Who is George Zimmerman?

March 22, 2012

The shooter was once a Catholic altar boywith a surname that could have been Jewish.

His father is white, neighbors say. His mother is Latina. And his family is eager to point out that some of his relatives are black.

There may be no box to check for George Zimmerman, no tidy way to categorize, define and sort the 28-year-old man whose pull of a trigger on a darkened Florida street is forcing America to once again confront its fraught relationship with race and identity. The victim, we know, was named Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager in a hoodie. The rest becomes a matter for interpretation.

The drama in Florida takes on a kind of modern complexity. Its nuances show America for what it is steadily becoming, a realm in which identity is understood as something that cannot be summed up in a single word.

The images of Zimmerman — not just his face, but the words used to describe him — can confound and confuse. Why are they calling him white, wondered Paul Ebert, the Prince William County commonwealth’s attorney who knew Zimmerman’s mother, Gladys, from her days as an interpreter at the county courthouse. Zimmerman’s mother, Ebert knew, was Peruvian, and he thought of her as Hispanic.

Looking at Zimmerman’s photograph made Darren Soto, a Florida state legislator, think he might be Latino. But he just as easily might have been Italian or French, he thought. “It’s all over the place in Florida,” said Soto, who represents a statehouse district in Orlando, a 20-minute drive from the gated subdivision in Sanford where Martin died. “You have people with Anglo first and last names who speak perfect Spanish and are from Puerto Rico. And you’ve got a third- or fourth-generation Joey Gonzalez from Tampa who can’t speak a word of Spanish.”

The focus in Florida, where thousands gathered Thursday night in Sanford for an emotional rally, has primarily been on complaints that Martin may have been targeted because of his race. The uproar led Thursday to the temporary resignation of Sanford Police Chief Bill Lee, who has been accused by demonstrators of bungling the case and criticized for not arresting Zimmerman.

In Manassas, where Zimmerman lived in the 1980s and 1990s with his parents and two siblings, neighbors tended to define the family based on their spiritual profile. “Very Catholic . . . very religious,” their neighbor Jim Rudzenski recalled Thursday. The children attended All Saints Catholic School on Stonewall Road through the eighth grade before going to Osbourn High School. George became an altar server and evening receptionist at All Saints Catholic Church. The Zimmermans “were known and respected in the community for their dedication and service,” said Robert Cilinski, pastor of All Saints Catholic Church.

The father, Robert Zimmerman Sr., is a retired military man. He could be strict. And the children’s grandmother, who lived with the family, also kept a watchful eye, said Kay Hall, who lived across the street from the Zimmermans in a neighborhood just west of Sudley Road for about 20 years. George and his siblings “didn’t play with the neighborhood kids,” Rudzen­ski said. “They had to stay home and play.” It was always “Yes, ma’am,” “No, ma’am,” Hall said.

Zimmerman’s life was not without difficulties. In 2001 — when he was 17 or 18 — he was the victim of a minor criminal assault, said Manassas police Sgt. Eddie Rivera. The city’s computer records do not provide details of the crime.

In school, Zimmerman hinted at ambitions in the business world. He joined a Future Business Leaders of America club. And in his senior yearbook, he wrote: “I’m going to Florida to work with my godfather who just bought a $1 million business.”

In Florida, Zimmerman shifted his plans, enrolling in Seminole State College with hopes of becoming a law enforcement officer. He became the self-appointed protector of the streets around his home, although his neighborhood watch organization was not officially registered. He called the police department at least 46 times since 2004 to report everything from open garages to suspicious people. In 2005, according to police records obtained by the Orlando Sentinel and other news organizations, Zimmerman was twice accused of either criminal misconduct or violence. He had a concealed-weapon permit and had a black Kel-Tec semiautomatic handgun and a holster the night Martin died.

Zimmerman’s father has sought to emphasize his family’s diversity in hopes of saving his son from condemnation as a racist. While images of protests from across the country skitter past on television screens, the elder Zimmerman has tried to do what others have been doing, in various ways, for days: define his son. George is “a Spanish-speaking minority,” the father wrote in a letter delivered to the Orlando Sentinel. “He would be the last to discriminate for any reason whatsoever.” George, the father insisted, was more like the boy he killed than people thought. George was a minority — the other — too.

But the argument that the father is making feels hollow and self-serving to Michaela Angela Davis, an African American writer and activist who lives in New York. In her eyes, George Zimmerman’s Hispanic roots don’t give him cover.

“You being a minority doesn’t make you immune to racist beliefs,” she said in an interview Thursday. Davis sees a pervasive cultural imprint, reinforced by media and entertainment imagery: the black man as a symbol of “violence, fear and deviant behavior.” A young man could be susceptible to the influence of that image whether his “mother is from Peru or Norway.”

Hispanics and black Americans have a shared history of discrimination in the United States. But they also have a shared history of tension — in neighborhoods, schools, even prisons. In Latin America, including Peru, Afro Latinos have frequently complained of a lack of political representation, economic disenfranchisement and the virtual absence of their image in popular culture, such as soap operas, an issue they attribute to racial exclusion.

Zimmerman’s legal fate could rest on examinations of possible motives that will be pieced together from clues, including snatches of audiotape, and from inquiries into whether he muttered a racial slur before the shooting.

Zimmerman’s family background doesn’t invite a racial motive, but it doesn’t discount one either, said Luis Martinez-Fernandez, a professor of Latin American and Caribbean history at the University of Central Florida. Hispanics are an ethnic group, but within that group there are different ­races. There are black Dominicans and Cubans, for instance.

“Who is Hispanic and who’s not is not as clear as other ethnic groups,” said Martinez-Fernandez. “There’s no such thing as a Hispanic race. It has to do with origin, culture and race. Some people argue that language should be a part. All this complicates identity.”

Hispanics make up the nation’s largest ethnic group at more than 13 percent of the population, while African Americans are the largest racial group, with more than 12 percent of the population. In the 2010 Census, more than half of people who identified as Hispanic said they were white, and only 3 percent said they were black.

“There’s a sense that one group has been harmed historically more than the other,” Martinez-Fernandez said. “There’s been a history of the dominant group in power pitting one group against the other. I think we have not fought together. There have been few instances of that.”

But there have been some signs in Florida that Hispanics and African Americans are forging a bond, said Soto, the state legislator. During ongoing redistricting debates in Florida, the two groups have “stuck together very solidly,” he said.

If not for a quirk of fate, Martin and Zimmerman might never have encountered each other, sparing the nation a painful episode. Several years ago, Zimmerman returned to his old neighborhood and showed up unannounced at the house across the street. He came back two more times to see George Hall, a retired Presbyterian minister. Zimmerman told him that he had plans. He wanted to move back to Virginia. He wanted to be a police officer, but he needed a letter of recommendation that Zimmerman could give to prospective employers.

“I told them he was a great guy,” Hall recalled. “We never did hear what happened with that.”

Staff writers Brady Dennis, Sari Horwitz, Josh White and Jeremy Borden contributed to this report.

Tom Jackman is a native of Northern Virginia and has been covering the region for The Post since 1998.
Darryl Fears has worked at The Washington Post for more than a decade, mostly as a reporter on the National staff. He currently covers the environment, focusing on the Chesapeake Bay and issues affecting wildlife.
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