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“FEARFARE”: George Zimmerman and White America’s Fear Welfare Pass (videos)

This entry is part 5 of 5 in the seriesRACE AND THE KILLING OF TRAYVON MARTIN

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Fear is a powerful influence. Often those who harbor it, do so out of guilt. A Vanity Fair article published years ago polled whites as to why they fear blacks. The article featured a cross section of individuals, including corporate executives. One gentleman was riveting in his candor, “Because we fear that what we’ve done to blacks, they will someday do to us.

The situational premise surrounding Zimmerman’s pursuit and shooting of Trayvon Martin is this. Neighbors were concerned about break-ins. And Zimmerman asserted himself as a concerned neighborhood watch resource with a heightened sensitivity to problems in the area.

Much attention has been given to the specific events of February 26, 2012. However, a grossly inadequate level of attention has been given to prevailing fear as a pretext for Zimmerman following, confronting, and shooting an unarmed child returning home by-foot from buying Skittles and an Arizona Ice Tea soft drink. It is difficult to imagine this scenario would be justified had Trayvon Martin been blonde-haired and blue eyes. And herein lies the rub. The systematic injustice. And this painful intersection of race and American jurisprudence makes the Zimmerman verdict an even more horrendous outcome than the murders that take place on American streets on a daily basis. 

 

THE PROBLEM WITH “FEAR”

Zimmerman’s advocates and the media played up the serious nature of crime in Twin Lakes. While residents implemented a neighborhood watch program, the very idea that crime in the vicinity rose to a level that legitimized Zimmerman’s pursuit of Trayvon Martin with a loaded gun is representative of white bias that permeates our legal system.

When a young man’s life is taken unnecessarily, a fair pathway to determining truth requires more than the only living actor in a fatal scene asserting a narrative that is itself filled with inconsistencies and questionable details. That is, a simple assertion of fear must itself be placed on trial. Otherwise, white prisms through which our nation’s laws are largely constructed will dominate the vetting of crimes, not only in cases of white/non-white parties but also where only non-white parties are involved.

The problem of fear, as is the case with other emotions, stems from our inability to perceive and communicate it beyond conceptual terms. Even then, such perceptions are influenced by several factors. Specifically:

1. Humans have not created discrete values to measure fear with scientific certainty. We, for instance, can say that a glass of water is hot as it reaches a boiling point of 100° Celsius or 212° Fahrenheit. However, we cannot attach a number, level, statistic, or degree to someone’s fear.

2. To the extent that we can measure fear indicators, doing so in a way that transcends time-event is impossible. For instance, one might offer heartbeat responses to a stimulus (e.g., scary movie scene) as a way of understanding fear. However, whereas water will consistently boil at a certain temperature in a certain water pressure, repeated exposure to an equally scary event does not mean one’s responses (e.g., heartbeat) will be the same. Fear then is not replicated so as to judge the responses to an original event.

3. Fear can at-best be placed on an ordinal scale. That is, we can say that one level of fear is greater than another. But we lack a scale to examine the difference between the two. How would we measure, in discrete terms, the difference from being fearful and very fearful? What is the measure that we attach to a reasonable level of fear to rationalize use of deadly force?

4. Individuals operate along a different continuum relative to fear. This is akin to economists noting that we derive various levels of satisfaction (i.e., utility) from a certain of consumption of a thing. Because fear operates in a similar way, using fear alone as a basis for killing is inherently problematic for juries that hear this argument.

5. Further complicating our understanding of fear is life experiences and our inability to accurately assess fear in another. For two first-time rollercoaster riders, we might expect an astronaut and skyscraper builder to be more comfortable with heights and turns than a lawncare worker and appliance repairman. And yet, would we assign cowardliness to an astronaut or skycraper who screams on a rollercoaster or assign courageousness to a lawncare worker or appliance repairman who does not? Making these judgments necessarily projects onto another what we believe are legitimate responses, not really knowing the mind a person under consideration.

Smply stated, just because Zimmerman claimed fear, what gives credence to his claim? Some injuries, that from every conceivable measure of evidence, were minor? Namely, no hospitalization, medical examiner’s finding of insignificance, photos presented, and responses by police officers on the scene. If this constitutes reasonable fear, would then our courtrooms exonerate a child being spanked by his/her parent, in the event that child fatally stabs or shoots the parent during the spanking simply based on the assertion of “fearing for one’s life”? What made Zimmerman’s claims credible? The fact that he helped a fellow resident who suffered a break-in? The fact that he had a father as a magistrate and brother as an attorney? No, in both cases. Serial killers, such as John Wayne Gacy, were known for good deeds and their stature in the business community. Indeed, some Ku Klux Klan members were persons of community standing as clergy, judges, sheriffs, lawyers, and physicians. Whatever Zimmerman might have been to his [white] neighbors does not erase his demonstrated obsession with and disdain for black males. Consequently, the sole living person in the Martin-Zimmerman exchange was granted unfair preferences that exploited race biases, particularly as it related to a claim of fear.

6. Another problem with fear as a basis for proactively applying deadly force — where a certain cultural context dominates a case involving multiple cultures — is that it ignores the influence of culture on another’s perception of fear. That is, it superimposes one’s cultural biases as the standard for someone not of the same culture. James Byrd, murdered in Jasper, TX, surely did not perceive getting into a pickup truck with white males late at-night as life-threatening. And yet, within a matter of minutes, his head would be severed from his body in a heinous crime that shocked the nation. 

Further complicating this problem is that culture itself is both racial and trans-racial. Hence, a northern 14-year old black child named Emmett Till, not as astute in the ways (or culture) of southern jim crow segregation, would hardly find a harmless exchange with Carolyn Bryant as life-threatening as would his southern cousin (Curtis Jones) and friends — each also black — who accompanied Till outside of Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market on August 24, 1955.

In the case of Trayvon Martin, a white male being followed in a small southern town does not carry with it the same sense of danger that accompanies a black male being followed. These realities are not recalling our distant past, but very much psychological tensions of our racially-charged present. However, a jury comprised mostly of white women — who are not particularly vulnerable to southern autocracies that have left black [males] missing, set on fire, and hanging from trees — is ill-equipped to hear the voice of a black child that cries out for justice from his grave.

The problem with fear is an age-old problem that boils down to this. Whose fear is legitimate? And when fear meets fear in the intersection of two or more persons, whose fear does society deem reasonable? In the meandering history of our nation, black fear has taken a backseat to fears harbored by whites in-general and certainly by white women. Ironically, the differences invert what one might expect given the historical relationship between whites and blacks in America that is largely defined by slavery, black codes, jim crow segregation, assassination of black leaders, blacks killed by whites with impunity, police brutality, and countless individual exchanges of which George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin must now be added. This paradox of marginalizing experiential fear in blacks and elevating imaginary fear in whites (paranoia) is particularly troublesome when fear itself forms the basis of laws constructed by whites, including those that involve deadly force.

 

PLACING FEAR ON-TRIAL

How, then, should the George Zimmerman trial have addressed the notion of fear given its significance in determining guilt in the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin? Simple. First, by introducing a number of hard-hitting questions. And second, by observing that under an innocent until proven guilty standard of American jurisprudence, the responsible vetting of a killing must begin from a presumed illegitimacy of fear until it is proven to be legitimate. Hence, as previously mention, fear does not sit in the courtroom as a presumed innocent bystander, but is dealt with harshly under the microscope of prosecution. 

Specifically, George Zimmerman’s claim of fear itself must be examined. Where a firearm is involved, that person’s fear must be proven without exception. And where the only voice is heard because another’s is quieted by death, the killer must be required to demonstrate and defend a claim of fear. And where racial/cultural differences create natural biases that favor majority group members, fear must be presumed guilty until proven innocent. Zimmerman should be afforded the presumption of innocence, but such is not so for his co-defendant — fear.

What questions might juries explore in trials that advance fear as a subtext. Consider the following in the case of George Zimmerman: 

1. What were the prevailing crime conditions in and around Sanford, Florida’s community of The Retreat at Twin Lakes where Zimmerman shot Trayvon?  

Listening to Zimmerman’s legal team, one would think Twin Lakes is like Beirut in wartime. To personalize this problem of persistent crime in the area, the defense team rolled out one witness, who incidentally fits the demographic makeup of five of six jurors. Olivia Bertalan, 21, unfortunately suffered a break-in that found her hiding with a pair of rusty scissors in-hand until the robber left the premises.

The community has been described as being “on-edge” leading up to the fateful evening of February 26, 2012. Incidents over the previous 14 months included:

  • A burglary three weeks before the Martin shooting where two black men and a white man removed a laptop and jewelry;
  • In July 2011, someone entered a resident’s home, stole keys, and subsequently stole a rental car — that was later retrieved;
  • An August 2011 home burglary resulted in a Playstation and video games stolen;
  • And in September 2011, vandals flooded a home (under construction) by stopping-up a toilet and turning on the water.

While disturbing, these incidents certainly do not paint the picture of a community under siege. Media outlets dramatized crime by reminding us that Zimmerman placed 46 calls to 911, reporting suspicious activity in the subdivision. However, the time period dimension rarely accompanied these reports. Specifically, that the period of such calls dated back to 2004. This amounts to less than 6 per year or one call every two months. This is hardly a level of crime that would describe a community under siege as suggested by mainstream media to provide a rationale for Zimmerman’s over-zealousness, suspicion, and ready use of a firearm. However, reports of Zimmerman’s calls did not include the number of actual crime connected to his calls. Was the absence of this additional information designed to hide what would have demonstrated a level of obsession, if not paranoia?

2. Who was George Zimmerman on the night of the shooting?

We are certain that George Zimmerman fatally shot Trayvon Martin. We know that Zimmerman brought a loaded firearm to the encounter. We know that George Zimmerman was both a resident of and neighborhood watch resource for The Retreat at Twin Lakes. While we understand the State permitted Zimmerman to do this, we likewise understand the neighborhood watch instructions discouraged it. These are the facts. We are told that Zimmerman was just on his way to the store. This, however, is an assertion and not fact. What information did Zimmerman submit to corroborate the store narrative? But this explanation makes a convenient effort to separate the events from the evening from the established neighborhood watch program by casting Zimmerman as an ordinary resident of the subdivision out for an evening errand. Convenient, indeed.

3. Was violence commonplace with crimes in The Retreat at Twin Lakes? 

We must question the mind of a person who readily employed a firearm when the criminal activity in the area had not been connected with firearms. In other words, a neighborhood watch volunteer would be more inclined to carry a firearm for personal safety in the event crimes in the area are often committed with guns, knives, or other weapons. Again, countless black communities and neighborhood watch volunteers face this reality on a daily basis. And yet, in these dangerous settings, volunteers operate without the use of firearms as they do in Cincinnati’s community hot spots. By every account, the neighborhood where Zimmerman operated was reasonably isolated from aggravated criminal activity where deadly weapons are brandished. As such, invoking fear as a pretext for the Zimmerman’s actions is more to do with convenience than a fair depiction of conditions that surrounded February 26, 2012.     

If Zimmerman resorted to a fear concern as the basis for carrying a firearm into a neighborhood watch incident, one must inquire about the nature of crimes in the area. Were they violent crimes? Were residents routinely injured (or killed) during the commission of crimes? From police logs, we have incidents such as theft of a Playstation and turning on water to flood a home. What we do not find in these reports are resident beaten, stabbed, shot, or otherwise assaulted during criminal activity. One might argue that a history of violence targeted at victims of crime would suggest physical threats to volunteers who are making an effort to stymie criminal activity. Here again, the question is not a state permission to carry firearms in public spaces, but the mind of one who does in a particular context (neighborhood watch) when doing so is prohibited. The fear explanation does not hold up under the scrutiny of observing the absence of violence connected with crimes in the area.

4. Did Zimmerman actually fear for his life?

The question of George Zimmerman’s state of mind prior to and during the encounter with Trayvon Martin cannot be answered with certainty. Photos of injuries Zimmerman sustained became the focus of courtroom theatrics. What we will never know is whether Trayvon Martin caused those injuries. Surely, firing a weapon into the body of an unarmed minor is reason enough for Zimmerman to have asserted fear for his own life. Facing 30 years would spawn the creative juices in the least informed and clearly the son of a magistrate and brother of an attorney. 

MarkOMara-Concrete

We will never know whether Zimmerman really thought his life was in-jeopardy or whether the claim was simply convenient diversion from the heinous nature of his actions. In-fact, we will never know whether Zimmerman’s story, that appears improbable for several reasons, mirrors anything remotely connected to the series of events that occurred on the night in question. It can all be one big pack of lies, draped in the burden of racial injustice that has followed the history of our nation. Lies that, for years, decades, and centuries denied black justice in a nation shaped by the injustices of white supremacy.

The extent of Zimmerman’s injuries were magnified. The prosecution’s medical examiner testimony, lampooned. And once again, nothing short of a fear welfare pass (i.e., fearfare) afforded Zimmerman the benefit of the doubt. The diverging view came to a head on a segment of HLN’s Nancy Grace show that featured Zimmerman neighbor and pitch-man, Frank Taaffe, and Martin family attorney Daryl Parks. Taaffe suggested that Zimmerman felt himself to be going into unconsciousness –something not included in his statement to the police. Whether or not this was true, fearfare made it so.

  

 

Zimmerman’s injuries, which looked far from serious, were magnified in and around the trial. Inside the courtroom, defense attorney Mark O’Mara dropped a cement block in front of the jury to make a point that Trayvon Martin was armed. On the surface, it sounds plausible that the cement caused Zimmerman’s injuries. But what accompanied the grandstanding of dropping a chunk of concrete and in actor-like form dusting-off himself? Hypothetical wild-goose chases demonstrated in his cross-examination of Jacksonville Medical Examiner Dr. Valarie Rao. O’Mara’s repeated questions of what could have happened were no more rational than positing that Zimmerman fell and bumped his head on the concrete while chasing after Trayvon Martin! Repeated questions of what could have been avoided the very notion that Trayvon Martin was simply defending himself against a zealous bigot who had it out for black men. O’Mara failed to present witnesses to corroborate that Trayvon Martin was slamming Zimmerman’s head against the pavement. But under the weight of white fear and the imagery of a black male brute beating the hell out of a defenseless white man, Zimmerman’s claim was itself deemed defacto proof!

How is it that the testimony of Dr. Valarie Rao became less significant than O’Mara’s hypothetical questions — intended to exaggerate Zimmerman’s injuries and that implicate Trayvon Martin as the aggressor? White America’s fear of violent black men (fearfare), required it to be this way.

 

FEAR, TRUTH, AND FAIRNESS

Placing fear on-trial when a young man is dead means rejecting unsubstantiated, ridiculous claims that exploit racial preferences and biases that favor whites and necessarily disfavors blacks and other non-whites. Fear is a pendulum that swings in two directions. In one direction, majority group membership, presumed credibility, economic and political influence, adult maturity, and a living voice create imbalance when the opposite direction includes a maligned demographic group, presumed lack of credibility, powerlessness, poor perceptions of black youth, and a voice quieted in death. In the former direction, fear must be challenged to lessen the imbalance or a criminal justice system will continue to reflect the same white bigotry that founded this nation and shaped the Dred Scott decision.

Here, a narrative that Trayvon Martin, without provocation, punched George Zimmerman must be looked upon with as much suspicion as Zimmerman harbored towards African American males. Here, a traditional teaching to “Run from strangers who follow you through the night” must be the voice of reason for a jury that seeks fairness. Here, the prisms of fear through which a young black male views a world — where those who pull out firearms typically use them — must unlock the mysteries of what occurs when someone who is not a police officer pursues then asks imposing questions. And here, a biased account cannot be cast as truth when the only other firsthand testimony that can challenge that bias is dead.

A search for truth in the murky waters of fear must be both situational and contextual. This search fairly looks at the moments of the encounter as described above and the larger influences that shape the encounter. One cannot fairly rationalize Zimmerman’s action by thinking solely of conditions at The Retreat in Twin Lakes. Much was made of conditions in Zimmerman’s subdivision. Trayvon Martin’s reality was marginalized. A fair assessment of the latter, for Trayvon Martin and millions of African Americans, rightfully concludes the level of fear in The Retreat in Twin Lakes would signal criminals going on vacation in many black communities.

To illustrate, a couple of years ago, I participated in an effort to close down a nightclub in Cincinnati that was connected with a number of fatal shootings, robberies, drug trafficking, underage drink, carjackings, and a kidnapping. Club Ritz came into the spotlight of national attention when rapper TI and his entourage were targets of a flurry of gun shots that claimed the life of TI’s 26-year old friend and business associate, Philant Johnson. During efforts to close down the nightclub, I received reports of calls to Cincinnati Police Department for incidents in the community of Roselawn and specifically in the immediate vicinity of Club Ritz. The run sheet was filled with assaults, stabbings, shootings, and various other violations that had become a part of the regular activities in and around the nightclub. Incidents that would dwarf the much ballyhooed conditions in Zimmerman’s subdivision. The fear that Zimmerman purported would have been a respite from crime in the eyes of many who are exposed to more than video game thefts and occasional vandalism. Life experiences of blacks and whites often vary greatly in this respect. And yet, all-white juries bring an elevated fear to the courtroom and claims of fear from other whites resonate when race overlays criminal cases. Whites likewise bring heightened fears to encounters with African Americans. And where such fears are the produce of and exploit unwarranted stereotypes, such claims of fear lead to injustices while resonating with other whites as a pretext for deadly force. 

The corollary also works against blacks. Where whites perceive blacks as more accustomed to dangerous settings, African Americans claiming fear as a basis for deadly force could very well find that white jurors are more inclined to marginalize fear when an opposing figure is white. The jury would completely discount that an African American man would be scarred enough to take whatever action to protect himself. Surely, he must have been used to more than frightening situations than this! This case demonstrated complete insensitivity to the realities of Zimmerman’s victim. Namely, the question of why did Trayvon not run was elevated to a level that defies the catch-22 of a child being placed in a situation created by his killer. Trayvon had as many reason not to run as he would have to run. Either action posed dire consequences for a scarred child being followed under the cover of night in a Florida downpour. 

On first glance, running would appear [to whites] as the only reasonable response to being followed. However, blacks in urban settings understand an unwritten code — avoid bringing dangerous matters to one’s doorstep. A few weeks ago, one of my closest relatives was murdered in broad daylight while walking down the street less than one mile from his home. Just days before the murder, someone had followed him home. Pulled out a gun in his front yard and fired. The gun jammed. My cousin’s running home violated a code that placed his household in-danger. Not running home would have been a reasonable response for Trayvon. In the mind of a black child, running home cold have endangered others as much as running endangered himself. Sadly, even in death, fearfare further destroyed Trayvon Martin. A white jury would not see plausible reasons for Trayvon not to run. And this jury would also avoid the implications of Trayvon’s running on Zimmerman’s guilt. Here then, fear itself favored white privilege and disfavored the terrible predicament that found Trayvon Martin.

One of the more egregious errors in the George Zimmerman murder case is that his supposed fear was never placed on-trial. A dead African American male child proved not to be a sufficiently grievous to call into question Zimmerman’s claims of fear. Failing to do so signaled a denial of justice to come. Whites concluded that an account was plausible because a white man asserted a thing. Trayvon Martin’s world was irrelevant. Inconsequential. Invalid. For justice to be served, Trayvon’s fears must be understood. Trayvon could not speak for himself. In contrast, the killer’s desperate efforts to avoid 30 years or more in prison enjoyed certain “benefits”. Time to construct a story. Television interviews with a sympathetic host where even invoking God was acceptable. A police interrogation that at-times bordered on being coached. Advocates — none of whom were at the scene — dispatched in a public relations campaign. A southern town heavily dominated by white citizens to whom a mostly white jury would return. An evolving national ethos that is reminiscent of the wild west. And the politics of negative black male imagery. Under these circumstances, accepting Zimmerman’s claims of fear without substantial evidence is a miscarriage of justice and little more than a convenient excuse to continue injustice. Excuses blacks have been accustomed to hearing from liberal whites, racially hostile conservatives, politicians, ku klux klan and skinheads, and myriad other segments in a mythically just system.

 

HIDDEN RACISM, EQUAL PROTECTION, AND LEGAL REFORMS

Racial bigotry, structural and informal, worked for and against, George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin. Zimmerman, who was found guilty of having accosted a police officer, became the neighborhood guardian angel. Trayvon Martin became the pot-smoking black male deserving of our indifference, indeed our disdain. Radio blogger, Joe Lyles, exposed the monsterization of this murdered child and explored the very real ways that American culture itself labels whites and blacks very differently when involved with similar activities.

Beyond social mores, formal structures exploit race inequities. States such as Texas and Florida, that have adopted variants of Stand Your Ground Laws, might suggest this moves us closer to the intent of the Second Amendment. Surely, the gun lobby welcomes the arming of America that requires a sort of national psychosis that sees American life as one exchange, one moment from a hospital stay or the grave. These laws play on people’s fears to advance economic agendas i.e., selling guns. These laws that favor whites turn back the clock to a time when whites could exercise klan-like aggression with impunity, while blacks were expected to be docile and subservient to the savage whims of white supremacists. This duality of identity calls a black child who fails to look down or straight ahead while walking, “Suspiciously looking into neighborhood houses“, while anointing a trigger-happy grown white male, incessant in his efforts to capture black men, some neighborhood hero.

These laws massage the fear harbored by whites who receive a healthy dose of [black male] “monsters” on news and other programs scripted to paint on such a desperate canvass. And after 40 years of a Reagan ethos that absolves structural racism as the foundation of what has plagued black America, the guilt from our nation’s sins — slavery, black codes, jim crow, and their legacies that continue today — are transformed into societal denial that justifies the injustice inherent in Stand Your Ground laws. And when these laws come together at an intersection of white-black conflicts, the former is empowered, while the latter is burdened with subjective definitions of fear.

Asserting, “The Zimmerman defense did not invoke Stand Your Ground” is a diversion from the realities of the moment. When Zimmerman chased down Trayvon Martin, little did he know that his defense team would opt not to invoke this law. The power of the law is found in what it establishes in people’s minds when they encounter other citizens. Stand Your Ground creates a societal backdrop that governs the interactions of citizens in the same way that black codes governed interactions. And when joined with white privilege/black burden, the law becomes the fuel to a fire that has scorched Africans in America since 1619.

Hidden racism cloaks the realities of a nation that is far from post-racial. Hidden racism shapes laws that provide subjective preferences to the dominant race. And hidden racism brings these underlying realities to situations such as that which found Trayvon Martin on the last evening of his life. A nation that formally maintained two-tiered laws cannot avoid questions that remnants of this injustice are reconstituted today. Hidden racism that works itself into these laws, both formally and informally, represents nothing short of unequal protection. For this reason alone, a number of legal reforms must be instituted with all deliberate speed. Such reforms begin with dismantling Stand Your Ground laws, but they also target the inherent inequities of a system that favors white, while discounting the social realities of blacks and other non-whites.

 

A number of legal reforms will be the subject of a subsequent article. 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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