by Daphne Muller
At the center of the debate surrounding the legality of George Zimmerman’s shooting of Trayvon Martin is the question of whether or not Zimmerman uttered a racial slur as he pursued the 17-year old boy on foot. According to ABC News, it “sounds like [Zimmerman said] ‘fucking coons’” under his breath on the tape of one of the 911 calls from the night of the killing. If Zimmerman did, in fact, utter this racial slur, the case becomes a hate crime investigation. If he did not, it will be harder to prove that he was not legally justified in performing his duty as a vigilant neighborhood watch captain. This is because of Florida’s ‘Stand Your Ground’ Law, which allows regular citizens to use lethal force against other people when they feel that,
“such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the imminent commission of a forcible felony.”
In this particular case, due to the ambiguity of the law, it may be difficult to prove that Zimmerman did not believe he was preventing his own “imminent death” or “great bodily harm.” There are no witnesses (besides Martin’s girlfriend who was on the phone with him at the time) and the only evidence of what transpired between the mortgage underwriter and the high school student is from the 911 tapes that Trayvon’s family had to sue the police department to release. Unbelievably, the legality of killing the unarmed teenager may come down to whether the shooter muttered a racial slur beforehand or was simply breathing heavily.
However, let’s assume for a moment that Zimmerman didn’t utter a racial epithet--does that reduce this case to an unfortunate misunderstanding?
Did Emmett Till whistle at Carolyn Bryant? I’m sure her husband and the other men who abducted and killed him thought they were ‘standing their ground’ when they threw his body in the Tallahatchie River. I’m not being hyperbolic: Institutionalized racism in this country permitted thousands of murders of black Americans because it operated on the premise that an entire race of people was a menace. In the Till case, his killers weren’t legally sanctioned by the state of Mississippi to murder a black child but they must have known that there would be little to no repercussions when they did. Laws like ‘Stand Your Ground’ offer a similar assurance to powerless-feeling people by allowing them to wield the basest power there is--violence--with near impunity. It encourages people to be intimidators for fear of intimidation. It is not surprising then that since the law went into effect in 2005 killings in Florida justified by ‘self-defense’ have risen by 283%.
At a rally demanding justice for Martin last Wednesday in Union Square, Martin’s mother, Sybrina Fulton, insisted that “This is not a black and white thing. It’s a right or wrong thing.” And to talk about how race is implicitly considered in the crafting of misguided laws such as ‘Stand Your Ground’ is to talk about right and wrong. Whether or not Zimmerman shot Martin because he felt threatened or because Martin was black (or both) may never be clear. What is clear is that focusing on who and what constitutes a ‘racist’ and ‘racism’ obfuscates the bigger question of what constitutes justice. Vilifying George Zimmerman as a racist may seem fair--even easy--but, then again, Zimmerman lives in a state and a country that gave him license to legally kill another person. This is the ultimate tragedy.
There will be more Trayvon Martins in the future if we don’t take this opportunity to publicly and openly discuss how race factors consciously and subconsciously into policy-making. More often than not, race is only talked about in an ignorant public and political discourse--a racialized sermonizing that makes it all the more likely for people to see a black teenager in a hoodie and label him a ‘fucking coon.’ If we don’t expect intelligent conversations about race from our media, government leaders, and lawmakers, how can we expect to have them among ourselves? Laws like ‘Stand Your Ground’ (23 states have similar ones) exist because those conversations are not easy but carrying a gun in the anticipation of self-defense is.
I hope as this case moves forward that ‘post-racial’ platitudes don’t re-insert themselves into our discussions on justice in this country. What killed Trayvon Martin was more than bullets--it’s a society that allows people like George Zimmerman to feel as though they can kill with little to no consequences when they believe -- even falsely -- that another person is a threat.
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons - A Kel-Tec PF-9 9mm pistol, the same model used by George Zimmerman to kill Trayvon Martin.
Daphne Muller recently graduated from Yale University, where she received a master’s degree in Religion and the Arts with a focus in Literature. Currently, she writes book reviews for Publishers Weekly and periodically reviews books for ELLE online. She has written for The Huffington Post, Chaos magazine, Columbia University’s Institute for Religion, Culture, and Public Life, Yale’s Glossolalia, and various other publications.