To George Zimmerman, Trayvon Martin was never just a teenager who could possibly have belonged in the Sanford, Fla., gated community. He was always the “suspect.”
I’m not putting words into the mouth of the neighborhood watch volunteer who shot and killed Martin and was found not guilty on Saturday. That’s exactly what Zimmerman called Martin in his post-shooting statement to police, though the 17-year-old wasn’t a suspect in any crime. Martin was walking from the store to his father’s house. Zimmerman was armed with a gun and Martin with candy, and then Martin was dead, unable to tell his side of the story.
That’s when the narrative took over, the subtle but very real judgment that makes people clutch their purse closer or cross the street when young black men stroll by, that makes New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, with his city’s police department stop-and-frisk policies being challenged as discriminatory in court, feel comfortable saying, as he did recently, “I think we disproportionately stop whites too much and minorities too little.”
It’s why comments after the Zimmerman verdict mention Chicago teens killing one another and O.J. Simpson. What happened in Sanford, Fla., wasn’t about any of that. But it was, in a way, about all of that, feelings so ingrained we might not even know they are there.
George Zimmerman — the man with no real police authority — was left to explain what happened, and those around him listened and obviously believed in his fear of an unarmed black teen. “These [expletive], they always get away.” Zimmerman said to police, robbing Martin of individuality and humanity, as he conflated one 17-year-old he did not know with “suspects” who had been breaking into homes.
The judge may not have allowed any mention of “racial” profiling during the trial. But when a defense attorney told the court that the real-life suspects in actual neighborhood robberies were black and male, it was clear he was trying to connect Martin to one of “them” or at least raise that suspicion.
It was a slick way to make the same point as Zimmerman’s brother, Robert Zimmerman Jr., who had tweeted pictures comparing Martin with a Georgia teen accused of killing a baby in a botched robbery. Though comparing a dead victim to a live suspect is a pretty audacious move, many were ready to accept his conclusion. He was criticized, but his conclusion of “thug” equals “thug” was not dismissed.
With only Zimmerman’s story to go on, much was left to the imagination and how people viewed the man on trial and a dead child — and a 17-year-old is still a child despite efforts by those representing the man with a criminal record to paint the youth without a criminal record as the dangerous one.
Much was made of the all-female, six-person jury, mostly mothers, who, some speculated, would have sympathy for the heartbreaking loss suffered by another mother, Sybrina Fulton. But was there more sympathy for Zimmerman’s mother? Did race trump gender and class, for that matter, with those women on the mostly white jury seeing Martin as a menace to society as opposed to a middle-class minor who posed for silly pictures because that’s what kids do. Must a young black man always dress in preppy attire, since being shirtless, as Martin was in one photo the defense displayed, or wearing a hoodie, as he was the night he was killed, can be twisted to insinuate “criminal”?
Why so little empathy for a young man who, according to the story his friend Rachel Jeantel told her lawyer, was the only one who never teased her “about the way I talked, about my hair, about my complexion … about my weight.” Jeantel got plenty of that, of course, from so-called neutral observers and lawyers. They found something sinister in her changed stories on why she didn’t attend Martin’s funeral. All I saw was a 19-year-old’s pain when she realized she was the last person to speak to her friend. Maybe I would have made up excuses, too.
But then, not many were willing to put themselves in her place. Even after the not-guilty verdict, little sympathy was extended to grieving parents still mourning a child. In a news conference, the defense team ran a victory lap, with Don West defending a knock-knock joke that fell flat in his opening statement. “I still think the joke was funny,” he said. “But I wish I’d told it better.” Some Zimmerman defenders went even further — Ann Coulter tweeted, “Hallelujah!”
I respect the jury’s verdict, but I hardly think it happened in a vacuum. Like other mothers who have spoken up, I have wondered what the rules are for black sons navigating the world. I try not to think about a son living in Bloomberg’s New York.
When does standing up for yourself become mouthing off, and can a black male ever claim fear as a defense, even when the “creepy” guy following him turns out to be packing. The history of black citizens being stalked and attacked in America — for doing things as basic as registering to vote — is long. Yet that history has been turned upside down with African Americans’ role as the aggressor used as justification, then and now.
Defense lawyer Mark O’Mara said Zimmerman wouldn’t have been arrested if he were black, with Robert Zimmerman chiming in. (They are actually in agreement with some of all races who oppose the verdict, who would say the criminal justice system doesn’t value black men’s lives no matter who does the shooting.)
But the suggestion that black people are not upset about black-on-black crime is just inaccurate. The protests, rallies, memorials and group efforts never really stop, though they seldom make the news. In Charlotte, N.C., where I live, Mothers of Murdered Offspring continue the candlelight vigils and violence prevention programs they’ve been leading since 1993.
Sybrina Fulton’s son was killed, then his reputation was smeared after death. In court, she was asked to ponder the possibility that her unarmed son caused his own death. She handled it better than I imagine I would have.
The black community at large, though there really is no one monolithic group, was profiled again, with predictions of riots greeting a not-guilty verdict. Reporting before and during the trial revealed even the African Americans in Sanford saying they were used to disappointment. Following the verdict, many turned to prayer. The crowd outside the courtroom seemed more depressed in their silence after the verdict. The diverse, mostly peaceful crowds that protested this past weekend again defied the preconceptions and stereotypes as they exercised their American rights.
The defense team imagined some race switching in their post-trial statements. I wonder what might have happened if an armed black neighborhood watch volunteer had claimed fear of a 17-year-old white kid after he fought with him and shot him in the heart.
With mainly his word to go on, could that person have depended on society to fill in the rest of his story?
Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C., has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter: @mcurtisnc3