On February 26, a young African American middle schooler named Trayvon Martin was shot dead in Florida, as he walked back to a family member’s home after having bought some candy at a local convenience store.
His murderer was George Zimmerman, a self-appointed neighborhood watch guard, who felt that that Martin represented a “threat”. After weeks of public outrage, in which the hoodie became a symbol of cultural defiance against trigger-happy racism, Zimmerman was finally arrested on charges of second degree murder — only to be released on bail a couple weeks later, news which devastated Martin’s parents.
The Trayvon Martin case has already sparked a major conflagration in the digital etherium of US media, where left-wing and right-wing pundits alike have mined it for staking out their replayable sound-bites in the culture wars. Obama speechified in the sorrowful persona of paternal godfather, declaring that if he had a son, he would have looked like Trayvon. While the US president described kinship with the slain boy, conservative pundits like Geraldo Rivera and Newt Gingrich pounced on signs of the boy’s criminality, implying that the tragedy could have been averted if Martin had been less visibly black (or if he a had a penchant for preppy clothes).
The case reached a new pitch of racial offensiveness after Zimmerman’s father tried to claim that Martin had been the one that attacked Zimmerman first, invoking Florida’s infamous Stand Your Ground Law, which permits killing in self-defense. Conservative media outlets began to ominously buzz with insinuations of Martin as a violent black youth who attacked Zimmerman and somehow merited the bullets that were pumped into him. Zimmerman is 100 pounds heavier than and 3 inches taller than Martin, but for the 700 Club and Fox News, he gains the tender cachet of sympathy for a citizen imperiled by an aggressive black male.
While it took US law enforcement two months to prosecute Zimmerman, a cursory glance at other cases involving Stand Your Ground shows that the “self-defense” loophole that Zimmerman is claiming in order to lobby US culture to procure his innocence, is not made available to all citizens equally. In 2005, John McNeil, a middle-class African American businessman in Georgia, shot a white contractor Brian Epp after the latter trespassed on his property and threatened McNeil’s son. Epp was known to be violent and had threatened other members of the neighborhood—however, in McNeil’s case, law enforcement decided that self-defense simply didn’t apply to the case and sentenced McNeil to life imprisonment.
As many observers have pointed out, the Trayvon Martin case is not simply a preventable tragedy involving a young teen in the wrong place at the wrong time and a zealous wanna-be policeman. Zimmerman has a checkered past — he’s called police 46 times in the past year in his town watch capacity and in 2005, was charged with assaulting a police officer. Martin was an upstanding youth who played on the middle school football team and dreamed of being an aviation engineer. Despite these facts, the police tested Martin’s corpse for drugs and not Zimmerman, an implicit statement about the role of race in the presumption of innocence. The murdered African American teen is presumed guilty of doing drugs and spreading violence in the neighborhood, while the Hispanic man masquerading as white through a German-sounding surname, is presumed to be the defender of law and order.
Zimmerman’s call to the police invokes the fears and terrors of black masculinity, which has obsessed US culture since the Civil War, and which unleashed a pandemic of lynching. Zimmerman’s call to the police after spotting Martin is rife with racial paranoia. In the recording, Zimmerman tells the police that he saw “a real suspicious person” who was “likely up to no good or… on drugs or something.” He described something in the hands of this suspicious person, vaguely implying a weapon of some sort — which later turned out to be a packet of Skittles and iced tea.
As some media commentators have noted, this recycles the lingo of the 1990s’ War on Drugs, which worked to criminalize the African American male population as a whole in the public gaze. Of course, sometimes the most zealous defenders of whiteness tend to be those individuals whose own whiteness is rather suspect. Zimmerman’s own status as an ethnic minority plays a key part in his psychic terrors — the compulsion at hand is that only by policing the shadowy figures of racial monsters in the neighborhood can he prove himself to be white.
While the mainstream media has shrugged this off as a sad tragedy — an unfortunate accident — it is clear that the case has far greater significance to a post-9/11 United States. The case of Trayvon Martin showcases the shift in domestic racial attitudes that has taken place since the US announced its global crusade. The paranoia and terrors encouraged by legislation like the Patriot Act have transformed whiteness from a guilty privilege into the substrate of civilization that must be defended at all costs. While Trayvon Martin’s murder initially evoked an upsurge of sympathy, public reaction is now far more divided. Eight in ten African Americans say Martin’s killing was not justified, compared with just 38% of whites. Meanwhile, 56% of Republicans believe that there has been “too much coverage” in the media, as opposed to 25% of Democrats.
It is not so much Zimmerman who is on trial here, but US law itself. For in the eyes of US law, Zimmerman is innocent. The weeks it took for law enforcement to prosecute the death of the African American teen, and the murderer’s recent release on bail, indicates that the trigger-happy Zimmerman has already received and will continue to receive benefit of the doubt. Public outrage over Martin’s death, in the form of nationwide vigils, marches, and protests (including a massive rally organized by Martin’s peers at school), is forcing the hand here — not an intrinsic sense of justice as colorblind. If the 9/11 Crusade is an extension of the 1970s Goldwater revolution to re-inscribe the US as a haven of racial whiteness, a crucial step to its realization was George W. Bush’s move to pull the Supreme Court toward a conservative orbit by appointing uber-conservative justices John Roberts and Samuel Alito to the bench.
Understanding the Trayvon Martin case means taking stock of the post-racial utopia that President Obama’s election was supposed to have ushered in. The Martin Luther King monument erected on the National Mall in 2011 is both memorial and coffin to ideals of the inclusive liberal narrative of the civil rights movement deified in US culture from the 1960s onwards. The Trayvon Martin murder showcases the fact that 9/11 is not simply an event that transformed the lives of Muslim American citizens, but which re-configured white power at the expense of all racial and ethnic minorities. The failure of US citizens to challenge their culture’s post-9/11 move to preemptively tar all Muslims as guilty is tied to their impotence in gaining justice for Trayvon Martin, a promising life cut short.