Archive for the ‘The Trayvon Martin Shooting’ Category

After months of wrestling with myself over how I felt about this case and what I ultimately wanted to say about it, I’ve decided to advance—as dispassionately as possible—one argument only. The argument is this: if you believe George Zimmerman rightfully shot and killed Trayvon Martin, then you believe Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old with no history of violent behavior, was congenitally a monster. Put another way, given the facts we have now, a commitment to Zimmerman’s moral innocence (or Martin’s moral guilt) is necessarily racist.

I’m not talking about legal guilt or innocence. I’m not concerned here with the Sanford Police Department’s investigation or Florida’s stand-your-ground and self-defense laws. If the case goes to court, it will be tried by a jury according to the reasonable doubt standard, and what happens during and after that process has no bearing on my argument. I’m also not interested in eyewitness accounts, as no one (as of this writing) claims to have seen the initial encounter that led to the physical altercation that led, Zimmerman claims, to the shooting.

A detailed timeline of events surrounding the shooting can be found here, and you can find an interactive map of the scene and its surroundings here. The basic story is that, on the night of February 26, George Zimmerman, a 28-year-old Hispanic-white resident and neighborhood watch captain of the Retreat at Twin Lakes, is driving to Target in his SUV when he sees Trayvon Martin, a black teenager staying with his father and his father’s fiancee at the Retreat, near the gated community’s Clubhouse.

He calls the police non-emergency line and tells the dispatcher: “There’s a real suspicious guy… This guy looks like he’s up to no good or he’s on drugs or something. It’s raining and he’s just walking around looking about… Now he’s just staring at me… He’s got his hand in his waistband… He’s coming to check me out…” Martin had gone to a 7-11 and is making his way home. He’s talking to his girlfriend on his cell phone when Zimmerman spots him.

Almost two minutes into the call, Zimmerman says that Martin is heading down towards the rear entrance of the complex. He gets out of his car. The dispatcher asks him if he’s following Martin and he says yes. (In the recently released video of Zimmerman reenacting the night’s events for the police, he says that he got out of the car because the dispatcher asked him for an address indicating his location in the complex.) “Okay, we don’t need you to do that,” The dispatcher tells him. “Okay,” Zimmerman responds. (We can hear that he is still moving, but we don’t know where he’s going.)

Just after the two minute mark, Zimmerman, still moving, says Martin is running. The dispatcher asks Zimmerman if he wants to meet the police at the centrally located mailboxes at the Clubhouse of the gated community. Zimmerman says, “Yeah, that’s fine,” and then changes his mind: “Actually, could you have them call me and I’ll tell them where I’m at.” Zimmerman’s account of what followed, as reported by the Orlando Sentinel, is that

he lost sight of Trayvon and was walking back to his SUV when Trayvon approached him from the left rear, and they exchanged words.

Trayvon asked Zimmerman if he had a problem. Zimmerman said no and reached for his cell phone, he told police. Trayvon then said, “Well, you do now” or something similar and punched Zimmerman in the nose, according to the account he gave police.

Zimmerman fell to the ground and Trayvon got on top of him and began slamming his head into the sidewalk, he told police.

Phone logs show that Martin was talking to his girlfriend right before the physical altercation. She told the Martin family’s attorney “that she heard the two exchange questions, like `Why are you following me?’ and `What are you doing here?'” Zimmerman says Martin said, “Do you have a fucking problem?”, to which Zimmerman replied, “No,” and then reached for his phone to call the police again.

If you look at page six of the interactive map, you’ll see the approximate location of Zimmerman’s car. Martin has run into the shared backyard area (see photos here and here) where cars can’t follow. For Zimmerman’s killing of Martin to be morally justifiable, we’re required to accept all of the following:

  1. After following Martin in his car, after getting out of his car to pursue Martin, after lamenting that “these assholes… always get away,” and after not agreeing to return to the Clubhouse to meet the police, Zimmerman gives up the pursuit and starts back to his car.
  2. After running away from Zimmerman, Martin sees Zimmerman walking away—back to his car—and decides to confront and assault him. Zimmerman initially ran past the shared backyard pathway towards Retreat View Circle, and he has to pass the pathway one more time to get back to his car. Either he doesn’t look very hard for Martin in the pathway, or Martin is hiding from him. (“I didn’t see exactly where he came from,” Zimmerman says in the video reenactment. When interviewed just after the shooting, he told police that Martin “jumped out of the bushes.” Either way, he had his back turned away from the path he saw Martin take.)
  3. As Zimmerman heads back to his car, Martin approaches him from behind and says, “You have a problem?” Zimmerman says, “No,” and reaches for his phone. Martin says, “Well, you do now.”
  4. Martin hits Zimmerman in the face. Zimmerman falls to the ground. Martin repeatedly slams Zimmerman’s head into the sidewalk running through the shared backyard area. Zimmerman calls repeatedly for help. Martin puts his hand over his mouth and tells him to “shut the fuck up.”
  5. As Zimmerman tries to pull his head off the concrete, Martin sees the gun and tells Zimmerman, “You’re going to die tonight.” Martin reaches for the gun, but Zimmerman gets it first, shooting Martin once in the chest. Martin says, “You got me,” or “You got it.”

The size of the combatants is disputed. I’ll just say that Martin is taller by between three and five inches, but Zimmerman is heavier by between thirty to fifty pounds. (The police report lists Martin as 6’0”, 160 Pounds, while Zimmerman is listed as 5’9″, no weight noted.) Zimmerman’s post-incident medical report lists a “closed fracture” of the nose, two black eyes, two lacerations on the back of his head, but no concussion.

I don’t deny that Zimmerman might be telling the truth. But is his account, rationally speaking, the most plausible explanation of what happened that night? Isn’t it at least as plausible, in light of what we know, that Zimmerman, after Martin initiates a verbal exchange, reaches for his gun instead of his cell phone? (Why would he call the police again if they’re already on the way?) If so, Martin is now fighting for his life.

Or maybe, as Zimmerman is reaching for his phone, Martin sees the gun and thinks that’s what Zimmerman is reaching for. Or maybe Martin doesn’t see the gun, but thinks Zimmerman has one and is reaching for it. (Firearm homicide has been the leading cause of death for African-American males aged 15 to 19 since 1969.) Or maybe Zimmerman is the one who confronts Martin, with or without his gun.

The scenarios are not infinite, but they are vast, and believing the shooter’s account to be the most plausible among them is a purely emotional response, and a hysterical one based on race. (Whether or not the racism is conscious is a separate question.) Not taking Zimmerman at his word is, I think, a reasonable stance in light of the inconsistency and melodrama (“You do now”; “You’re going to die tonight”; “You got me”) of his story and the fact that he eliminated the only other witness, who was not armed.

Zimmerman says the screams for help caught by a 911 call are his. If that’s true, it doesn’t prove that Martin went for Zimmerman’s gun, or that Zimmerman’s life was in danger, or even that he was being beaten at the time he was screaming for help. In fact, the screams might show the beating to be less intense than Zimmerman claims, as it would be extremely difficult for him (or anyone) to scream or call out while his head is being slammed repeatedly into the sidewalk—“… each time I thought my head was going to explode and I thought I was going to lose consciousness,” he told police.


There is a lot of talk about Martin “doubling back,” if he did really double back, as the ultimate determination of culpability in the case. It may be true that Martin would still be alive today had he run all the way home, but if Zimmerman has the right to get out of his car to pursue Martin, then Martin has the right to confront Zimmerman about it. The only possible reasons to deny him this right are the presumption that he was actually casing the neighborhood in which his father lived and in which he was staying, or the presumption that he “lured” Zimmerman into the dark pathway to assault him.

There is no evidence to support either claim. Martin’s supposed predisposition to theft and belligerence is based on the following facts:

  1. At the time of the shooting, Martin was suspended from school for possession of an empty bag containing traces of marijuana.
  2. The previous October, a school police investigator reported spotting Martin marking up a door with “W.T.F.”; the next day, the officer went through Martin’s bag to find the marker, and found women’s jewelry and “a large flathead screwdriver” instead. He referred to the screwdriver as a “burglary tool.” Martin told the investigator that the jewelry belonged to someone else. He was suspended for graffiti and the jewelry was impounded by school authorities. Photos of the items were sent to the Miami-Dade police, and, according to the Miami Herald, “No evidence ever surfaced that the jewelry was stolen.”
  3. Martin had been suspended one additional time for truancy.
  4. Martin’s Twitter handle was NO_LIMIT_NIGGA, a reference to a hip-hop song by Kane & Abel; he was seen in a photo wearing a grill; he was allegedly seen refereeing a schoolyard fight; he allegedly had tattoos.
It seems to me that truancy and smoking marijuana are fairly common practices among American teenagers. Defacement of school property also seems to be something like a rite of passage among boys. In my day it was anarchy signs, peace signs, penises whose tips resembled the faces of uniquely despised teachers, phone numbers that promised highly unlikely rewards from classmates of both sexes, etc. Ditching and fighting also were not uncommon. And this was Catholic school. (By the time I was 17, I had been suspended from school twice. On a separate occasion, I was wrongfully accused of stealing textbooks.)

The jewelry is odd, but so are the circumstances in which it was found. Why did the police investigator wait a day before confronting Martin about the graffiti incident? Why did he search Martin’s backpack for the marker if he saw Martin deface the door on a surveillance camera? Why didn’t the school inform his parents about the jewelry? (The textbooks I had been accused of stealing were put in my locker by friends—they knew my combination, I knew theirs. We shared the same books and defaced them extensively, sometimes bad-mouthing the school officials who would later accuse us of stealing textbooks.) In any event, Martin was suspended for writing on a door, nothing came of the jewelry, and he carried nothing resembling a burglary tool on the night he was killed.

The Twitter handle, grill photo, alleged tattoos, his (and his friends’) social media communications, the way he dressed, and the assumption that he had been in fights before are really the issue, because these things alone inextricably connect Martin to what so many Americans identify, with a kind of visceral fear and loathing, as a “ghetto culture” that is invariably depraved and violent and thus invariably leads to depravity and the perpetration of violence. Again, this is despite the fact that Martin, who turned 17 less than a month before he was killed, had never been accused of aggressiveness and appeared to be a reasonably normal (i.e. somewhat mischievous) male teenager from what appears to be a reasonably normal middle class family.

Zimmerman, on the other hand, who was arrested in 2005 for resisting arrest and battery, who was charged with domestic violence later the same year, who had called the police 46 times since 2004, who very much wanted to be a cop, who routinely patrolled the neighborhood wearing a gun, who was carrying a gun on what was supposed to be a routine trip to Target, who pursued and killed a kid who was living in the community he sought to protect, is accepted as a legitimate authority figure and a responsible dispenser of justice.

I don’t know if George Zimmerman racially profiled Trayvon Martin that night. What I know, what everyone in possession of a critical faculty knows, is that no one would believe a white kid of the same age and size, wearing Vans and a Metallica t-shirt, put in exactly the same situation, having the same paltry life history, could be as preternaturally ferocious as Martin has to be for the Zimmerman narrative to be true.

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