Gordon Chaffin / Uncategorized

On Trayvon Martin: Race, Hoodies and Rape

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By now you’ve heard of the Trayvon Martin story: a 17 year-old Florida teenage boy who was shot dead by George Zimmerman in Sanford, Florida. Zimmerman pursued Martin on the night of February 26th, during a neighborhood watch patrol. Trayvon was walking through Zimmerman’s neighborhood, on his way back from a trip to 7-Eleven, when Zimmerman decided to pursue the young man whom he considered suspicious. The two had an altercation and Zimmerman shot Trayvon with his 9mm gun. Zimmerman has not been arrested and the local police department didn’t even contact Trayvon’s parents — though they reported him missing before they got the news of his death. There are lots of relevant wrinkles to the story, including the fact that Zimmerman was urged to wait for police to arrive at the scene when he called in with his suspicions, but I’ll leave them for your own research.

What strikes me about this story is that it reveals our collective desire for causal reason. Zimmerman, a Latino 28-year-old man, shooting dead a black teenage boy without (reasonably perceivable) provocation from said boy — it doesn’t make sense. Leave aside the fact that this shooting occurred nearly one month before the story got much notice statewide or nationally, America turned to race as the heuristic of judgment. Many have said, perhaps accurately, that this delay in justice (ostensibly, an immediate arrest of Zimmerman) would never have happened had Zimmerman been black and Trayvon white. This lack of justice, that continues everyday Zimmerman walks free, has gone viral — they’re have been several rallies held across the country demanding justice, many more have been planned.

Why did the story go viral, weeks after the incident? Well, going viral — whether a YouTube video, a meme or a news story — doesn’t necessarily come after the event or upload. Many, if not most, things that go viral sit on the internet for days, weeks or years before the social web sends its views into the millions. Let’s say, for argument, that the vast majority of people who’ve heard Trayvon’s story assume that Zimmerman’s at fault; I think the reason America’s fixed on this story is because we can’t explain it. We deploy the reasoning tool of racial conflict, but assuming that Zimmerman was a racist just makes it somewhat less confusing — why didn’t the local police keep Zimmerman off the streets when he called them 50 times since January 2011? When society can’t explain tragedy and it fuels outrage, that tragedy goes viral.

On a different wrinkle, Geraldo Rivera thinks that Zimmerman was suspicious of Trayvon because he was wearing a hoodie with hood up and covering his face. There are racial aspects of the hoodie, and how it’s worn, but that’s not my concern at the moment. My real concern is how inadequate such an explanation would be for Zimmerman’s actions. A neighborhood watch is just that, a watch, and Zimmerman crossed the line when he decided to pursue Trayvon. At every point, including the final altercation and shooting, Zimmerman was the one to escalate the situation. A 17-year-old boy armed with Skittles and a can of iced tea is not someone at which we should point a gun.

So, Zimmerman pursued Trayvon Martin and escalated the situation up to a fatal gunshot. How can Zimmerman claim he was acting in self-defense pursuant to Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law? He can’t. How can anyone claim the hoodie made Trayvon suspicious enough to call for those actions? They can’t. “He [Trayvon] was asking for trouble, wearing his hoodie like that” is exactly the same as a rapist claiming his victim “was asking for it, wearing that mini-skirt.” Both are unacceptable, and both demand the swift and powerful hand of justice.

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