Zimmerman and Martin: is race relevant?

The opinion I’m about to give is probably a controversial one, but I’ve been giving the Trayvon Martin case a lot of thought since the “not guilty” verdict that has caused international outrage, and I am somewhat bemused by the extremely one-sided picture being painted by the majority of people.

I must start by clarifying one thing. I vehemently disagree with America’s gun laws. I don’t think civilians should be allowed to own guns. I don’t think that having guns in homes and on streets is sensible, safe, or beneficial. I also believe that no one has the right to take another person’s life, and that allowing people to own guns means that this happens even more  easily than in countries where guns are banned.

However, I accept that my views on gun ownership are not shared by a large percentage of Americans, and as it’s a separate issue, I’m setting it to the side for the purpose of this article. People can legally own and carry guns in the USA, and they can use them in self defence. It’s not a crime, regardless of my own personal beliefs.

So, leaving that aside, here’s what I don’t understand. Why has the Martin/Zimmerman case become a race issue? For anyone not familiar with it, here’s (my understanding of) what happened.

A community in the States started a neighbourhood watch scheme after suffering from a spate of break-ins and burglaries. A man named George Zimmerman was put in charge of it. He seems to be a regular citizen, no criminal record, well respected. He called 911 to report suspicious behaviour from an unknown man who was wandering around in the rain, “looking at all the houses”. He mentioned that the guy looked as if he could be on drugs, and asked for the police to come. Then the man started to run, and he followed him. There are varied reports from neighbours about what happened next, but it seems as if there was a confrontation, a physical fight, and yells of help from Zimmerman, who then withdrew his gun and shot the man – later calling it self defence.

The unknown man was Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old who was staying with relatives in the area. The gunshot killed him. Zimmerman has now been found not guilty of murder.

Had I read this story, reported like this, I would have been saddened and then probably added it to my list of “examples of why guns are bad”. I would then just as quickly have forgotten about it, because, sadly, this kind of story is not at all unusual. People are shot and killed with alarming regularity. The shooters often walk free, too, because the law protects them. I hate it, but there it is.

However, this particular victim was 17 years old, making him a child in legal terms. He was also black.

Because of this, the story is largely being presented like this: Zimmerman racially profiled and stalked an unarmed child, then killed him, simply because he was black.

WHAT?

I really do not understand this. Nothing that is public knowledge about Zimmerman indicates that he’s a racist, or that his concerns were even remotely related to Martin’s skin colour. He only mentioned once that Martin was black, because he was asked directly by the 911 operator. He had made numerous previous calls relating to intruders or strangers who appeared to be behaving suspiciously, so there’s no reason to jump to the conclusion that he singled out this one person based on his skin colour.

What if it had not been Martin, but a white man? There’s absolutely nothing to suggest that Zimmerman would not have responded in the same way. And would this be all over the media, with the public up in arms because the shooter (who is hispanic) stalked and killed a child simply because he was white? Of course it wouldn’t. The media would – as they should be doing here – report on what is known and/or alleged to have happened. A neighbourhood watch leader reported an unknown individual behaving unusually. There was a confrontation, the facts surrounding which are unclear. Eyewitness reports and Zimmerman’s injuries suggest that he was on his back, being beaten and shouting for help, with Martin on top of him when he pulled out his gun and fatally shot him. A jury found him not guilty of murder as he acted in self defence. 

Again, I don’t believe in shooting as a form of self-defence – but legally it’s allowed in the US. That, together with the amount of “reasonable doubt” and lack of evidence, means that the verdict returned by the jury was the correct one. You cannot send someone to prison for using a weapon in self defence when laws are in place giving them the right to do so.

I don’t doubt that those jumping on the bandwagon with this probably have good, genuine intentions. Racism and racial profiling are very real issues which need to be addressed, and of course I’m not disputing that. But that isn’t what this case is about – and if anything, turning it into a race issue is doing more harm than good, by putting unnecessary labels on people in a murder/self-defence case where there’s absolutely no evidence that race was a factor. There was no reason to make it one. Calling Martin a child is evocative – and inaccurate. He was 17, well built, and 6’3″. At 17 years old, many people are parents, living alone, or working. He was not a child.

He was young, and it is tragic that he died, and I’m not by any means trying to say that I think he deserved it (I don’t) or that there’s not a possibility that he was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time (there is). But I am baffled by how people are calling this a murder of an innocent child, which happened purely because he was black. The facts that we know about the case do not even hint at the possibility that race was a factor.

We don’t know what happened. We weren’t there. Maybe Zimmerman provoked Martin, maybe Martin provoked Zimmerman. But we don’t know. That’s reasonable doubt. The only thing the jury could do was acquit.

The race of either party is completely irrelevant.

So why has it become the sole focus?

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7 thoughts on “Zimmerman and Martin: is race relevant?

  1. Prianka says:

    Finally someone speaking some sense!

    I find it really tiresome how the media continually portrays Martin as this defenseless child (aided by the fact that many media outlets insisted on using a 5 year old photo of him from when he was 12!) when he reality at 17 years of age, showing an interest in MMA and standing at 6’3 he is clearly NOT a child!

  2. Jordan Stewart says:

    Hey Hayley-

    I agree that there was no evidence that race was a factor in Zimmerman’s decisions. I think it’s a mistake to make “race” the angle of reporting, or the focus of opinion pieces. It muddies the water of the case, which (IMO) should be clear: Zimmerman, an armed adult, initiated a confrontation which led to the death of an innocent, unarmed minor.

    OTOH, racial profiling and racial inequality before the law are real issues in the U.S., and Martin’s death fits the “story”. A person of color is deemed suspicious based on appearances (Zimmerman’s bias is clear in his call to 911), and winds up beaten (Patrick Jones), arrested (Wilson Reyes), or killed (Ramarley Graham), for a few examples.

    I disagree with the idea that Martin was possibly in the wrong place at the wrong time. He was a citizen, walking home from the store.

    I agree that calling Martin a child is disingenuous, but was not an adult yet. He had recently turned 17. How about “large teenager?”

    I think that it is clear, by his own words, that Zimmerman provoked the situation. Zimmerman was watching Martin. Martin ran away, apparently in the direction of where he was staying (his body was found 64 meters from the door of the house). Zimmerman followed, disregarding advice from the 911 operator.

    Martin was trying to get away, and was chased. He felt threatened, and attacked Zimmerman- an adult stranger, who had seemingly stalked him, without identifying himself as part of the neighborhood watch program.

    Riddle me this: if it’s okay for Zimmerman to kill Martin because he feared for his life, is it okay for Martin to attack Zimmerman for the same reason?

    Zimmerman screwed up. He mistook Martin for a thief, and initiated a confrontation that escalated into him shooting Martin. It’s not self-defense if he started it. Manslaughter, not 2nd degree Murder (they charged him with both.)

    — just my opinion. Nice reading you, and congratulations on getting the article published (was it NYTimes?)– Jordan

  3. Hmmm, OK. Your arguments are better than any I’ve read so far (well, of course they are! ;)). I still don’t agree that the verdict should have been different, though.

    I do understand how the case “fits the story” re: racial profiling. I don’t, however, agree that Zimmerman’s 911 call showed any bias. If we’re going to start citing previous, unrelated events to show how this is a recurring theme, then I’m inclined to also look at the background to this specific incident. Zimmerman and his neighbours felt threatened by the string of attacks on their homes, which is why they started the neighbourhood watch scheme. With such a system in place, it’s common (and, IMO, understandable, even acceptable) for a resident to watch and/or approach a stranger who looks suspicious. Martin *did* look suspicious to Zimmerman, given the circumstances. He was not a resident. He was wandering around in the rain, apparently not heading anywhere directly. He could plausibly have been a thief casing the houses, he could have been a druggie (user or dealer) waiting for a contact, or he could have been an innocent person just walking home from the shops and getting temporarily lost.

    Given the background, I too would have pegged him as suspicious. When a variety of crimes have been committed in an area, you start to be wary of strangers hanging around that area. Just last week, I was about to use an underground pedestrian bypass in an area where crime is rife. As I approached it, I saw a group of three teenagers loitering at the entrance. They were smaller and much younger than me, they did not appear to have any weapons, and they weren’t doing anything illegal by being there. Maybe they were just hanging out and chatting, their faces hidden by their hoodies simply because it was chilly. But I turned, went up and around the bypass, and added an extra half a mile to my journey in the rain because I was scared to encounter them. I would not think it unreasonable for a resident in that area, perhaps part of some neighbourhood watch scheme, to approach that group and ask if everything was OK, or what they were doing. Yes, they might be completely innocent – but why shouldn’t people be able to keep an eye on someone suspicious-looking, in their neighbourhood, in the midst of a run of break-ins and thefts from their homes?

    Now, if Zimmerman physically attacked Martin and Martin then began hitting back in self defence, then yes, I do think he had every right to do so, and Zimmerman would indeed be guilty of manslaughter. But there’s no evidence to support that that’s what happened. If Zimmerman – as he claims – got out of the car to try to see which way Martin went, and was then attacked, then no. Martin could have spoken to him, or he could have run on home. He, too, could then have called the police to report the suspicious-looking man watching him. But Zimmerman claims that he was on his way back to his car when Martin suddenly appeared, and jumped on him. He was on his back, being beaten up (by a man bigger than him), and calling for help. Eyewitnesses confirm this to some extent. If this is the truth, then legally Zimmerman was within his rights to shoot, believing that he was going to be beaten unconscious or to death.

    I believe the jury made the right decision, because there’s no evidence that Zimmerman threatened or attacked Martin. Yes, he screwed up by getting out of the car and trying to see where he went, which likely angered Martin. It’s not nice to be under suspicion when you’re doing nothing wrong, and I’m guessing not very nice of me to be afraid/suspicious of those teenagers I went out of my way to avoid. But we go by what we know of previous recent events. Martin did not have to react, and could have filed a complaint against Zimmerman. It looks like he attacked him instead. And if he didn’t, there’s still enough reasonable doubt to make a conviction either impossible or unfair. We can’t know for sure what happened.

    And of course, in all of this, race is completely irrelevant. The teens I encountered were white. Had they been black, Asian, or hispanic, my feelings would have been exactly the same. Nor is the fact that they were teenagers any reason for me not to be afraid/suspicious of them, particularly since it’s groups of teens who have been guilty of most of the crime around the area I was in – similar to in Zimmerman’s neighbourhood.

    • Jordan Stewart says:

      Let me clarify: Zimmerman’s bias was not racial bias, but it did exist. While talking to the police on the phone, Zimmerman said “..these assholes, they always get away..”, and “these fucking punks.” In Zimmerman’s mind, Martin had already gone from suspect to confirmed miscreant. Hence, bias.

      Three weeks prior, Zimmerman had noticed a young black male peering into homes, and lost track of where he went. 4 days later, two young black men were observed (by workmen) to be loitering in the yard of a house that was burglarized at about the same time. A search of their backpacks found a stolen laptop;
      Zimmerman I.D.ed one of the young men as the guy he’d seen previously.

      So Martin fits the profile of the last two guys who stole from the neighborhood. It’s reasonable to believe that this factored into Zimmerman’s suspicions that night.

      I agree that it makes sense that Zimmerman would have found Martin suspicious, given the past year of crime in the neighborhood. But I think he went past suspicion, and was already convinced. He was wrong.

      Let’s look at it from Martin’s point of view. You just went to 7-11 for some snacks. You’re walking home, when you notice that you’re being watched by a man in a truck, who makes a phone call while continuing to monitor you.

      You run away, and he gets out of the truck and follows you, still talking on the phone.

      According to Zimmerman’s defense attorney, Martin asked Zimmerman, “what are you following me for?”. But when police had interviewed Zimmerman, they found that he had not identified himself as part of the neighborhood watch.

      Zimmerman had reasonable suspicion about Martin, but had jumped to the conclusion that he was following a criminal. Martin was convinced(reasonably) that this man was following him for no good reason.

      Martin’s attack on Zimmerman was wrong, but it did not come from a void. He was provoked by Zimmerman’s actions (and inaction).

      Zimmerman could have lied. We only have Zimmerman’s version of events. We only have his word that Martin attacked him, after appearing out of nowhere. (The autopsy report puts Martin at 5′ 11″, 158 pounds, according to the N.Y. Times. Taller by 4″, and weighing less than Zimmerman.)

      The police tested Martin’s body for drugs, and found trace amounts of THC, but not enough to have affected his behavior that night. When police talked to Zimmerman, he could not remember the name of one of the streets of the neighborhood he had lived in for the past three years. Zimmerman mentioned that his memory was affected by his ADHD medication. His recollection of events is suspect by his own admission.

      I’d like to see a map of where all of this happened. We know that Martin was killed 64 meters from where he was staying. We won’t know where Zimmerman’s truck was parked, because his wife moved it after he was arrested.

      ———

      You’re right about the jury’s verdict. The prosecution’s case was weak, in my opinion. Their most valuable witness was unreliable, and changed her story twice. Zimmerman shouldn’t have been charged with 2nd degree murder in the first place. It’s clear that he didn’t get out of the vehicle intending to kill Martin. The prosecution did not use the strongest argument: that Zimmerman had initiated the confrontation. That’s how the justice system works. Bad prosecution, reasonable doubt: not guilty.

  4. Hi Hailey,
    It’d seem Zimmerman is anything but racist, having had folk from all background testify on his behalf. The U.S Prison/Industrial complex though is. Check this article where a Florida black woman fired warning shots at an allegedly abusive husband; she’s just received 20 years

    http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-201_162-57433184/fla-mom-gets-20-years-for-firing-warning-shots/

    If it looks like a turd, and smells like a turds, it’s probably not going to be a bouquet of flowers decorated with peacock feathers, coming complete with its very own personalised Cupid to serenade the receiver …

    • Now, if you look at the comments, you’ll find a link to court papers stating why the woman was not entitled to the stand your ground law. All legally succint. Nonetheless, that’s what U.S Legalese is. The fact is a man responsible killing a teenager walks free, but a mother of an 11 year old gets 20 years. Zimmerman had better access to lawyers, and that’s how it rolls in Amerikkka…

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