Still a Threat
The black man is a “phobogenic” object, provoking anxiety.
The length of black life is treated with short worth.
Yasiin Bey (formally Mos Def)
(Notebook: This post began as my thoughts on the larger meaning of the defense’s closing arguments, and after the verdict became something more)
Watching the Zimmerman defense attorney Mark O’Mara’s closing arguments Friday was nothing short of surreal, what I imagine it might have felt like had I entered Dr. Peabody’s Wayback Machine and found myself in a Manhattan theater in 1915. The death of Trayvon Martin and the trial of George Zimmerman for second-degree murder in that death is most assuredly about race, and more than half way through his closing O’Mara addressed the proverbial elephant, though in a way that echoed strongly the themes from that most classic of American cinema, The Birth of a Nation. And O’Mara’s closing argument was replete with lightening.
Making reference to defense witness Olivia Belatran, a young white woman whose home had been broken into by two young black men while she huddled in a locked upstairs bedroom holding her child and an inadequate pair of scissors, O’Mara assured the jury he did not present her for sympathy. “When you put a face on what was happening at Retreat View,” he explained of the series of burglaries in the months leading up to February 26, 2012, “she’s it. She’s really it.” Making audible what had remained unspoken until then, he next presented a poster-board silhouette of Trayvon Martin with a hoodie, followed by a grainy 7-11 security camera photo of Martin, then another of Martin bearing his modest chest: “This is the person, and this is the person who George Zimmerman encountered that night.” And holding yet another of the pitch-black path where Zimmerman ultimately killed Trayvon Martin, he drew the point finely as possible. “It was out of this darkness that Trayvon Martin decided to stalk, …plan, pounce” on his client.
Like The Birth of a Nation, which portrayed Reconstruction-era freed black men roaming the earth without chains, lawless, and lusting for white women, O’Mara dialed up the face of the vulnerable white woman terrorized by black teens unleashed by the same darkness that Zimmerman confronted. With considerable rhetorical skill and calm, O’Mara told a story almost as compelling, getting his point across to those six women jurors, five of whom are white: Zimmerman killed the horror you do not want to confront. Watching the trial in public, I found myself averting my gaze lest someone mistake a glance in the direction of a white woman for reckless eyeballing. Having just learned the jury found Zimmerman not guilty, it’s hard to see how O’Mara’s framing did not do its job.
The anxiety I feel about this trial is not really about this trial, but about the possibility of America. Pretty much every black person I know (both personally and virtually), and likely most of the white folk I know, shared in the outraged that George Zimmerman had killed an unarmed black teen and went free for forty-four days without arrest. We followed the case, noting each twist and turn, our experience of relief at Zimmerman’s eventual arrest and the reading of charges surpassed in recent history possibly only by our elation at Barack Obama’s election, as a black man, to the U.S. Presidency. The Zimmerman trial momentarily allowed for something a bit more profound. Its verdict confirms something far more troubling.
The trial of George Zimmerman for the murder of Trayvon Martin served as a sort of test for whether, to paraphrase LeVar Burton, America was America, or if it might surpass itself. If the criminal justice system would, for once, hold black life in a semblance of equivalence to white life? Maybe this explains the pitiable responses from so many of us toward the testimony of Rachel Jeantel, the young Haitian-Dominican woman on the phone with Martin seconds before he was shot. Betraying our general anxiety that Jeantel is not the right kind of black to represent us, her presence had the unintended consequences of peeling back the sutures of black excellence and revealing our still raw scars of class, color, and ethnic conflict. Concerns that she threatened the case seemed to hinge on the belief that if she had somehow spoke differently, lost weight, and lightened up before getting on the stand the jury would found her believable. The trial’s importance rested on the possibility that America might finally acknowledge our humanity and allow us to walk home unarmed and cloaked in that most cherished of American principles of jurisprudence: presumed innocent. It was impossible for Jeantel to have ever threatened that possibility.
Deep down, I never expected a guilty verdict, but I hope for one. Last year, I joined the chorus of calls for Justice for Trayvon Martin, watched closely, waited on, and exhaled at Zimmerman’s eventual arrest. But what possibility did it all portend, what cost comes with investing in retribution for Trayvon Martin’s death, when doing so renders his death and what contributed to it the singular issue of Zimmerman’s guilt or innocence, and not the larger complex that framed and sanctioned it. If this had been the time when a white person (or a not-quite-white Latino) was held accountable for their response to the phobogenic black, what would come next? What value would we have gained? Put differently, what would our inclusion in a system whose logics, protocols, and rationales are premised on the very notion of our bodies as ever-present threats to home and hearth? Could we have really moved forward as equals in a system where among the available legal arguments to the defense was to present black boys as always threatening to pounce from a dark alley — even when we’re walking home, minding our own business, and fearful of the armed grown man following us?
I join in the anger, the pain, and the frustration that so many are experiencing right now. And we should all be outraged. Hugging my three-year-old daughter, I fought back tears, relieved she’s too young to get what’s going on, so I don’t have to try to explain. My anger, our anger, our frustration, my resignation is not because we’ve been let down, not because we were convinced that this time, it would be different. We should always be outraged with a group of people, no matter how small or large, or a society, no matter how great and democratic, invalidates the humanity of anyone, commits an injustice against anyone, devalues any life, diminishes love, and serves up pain and hatred as justice and truth. We should have expected no more than this from the United States of America, and we should remain pissed as hell that this is the best we can hope for.
The horrific conclusion that is the acquittal of George Zimmerman leaves in place a larger issue than this vigilante. Even had the jury miraculously found him guilty, what the entire process continued to occlude is our ever addressing the institutional practices and logics that made Martin and black people more generally (especially black men) a source of anxiety. The judicial system (from the police to the courts to the prison industrial complex) necessarily excludes itself from culpability and responsibility, as it is the institution from which we seek justice for its wrongs. Even neighborhood watch programs turn on the same policies, legal precedents, and juridical beliefs that render us constant threats, even if members of those communities and neighborhoods. More fundamentally, this same racialized system operates not only to shield white crime from ever factoring as a problem, and black crime a problem only when it bleeds into the fabric of the nation — the New Orleans Mother’s Day parade massacre and the scores of black children killed in Chicago both fail to register on the national consciousness in anything like the horrors of the Boston Marathon bombing or the Newtown murders at Sandy Hook Elementary — but from our very ability to call into question these practices as a fundament of American democracy and jurisprudence.
If we can take anything redemptive from this horror, if any such possibility exists, it would have to be Rachel Jeantel. What never came out in her testimony (I guess it never occurred to anyone to ask), but what the public learned subsequently, is that her friendship with Martin was precisely because he violated those very same premises that cast him as a source of anxiety and her as a threat to racial respectability. Trayvon and Rachel were friends, she related through her attorney, because he never made fun of her complexion, her size, or how she talked. Their friendship stemmed from their ability to see one another as human beings, to love one another (not romantically but) as people who could see one another, and who could function from a vulnerable place where love functions as nothing other than honoring another’s life and presence, one another’s existence on this earth. Maybe we can take from Trayvon what he gave, the ability to see who we are. That the jury, the justice system, the racialized arguments of the defense, and the swell of support for Zimmerman throughout this whole ordeal, could never recognized his humanity should continue to enrage us. Shouldn’t surprise us. Shouldn’t appear to us as something new. This was no great revelation. And still, his very humanity and his ability to recognize it in others should spur us on to recognize his and ours, and channel our outrage into something a bit more than continued investment in this system to correct itself and ever see us as human.