George Zimmerman’s Acquittal In The Death Of Trayvon Martin: Three Essays On Culture And Moral Imagination

George Zimmerman in court.

On Saturday, George Zimmerman was acquitted of the charge of second degree murder in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin on the night of February 26, 2012. Zimmerman’s acquittal raises difficult questions about what Florida and federal law allow, and what can realistically be done to change them, whether the issue is the proliferation of Stand Your Ground laws, how our legal understanding of self-defense handles altercations in which the person who kills another participant was also the person who initiated the incident, or the fact that Zimmerman will get back the gun he used to shoot Martin.

But Trayvon Martin’s death, George Zimmerman’s acquittal, and the killings of other young black men are also stories about our culture, the way it undervalues black life and overprivileges white fear, and where those valuations come from. What is it we’re taught to expect from people who don’t look like us, or who don’t meet our expectations of what people in their positions should look like? To whom do our moral imaginations allow us to extend charity, and on which grounds? And what does the world we see in books, film, and television teach us to expect from the one we live in? To think through those questions, I considered three things. What does it mean not just to raise black children to try to avoid their own untimely deaths, but how to raise white children who won’t see their black counterparts as threats in the first place? What did we expect from Trayvon Martin’s friend, Rachel Jeantel, when she took the witness stand? And can Fruitvale Station, Ryan Coogler’s movie about the killing of Oscar Grant, which opened the same weekend as the verdict, do anything to help viewers see black men as people?

I. Raising Trayvon Martin, Raising George Zimmerman

From 'The Snowy Day,' By Ezra Jack Keats

In the aftermath of former neighborhood watch captain George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the killing of Trayvon Martin, Gene Demby, the lead blogger for NPR’s Code Switch, a blog about race in America, posted a series of Tweets from readers about how they were talking to their children about the verdict, and what the case meant for a very particular version of the Talk parents have to have with their children. In this case, the Talk means breaking the news to children of color that someday, they will be mistaken for a threat, discussing the best ways for managing that case of mistaken identity, as Levar Burton recently explained he’s done with his own children, and acknowledging the enraging but real possibility that, because of that case of mistaken identity, violence against them may be treated like it’s justifiable, even reasonable.

As a white woman with a white boyfriend, I can imagine, of course, but not quite inhabit, the terror of parents or people who are thinking of starting families, and who are facing up to the prospect that their children, by nature of their birth, have been marked for suspicion, for the destruction of their reputations in death, for a marked lack of charity, and more than their equal share of suspicion, anger, and pain. But I was struck by one of the Tweets Demby collected, from a woman named Angel Wood-Morton, who explained that she had discussed the case with her son, “but he’s white. He cried and said ‘I hate that I won the cosmic lottery and I can’t share it.'” Reading her submission, my first thought was that Wood-Morton sounds like a good mother, to have raised a child who’s attuned to privilege, and understands that he’s the beneficiary of a profoundly unequal social economy. My second was a moment of profound anxiety at the thought of a very different kind parental failure: raising a child who does what George Zimmerman did. What if I raise someone who ends up so badly in need of an identity that they take a volunteer position with the neighborhood watch tobe a deputy’s badge in an actual law enforcement structure? Or someone so eager to assert his or her power and expertise that he ignores police instructions and gets out of his car looking for an opportunity to be a hero? Or someone who lacks the moral imagination to grasp that a young black man might have an agenda for the evening other than to disturb a gated community?

Maybe having that fear in the first place is a protection against its realization, but I spent some of the afternoon thinking about what my parents did to build out my capacity to imagine the inner lives of other people, even as I grew up in a collection of predominantly white towns. I was born in Connecticut, and grew up first in a town where in 2010, 79.6 percent of the residents were white, and just 6.3 percent were African-American. We moved next to Vermont, a state where as of 2012, 95.4 percent of the population is white, and just 1.1 percent of residents are African-American, far below the 13.1 percent national average. And when I was ten, we moved to a town in Massachusetts that, as of the 2010 census, was 74.7 percent white, and just 1.1 percent African-American, though its school system did participate in the METCO program, which bussed in some students from Boston neighborhoods, making my classes in Massachusetts more diverse.

I don’t know that my family had a version of the Talk about race, and I didn’t always have African-American classmates, but I did have stories that gave me a sense that the part of the world I lived in the experiences I had in it were a tiny part of a larger whole. I had John Steptoe’s Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters, an adaptation of a folktale from Zimbabwe with some of the same themes as a Cinderella story, in which the goodness of Nyasha wins the king’s heart, despite the machinations of her sister Manyara. I had Gail Haley’s A Story, A Story, an Anansi myth, Verna Aardema’s Why Mosquitos Buzz In People’s Ears, and Margaret Musgrove’s Ashanti to Zulu, an alphabet book of African traditions. Like many white readers, I had Ezra Jack Keats’ The Snowy Day as one of my first experiences of a story where the main character was black because there was no particular narrative need for him to be white, and I also had Peter’s Chair, Whistle for Willie, and Pet Show!, which was particularly dear to me as a small, allergic girl, who like Archie, that story’s main character, liked neighbor pets, but didn’t have one of my own. I had–and recently re-read–Vera B. Williams’ Cherries and Cherry Pits, itself an exploration of the stories that spring from the imagination of a little girl named Bedemmi. Like everyone else, I read To Kill A Mockingbird, and went to see a stage production of Harper Lee’s classic at the Huntington Theater in Boston on a school trip, and I read Trudy Krisher’s Spite Fences, a similar novel that requires a young white woman to act not merely as a witness, but to give testimony. I had a biography of Harriet Tubman, the title of which is lost to me, that I read as if it were a superhero comic. And though we were not a television watching household for the most part, I had Ghostwriter, and an experience of life in a city, from the Jenkins family brownstone to the Fernandez’s bodega, that was entirely out of my reach in the suburbs and the country.

None of this is to say that children’s books and television alone are enough to produce decent people, or that they make for a whole education in American racial history, much less that encountering characters in books is a substitute for coming to know actual people of color. But I do believe they helped shape my sense that the world was made up of more than the neighborhoods I grew up in, and had in it more kinds of people than the ones I knew, and that getting to know more places and more people was an opportunity to wish for rather than an unfortunate outcome to be scrupulously avoided.

I’m grateful, among other things, for my mother’s decision to get me involved in Girl Scouting Beyond Bars, a program that let me work with a troupe of young girls who were brought together by the fact that they all had incarcerated mothers, and that brought me into the visiting room at MCI Framingham several weekends a month while I was in high school. And I’m thankful that they instilled in me the kind of curiosity about experiences outside my own that got me to Varick Memorial AME Zion Church in New Haven while I was in college, both for some Sunday services, and for community organizing training in the basement. A metal detector and a threshhold of a church are very different kinds of boundary lines, and neither come close to defining the totality of African-American experiences, but the urge to cross over them both, even if it at times made me anxious to do it, was a remarkable gift.

After the verdict acquitting Zimmerman was announced, the commentator Jay Smooth Tweeted “The fundamental danger of an acquittal is not more riots, it is more George ZImmermans.” But court decisions aren’t the only things that produce George Zimmermans. That’s a process that begins long before February 26, 2012, the night Martin was killed, and before December 6, 2009, the day Zimmerman applied for a concealed weapon/firearms license. As long as black parents feel that the existence of George Zimmerman and men like him mean they need to talk to their children about how not to get killed, white parents can do them the courtesy of thinking through how to raise our own children to make theirs safer.

II. Rachel Jeantel And The CSI Effect

Rachel Jeantel. Credit:

“There are no Rachel Jeantels on CSI,” John Guy, the assistant state’s attorney who was one-third of the prosecutorial team in the Zimmerman case, said during his closing argument on Friday afternoon. Jeantel, Trayvon Martin’s friend, was the last person who spoke to him before George Zimmerman shot him dead, and her testimony against Zimmerman, describing Martin’s fear of the man who was following him, became one of the flashpoints of the trial. Jeantel’s weight, her choice of clothing and accessories, her diction, and her demeanor have been invoked by her detractors to attempt to discredit her testimony and her worthiness as a person. And her supporters have taken her presentation and reactions to some of the questions she was asked as a sign of her authenticity and emotional honesty, and the reactions to her as a powerful example of how many white Americans treat black women who haven’t been managed, manicured, and presented specifically for their comfort.

“Rachel Jeantel isn’t a Hollywood actress,” wrote Mychal Denzel Smith in The Nation. “She’s not a trained professional. She doesn’t testify in court regularly. She’s a young black woman missing her friend. She showed up to court to give all the information she had as to what happened the night he died.”

The repeated invocation of Hollywood in the conversation about Jeantel absolutely has to do with the way she looks and speaks, and the cultural narratives available to black women who look and speak like her. As Danielle Belton wrote of commentators, many of them African-American themselves, who were referring to Jeantel as “Precious,” rather than by her name: “‘Precious,’ as you may recall is the main character from the film based on the book Push. She is a heavyset, poorly educated black girl who has been abused most of her life and feels unloved. Calling Jeantel “Precious” was Twitter’s way of saying they were ashamed of the girl who was the key witness for not being thin, polished and conventionally pretty. That because she is not those things, she should be unloved (and preferably invisible).”

But Guy’s invocation of CSI suggests something else in addition to the judgement of Jeantel herself. As Jeffrey Toobin wrote in the New Yorker in a 2007 piece called “The CSI Effect,” about the impact on the show on the perception of forensic science, “In large part because of the series’ success, [New York Police Department hair and fiber division head Lisa] Faber’s profession has acquired an air of glamour, and its practitioners an aura of infallibility. ‘I just met with the conference of Louisiana judges, and, when I asked if CSI had influenced their juries, every one of them raised their hands,’ Carol Henderson, the director of the National Clearinghouse for Science, Technology and the Law, at Stetson University, in Florida, told me. ‘People are riveted by the idea that science can solve crimes.'”

Toobin’s piece is about science, rather than eyewitness testimony. But what shows like CSI promise is certainty. George Zimmerman was acquitted because, as the justice system properly demands, there was reasonable doubt about the events of February 26, 2012, because Zimmerman is the only living witness to them. Jeantel was the only person available to testify about Trayvon Martin’s thoughts and emotions on that night after Zimmerman began to follow him. And she differed from CSI, and from Hollywood’s portrayal of crime stories in general, no just in how she looked or how she dressed, but in her inability to provide the jurors with absolute certainty, her inability to take the stand and put the case away. Some of that inability may be a result of her presentation, which rendered her less than credible in the eyes of uncharitable observers. But much of it is because, as Toobin argued when speaking of science, that level of clarity is out of our reach, a different standard from “beyond reasonable doubt.” And yet jurors and observers have come to expect it, even to demand it.

III. Fruitvale Station And The Reach Of Our Moral Imaginations

A still from Ryan Coogler's 'Fruitvale Station.'

“The Weinstein Company has managed to hit the zeitgeist on plenty of occasions, but this is one has eerie timing,” Brian Brooks wrote for Deadline on Sunday in reporting that Fruitvale Station, the directorial debut by Ryan Coogler that chronicles the last day in the life of Oscar Grant before he was shot to death on New Year’s Day in 2009, had grossed an average of $53,898 per screen, a very high number, in its limited opening this weekend.” “The same weekend that the Trayvon Martin verdict was read, the company also happened to release its Sundance Film Festival ’13 winner Fruitvale Station in 7 theaters, pulling in a broad reach of audiences even as the Twittersphere linked the film with last night’s George Zimmerman verdict.”

The genius of Fruitvale Station is Coogler’s decision to focus on a single day that was ordinary until it wasn’t. “It’s easy not to have sympathy for someone you don’t know. It’s easy not to have sympathy for someone you’ve never been around, and you’ve only gotten shorthanded, hackneyed descriptions of somebody through media or through what you see on the news or what you see in pop culture,” Coogler told me. “What we hope to do with the film is just to bring people close to this character. And I think that’s a natural thing to do, to care about someone after you spend time with them.”

If viewers knew Oscar Grant only as someone who had been convicted of two felonies and spent time in prison, it might be easy, if profoundly unfair, to draw one set of conclusions about how he might have ended up in conflict with the police again. But if they know someone who helps a young white woman pick out fish to fry for her boyfriend at the supermarket, who takes care to pick out the right birthday card for his mother as a favor to his sister, who races his young daughter after picking her up from pre-school (and like former pitcher Bob Gibson, who never let his young daughter win at checkers, beats her), who throws away a valuable stash of marijuana rather than selling it, who takes BART into San Francisco because his mother is worried that he might get busted on a marginal drinking and driving charge, who helps a middle-class white couple find a bathroom on New Year’s Eve and chats to the woman about her pregnancy, then they’ll know Oscar Grant. It’s mentally easy to assign a drug dealer a violent death and call it fate. But we do, and should, struggle mightily against chance that a specific person we’ve come to know might be killed by the police.

The people who see Fruitvale Station, and with any hope, make it a modest indie hit, helping Ryan Coogler to develop the directorial career he so obviously deserves, and helping land Michael B. Jordan the awards attention that just might convince someone to invest in making him a star, will probably not be the people who most need to see Fruitvale Station. If you’re drawn to a movie about a day in the life of Oscar Grant, it’s because you’ve already made the assumption that Oscar Grant is worth spending a day with. That’s a hard thing to convince people of, from a distance and after someone is dead and the chance to get to know them and imagine their potential contributions to the world in general and our lives in particular is over.

It’s easier to think of Trayvon Martin as a thug who had it coming to him, both because that stereotype is a way to avoid the complicated and painful emotions of grief and rage, and because defaulting to that stereotype doesn’t require us to exercise our moral imaginations. It’s such a small thing to extend a black boy in a gated community the charity of thinking might simply be going about his business, and that business might merely be iced tea and candy. But for some people, that remains too much to ask.