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The Invisible Truth: Trayvon Martin: A Tragedy provoked by Racial or Class injustice?

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Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Trayvon Martin: A Tragedy provoked by Racial or Class injustice?

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Trayvon Martin’s case, for better or for worse, has fired up the race debate once more in America, and while I think the idea that we live in some post-racial society is naïve and that work still needs to be done for full equality to be achieved, I’m not entirely convinced that race is the most important factor in the tragedy. I would like to suggest that perhaps class and behavioural norms played a greater role in the events that led to young Martin’s death. I do not wish to assert that the not-guilty verdict is faultless (the prosecution botched the case by overcharging Zimmerman, according to some), but neither do I think that Zimmerman deserved a guilty verdict on a second-degree murder charge after I reviewed the facts of the case.

Some media personnel have been fired for misrepresenting the facts of the case for sensationalist purposes, actions which arguably resulted in this case becoming a flash point for the discussion of race in America. NBC in particular aired edited versions of Zimmerman’s call to the police regarding Martin’s “suspicious behaviour,” which included, according to him, cutting behind houses and walking leisurely in the rain. These edits were defamatory and unethical. In one, Zimmerman is heard saying “This guy [Martin] looks like he's up to no good or he's on drugs or something... He's got his hand in his waistband, and he's a black male.” In an even more distorted edit, NBC aired Zimmerman saying “This guy looks like he's up to no good. He looks black.” The exclusion of the dispatcher asking about the race of the suspicious person made it seem as if Zimmerman racially profiled Zimmerman, as if he had offered information about Martin’s race without solicitation. Zimmerman has launched a defamation suit against NBC for airing this questionable edit.

I would like to draw attention to the reasons for Zimmerman suspecting Martin in the first place, before I offer evidence that contradicts the portrayal of Zimmerman as a racist. Zimmerman’s reasons for calling the police were that Martin was not hurrying in the rain, that he had his hand in his waistband, that he was cutting between houses. On the one hand, we have the police call as hard evidence; on the other, we have Zimmerman’s side of the story. We also have various witnesses’ perspectives. The missing part of the story is Trayvon Martin’s point of view and we must not underestimate this. In an interview granted exclusively to Fox news, Zimmerman said “I felt he was suspicious because it was raining. He was in-between houses, cutting in-between houses, and he was walking very leisurely for the weather. ... It didn't look like he was a resident that went to check their mail and got caught in the rain and was hurrying back home. He didn't look like a fitness fanatic that would train in the rain.” In other words, he was suspicious because his behaviour did not fit any of the moulds of Zimmerman’s expectations. Zimmerman was a Neighbourhood Watch Captain, was studying Criminal Justice, and had been mentored by Sanford police. He had trained in the observation of suspicious behaviour by the police, for whom social norms of propertied people are the standards to which they hold all people. This is the subtext of Zimmerman’s comment about the mail. It did not occur to Zimmerman that Martin was cutting behind houses as a short-cut on a rainy night. It did not occur to him that Martin may not even mind the rain so much, that he may even enjoy it. Why not?

Below I have copy/pasted parts of the transcript of George Zimmerman’s call. I have included what I think is important and at least described what I have excluded. My idea of what is important in this phone call lines up with many others.

Zimmerman: Hey we've had some break-ins in my neighbourhood, and there's a real suspicious guy, uh, Retreat View Circle, um, the best address I can give you is 111 Retreat View Circle. 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.

Dispatcher: OK, and this guy is he white, black or Hispanic?

Zimmerman: He looks black.

Dispatcher: Did you see what he was wearing?

Zimmerman: Yeah. A dark hoodie, like a grey hoodie, and either jeans or sweatpants and white tennis shoes. He's . . .[unintelligible], he was just staring. . .

Dispatcher: Ok, he's just walking around the area. . .

Zimmerman: . . . looking at all the houses

Dispatcher: Ok.

Zimmerman: Now he's just staring at me.

(some directions given, unimportant)

Zimmerman: Yeah, now he's coming towards me.

Dispatcher: OK

Zimmerman: He's got his hand in his waistband. And he's a black male.

Dispatcher: How old would you say he looks?

Zimmerman: He's got button on his shirt, late teens.

Dispatcher: Late teens ok.

Zimmerman: Something's wrong with him. Yup, he's coming to check me out, he's got something in his hands, I don't know what his deal is.

Dispatcher: Just let me know if he does anything ok.

Zimmerman: How long until you get an officer over here?

Dispatcher: Yeah  we've got someone on the way, just let me know if this guy does anything else.

Zimmerman: Okay. These assholes they always get away. (gives same directions) Shit he's running.

Dispatcher: He's running? Which way is he running?

Zimmerman: Down towards the other entrance to the neighbourhood.

Dispatcher: Which entrance is that that he's heading towards?

Around this point in the phone call, you hear the car door open.

Zimmerman: The back entrance . . . fucking punks

Dispatcher: Are you following him?

Zimmerman: Yeah

Dispatcher: Ok, we don't need you to do that

Zimmerman: Ok.

The next exchange is about Zimmerman's information (name, address, etc.) Zimmerman says after he's asked his apartment number "It's a home it's 1950, oh crap I don't want to give it all out, I don't know where this kid is."

The rustling noises on the phone, starting when Zimmerman gets out of the car, settle down a little while this exchange happens, but start again near the end of the call, when the two discuss logistics about meeting the dispatched police. Considering the material of the red jacket he wore that night of the confrontation, these rustling noises suggest to me that he stopped walking, then started again.

Before I continue, it should be noted that three weeks before the shooting Zimmerman called the same police line and reported a man looking in the windows of one of the houses in the gated community where the shooting happened. Although the man escaped, a man was arrested four days later in connection with this incident with stolen jewellery and a laptop in his backpack, and Zimmerman identified the man he saw. If I were Zimmerman, I would feel a little more relaxed after that, seeing that perhaps the culprit for the string of burglaries in the neighbourhood had been caught. Rather than relax, however, Zimmerman maintained the same level of hyper-vigilance.

One of the witnesses, who provides us with only a second-hand version of Trayvon’s perspective, said that she was talking on the phone with Trayvon until moments before he was shot, which is borne out by cellular records. She said that Trayvon told her that a “creepy cracker” was staring at him, and then following him. She said that Trayvon had lost the man, but that he had reappeared again. She testified that she told him to hurry to his father’s house in the gated community, where he was staying temporarily, and this is borne out by the fact that Trayvon’s body was found only 64 metres from his father’s home. The witness testified that after the man following Zimmerman reappeared, Trayvon asked Zimmerman “why are you following me” to which Zimmerman responded “what are you doing around here?” The witness said after that she heard the sound of the two scuffling. The credibility of this witness was severely damaged when the defence showed that she lied under oath about being in the hospital on the day of Trayvon’s funeral after they could locate no hospital records. But the question I have, the one that does not depend upon a faulty witness’s testimony, is how Trayvon could have had one hand full with the skittles and fruit drink, talk on the phone with the other hand and “have his hand in his waistband?” In the transcript, Zimmerman says “Something's wrong with him. Yup, he's coming to check me out, he's got something in his hands, I don't know what his deal is.” How does Zimmerman not recognize that he’s on the phone, and as such, might be distracted, thus explaining why he’s “looking around?” Of course, Zimmerman’s on the phone, so he’s distracted, too. It was incredibly stupid of him to follow Trayvon, whether or not he is an “A” student. It was also stupid that he didn’t identify himself as a member of the neighbourhood watch to Trayvon. Perhaps the dispatcher should have been more assertive as well in instructing Zimmerman not to follow Trayvon, rather than merely say “we don’t need you to do that.”

Many are saying if Trayvon was white, he’d still be alive. That may be true. Race parity in the jury would certainly have been desirable and just. But the problem with the race argument is that Zimmerman may have earlier attended a City Hall meeting to complain about the former police chief of Sanford and how he handled a case where the son of a police officer beat a black homeless man. The leader of the NAACP broke ranks with black leaders such as Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson’s call for escalation in protests, perhaps because of the letter he received from a concerned relative of Zimmerman’s. Another problem is that Zimmerman is Hispanic and himself has African-Peruvian heritage. When it comes down to it, Zimmerman’s ungrounded suspicion may have been restricted to the way Trayvon dressed and how he acted. Had Trayvon dressed in a “classier” way, would there have been suspicion? Had he driven to the store for his treats, would he still be alive? A young man died that night, a young man for whom there was no evidence found that he committed any crime the night of the shooting, and justice has yet to be served. I believe the prosecution did a terrible job. I think a charge of manslaughter was more manageable and more just for all those involved.

Sources and Notes: http://www.foxnews.com/us/2012/04/25/dershowitz-trayvon-prosecutor-overreached-with-murder-charge/?test=latestnews and http://www.palmbeachpost.com/news/news/second-degree-murder-charge-may-be-hard-to-prove-i/nN26Z/ Some feel that the appointed prosecutor felt media pressure for an exaggerated charge in order to get re-elected. The cutoff date for qualifying to run against State Prosecutor Angela Corey was nine days after the Republican filed charges. For more details on this, consult http://www.wtsp.com/news/article/251911/19/Prosecutor-in-Trayvon-Martin-case-wins-re-eleection
http://m.newsbusters.org/blogs/matthew-sheffield/2012/04/23/nbc-news-president-network-should-probably-apologize-air-repeated Note, this source may be tendentious because it proclaims itself dedicated to exposing liberal bias in the media. However, NBC employees were fired and/or disciplined over the misleading edits. For more information on this, see http://www.mediabistro.com/tvspy/wtvj-reporter-fired-for-making-similar-edit-in-george-zimmerman-911-call_b46599
http://thegrio.com/2012/07/18/zimmerman-says-he-was-not-pursuing-trayvon-martin/ Please note that the defense’s decision to grant exclusive rights to the Fox network, known for its conservative bias, strikes me as cynical manipulation. That the Martins hired a publicist to drum up media attention, and the media’s subsequent misbehavior helped no one in this situation.
In none of the seven instances that George Zimmerman called the police did he volunteer the race of the suspicious person until asked by the dispatcher. See http://usnews.nbcnews.com/_news/2012/04/05/11045284-in-police-calls-zimmerman-mentioned-race-only-when-asked?lite.
http://dailycaller.com/2012/04/02/zimmerman-family-member-calls-naacp-racists-says-there-will-be-blood-on-your-hands-if-george-is-hurt/. This story would be easy enough to verify with members of city council. I do not know whether it has been thus verified.
Transcript of George Zimmerman's call to the non-emergency police line:
You can listen to this call here:

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