Monday, March 26, 2012

The Trayvon Martin Case, George Zimmerman’s “Black Friends” and the Emmett Till Connection

“When the police break the law there is no law.”

“Billy Jack,” from the film Billy Jack starring Thomas Laughlin

Last week alone, I checked the petition for Trayvon Martin at nearly 40 times and gave my family updates on signatures that increased at the rate of 10,000 an hour and 1,000 per minute. I was so unsettled, shocked and outraged by this case that I found myself scouring the internet and various other news sources day to day to review the fine details of the case. I monitored Rev. Al Sharpton’s Politics Nation for new updates every evening. I ended up putting my writing on hold for three straight days, which is very precious time during my period of sabbatical leave and after I even deactivated my Facebook account for a few weeks to “go into seclusion” and “to keep my energy on the page” as I complete my second book manuscript. I felt the urgency to use the critical thinking skills that I ordinarily use in my work as a scholar, including my writing, to help analyze this case. Almost every conversation that I have had over the past few days has been about this case as I have grappled with the details that have been unfolding. If I was losing sleep over this case, awake late into the night thinking about it and talking about it, deeply concerned about it and preoccupied with when Zimmerman would be arrested and I didn’t even know Trayvon, I imagined what his parents and those who knew and loved him must be going through and the impact of all of this on their lives. A week ago, I made a blog post entitled “Justice for Trayvon Martin.” I hadn’t imagined posting on this case again so soon, but at this point, I have a few more things to say.

For days, I wondered about the seemingly phantom “black friends” that George Zimmerman supposedly had. I was curious to see some of their faces. I thought back to Spike Lee’s film 4 Little Girls, which includes a sobering scene featuring former Alabama Governor George Wallace referring to one of his black workers as a friend, notwithstanding Wallace’s well-known history as a segregationist. I also thought of how handily the phrase “some of my best friends are black” can be used at times. When I think of Wallace, given my status as an Alabamian and vivid memory of the period, I remember the new and improved one of the 1980s that even most blacks in Alabama supported in the gubernatorial election of 1982. I voted for him myself in a mock gubernatorial election in my sixth grade class, along with all of the students in my class with the exception of two, a choice shaped by how much even we as children understood the complexity of race and politics and were thinking of concerns such as police brutality at that time in the wake of a range of recent incidents. I am by no means knocking him here and like a lot of African Americans I know, actually came to like and appreciate Governor Wallace a great deal. My main point here relates to what is at stake in the playing of the “black friends” card by some non-blacks when their back seems to be pressed against the wall on a race-related matter. It has been unsettling, in fact, to see several friends of Zimmerman trotted out as if they are in a dog and pony show to speak up for him. Joe Oliver’s comments on the Today Show this morning, which claim that Zimmerman shot Trayvon in self-defense in “a life and death struggle” in which "someone was going to die,” really took the cake for me. I have only one thing to say of Oliver as an African American man who has regarded Zimmerman as a “friend” yet had no knowledge that Zimmerman, who tended to view black men as criminal, had a gun: He would have shot you, too.

If many of us who are concerned have made connections between Trayvon Martin’s death and the 1955 case of Emmett Till, then I would go far enough to say that even some of the comments on the Trayvon Martin case also echo some of the most infamous remarks that have ever been made about the Emmett Till case. That is to say, claims that at 5’9”, Zimmerman was intimidated by the 6’ 3” Trayvon, feared for his life and shot the boy in self-defense, echo the infamous and shocking comments of the feminist Susan Brownmiller in her 1975 book Against Our Will, which seem to rationalize the death of Till and portray him as a would-be rapist. Angela Davis observes in her essay “Rape, Racism and the Myth of the Black Rapist” that “As for Emmett Till, she clearly invites us to infer that if this fourteen-year-old boy had not been shot in the head and dumped into the Tallahatchie River after he whistled at one white woman, he would probably have succeeded in raping another white woman.” Some of Trayvon Martin’s critics seem to be going down a similar path to rationalize and justify what Zimmerman did to him on the grounds of "self-defense."

Furthermore, in all of this, I have been drawing on the critical discourses on black masculinity in which I also work, and especially, on Maurice Wallace’s notion of black male “closeting” and coverture and study of related visual motifs, from images of black men wearing hoods to recurrently being photographed from behind. As Wallace’s work in his dissertation and book Constructing the Black Masculine (1995; 2002) shows, the hoodie has been a motif in black masculine body construction for such a long time that it emerged as an art motif years ago, as evidenced, for instance, in the landmark “Black Males” exhibition at the Whitney Museum in 1995. As it stands, Trayvon’s wardrobe has been a staple in black masculine fashioning for at least a generation or two. (I also wear hoodies and have two myself; I find them to be an indispensable layering item in chilly and rainy weather).

I do not find the testimonies of Zimmerman’s friends compelling or convincing. That he “couldn’t stop crying” after he shot Trayvon may well have been more self-pitying than anything. I am actually unsettled that the views of Trayvon's friends who describe him as someone who was not confrontational and who did not ever fight, as well as the girlfriend with whom he talked on the phone that night, have not been given more play. Their perspective matters, too.

Moreover, I am unsettled by the inability of some media commentators to even empathize with the death of a black teenage boy and their investments in digging up dirt to possibly rationalize or justify what Zimmerman did. These strategies reflect racism as deeply ingrained as what I will call, for purposes of economy here, the “well, what about . . . ?” questions. “Well, what about . . . ?” questions remind me of those that a few students have posed in the classroom over the years when we have been discussing the slave trade. Here I refer to the automatic interjection into class discussion the point that “Africans participated in the slave trade, too,” as a strategy for evading and denying responsibility and accountability among Europeans and Americans for the horrific West African slave trade.

It is unsettling to hear the well-meaning activism of the many African Americans who care about this case criticized by those who ask why they are not speaking out and taking to the streets to protest against black-on-black crime or, for that matter, cases involving whites who have been victimized by violence. Similarly, these critics suggest that race has nothing to do with the case and that there should be public concern about victims without regard to race. These comments are steeped in the reactionary discourse of colorblindness. As the recurrent comparisons to Emmett Till suggest, there is a long history that has shaped public responses to cases such as Trayvon Martin’s in the African American context. The ignorance about all of these connections is in itself symptomatic of a kind of racism. The eruption of a movement related to Trayvon Martin among many African Americans definitely seems odd and out of pace in the face of the self-absorption, indifference and profound political apathy that can be evident in the national mainstream and in some suburban communities among some people. People with this mindset would find the expectation to miss a day on the golf course for the purpose of getting involved in this kind of activist cause as weird as being asked to join a mission to Mars.

Given that he initially stalked Trayvon and all of the concerns that I expressed in my prior blog post on this case, the ballistics and forensic evidence that I would need to see to be able to give ANY weight to George Zimmerman’s version of what happened is gone forever. The efforts to link Trayvon to delinquency seem very contrived and conspiratorial at this point. They are irrelevant to the concerns at hand about how, when and why Zimmerman crossed the line and persisted in following him. They reflect the familiar and typical efforts to pathologize blacks. I am not concerned about Trayvon’s background or school record, including his suspensions in Miami. The issue in this case has to do with what happened that night in Sanford. Similarly, what Emmett Till's school life was like as a young teen in Chicago had little bearing on what his assailants did to him in Mississippi. The truth is that even if I heard that Trayvon was an ax murderer at some point in the past, the information wouldn’t change my view of what Zimmerman did to him on that fateful evening, including my perception that Zimmerman had absolutely NO BUSINESS tracking this boy down and approaching him after being instructed not to by the 911 police dispatcher, or following this boy around at any point before he called and talked to them. If we are going to talk about “Stand Your Ground,” then Trayvon would have had as much of a right to exercise his right at self-defense as Zimmerman. Why is it so impossible for some who are so eager to believe Zimmerman’s side of the story to imagine Trayvon’s fear, which the final phone call with his teen girlfriend well confirms?

My questions about Zimmerman have multiplied over the past few days as I have turned the tables on him in the game of detective and wondered how he could say that he went back to his truck just to see what street he was on, yet supposedly drove those same streets every night and so should have been familiar with them-especially if he claimed to be the neighborhood’s watchman. Furthermore, ever since seeing the interview with the two female witnesses and neighbors on Anderson Cooper 360, I’ve been horrified to hear a detail of the case that no one seems to be thinking much about. One woman reports that Trayvon was “face down” and that Zimmerman was on top “straddling” the child’s body with his hands on the boy’s back. Zimmerman ignored her the first two times she asked him what was going on and what he was doing to the body; he would not answer her. One commentator on the show last week described this scenario as “bizarre.” I could not agree more. Moreover, both Zimmerman's refusal to stop following Trayvon and insistence on not waiting at the mailbox for the police (i.e. they can call me and find out where I'm at) indicate that he was adamant and obsessive about pursuing Trayvon and was possibly premeditating an attack.

I was not eager or needful to hear a comment on this case from President Obama, but am really disgusted that his remark that “If I had a son, he would have looked like Trayvon,” has been described as race-baiting by some of his critics. This spin on his well-meaning words is beyond unsettling and just plain unfair. Indeed, if I have had any concerns or observations about how race has played out in this case, they have primarily been related to frustration over the reductive definition of what it means to be a “racist” that’s been bandied about. Some people are acting as if racism is a performative kind of thing that one can simply be or not be by declaring that someone is or isn’t racist. The definition and perception of what counts as a racist is broad and deep in the African American and black diasporan imaginary. As a phenomenon, being “racist” is not simply synonymous with being a Klan member, a Skinhead or someone like who Mark Furhman was at the time of the O.J. Simpson trial. People don’t have to go around using the “N- word” or be very blatant in their hostilities to minorities to qualify. The bottom line is that even some of the questions that I have heard raised by some news reporters and journalists about this case well fit the definition of what many African Americans would consider to be “racist.” In fact, most African Americans tend to deal with racism in the workplace and at school in interpersonal interactions with whites they know, not with those who are most explicit in their dislike of blacks and minorities, such as members of “hate groups.”

What I have found to be truly racist are people who are acting as if they are bonded in some kind of de facto homosocial fraternal brotherhood with George Zimmerman, and feel the need to “look out” for him and support his interests, along with his story, because their knee-jerk response, whether they recognize this tendency in themselves and accept it or not, is to be “against” and “suspicious” of anyone black in any situation. Some reactionary conservative radio talk show hosts are now hungrily, even rabidly, propagating the story from the Orlando Sentinel in the effort to portray Trayvon as the violent aggressor against Zimmerman, are framing Zimmerman as a victim, and also getting on a high horse about the importance of forgetting about race in this case and learning to be colorblind, even going so far as to invoke Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as if they are invested in his philosophy, when they are the same people who violate his values of love and nonviolence on a day to day basis by promoting a climate of hatred against President Obama on the airwaves. The rhetoric of "colorblindness" IS racist whether they realize it or not, to the extent that this talk has been the prevailing tactic among reactionaries for attempting to "erase" race and foreclose a space in the public sphere for blacks to redress racism in the post-civil rights era, including legal concerns. These types have been on the hunt for a negative narrative of Trayvon all along anyway, and at this point, think they've got it. That these people would rather align with, support and advocate for a suspected murderer and believe the worst about a kid like Trayvon is a major manifestation of deeply ingrained if denied racism that persists in the U.S.

I can only wish for peace and healing on all fronts in the days and months to come as we learn more about what happened and come to terms with it. My prayers go out for Trayvon’s family, and even for Zimmerman, in spite of my own reservations about him and continued hopes for an arrest. I know and must accept that as concerned as I am about the matter of justice in this case, it is, in the end, God’s place to judge him, and not mine.

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