them dead for fighting back, as George Zimmerman has demonstrated.
Another fun tweak is placing the burden of proof on the prosecution when a defendant claims self-defense (got that from here). Because there were no other witnesses to the confrontation, George Zimmerman’s version is the only one admissible. He never even took the stand, never had to testify under oath.
Given that environment, that culture, that body of law, what happened that night in February of 2012 was inevitable. That Mr. Zimmerman would be acquitted was foreshadowed that night, when the Sanford police took his statement and gave him his gun back and sent him on his merry way. If it hadn’t caught the internet’s attention, it would have ended there. But it did, so they had to go through the motions of a trial. Who knows? Maybe there was even a chance he’d be convicted.
Lots has been said about this today, and will continue to be said. To me the only tiny glimmer of positivity to come out of this whole g-dawful mess is that the racism that was kept so quiet in the days of my youth and the flagrant injustice embedded in the law have been dragged out into that famous Florida sunshine for G-d and everyone to see. Now everybody knows that a paranoid, armed white man who wishes he was a cop but isn’t can feel free to appoint himself one. He can racially profile black teenagers, stalk and confront them, shoot them point-blank in the chest when they resist his authoritah. If the secret white handshake doesn’t get him off the hook on the spot, the law itself will do it, thanks to the machinations of paranoid white men elected to the state legislature. It’s the way things are supposed to be, according to them. The only real hope of doing anything about it is for the people of the state of Florida to stop electing crazy people to the legislature. Given how many of the people of Florida are also crazy, I’m not optimistic.
Living in Seattle, people ask me all the time what brought me all the way out here from Florida. I tell them I couldn’t get any farther away. Now you know why.
Post-script: I’m sure there are those who would (or do) claim that race has nothing to do with all this. I would invite those folks to click here. You don’t have to read the accompanying polemic, though it has lots of good links. Just look at the picture and examine your gut reaction honestly.