When I was in high school, my social studies teacher was doing a lesson on Civil rights in the South. In his lesson, he began by telling a story about his own travels to the South. He had been driving for a while, and pulled over to fill up his gas tank. The owner of the station invited him to sit, rest, and relax with a glass of sweet tea. He and the owner talked, and he found him to be one of the most polite and friendly people he had ever met… until an African American pulled up, filled his tank, and asked if he could get something to drink.
“You can use the hose,” the owner replied in a cold. matter of fact tone.
For me, one of the most upsetting parts of the Trayvon Martin case has been the Zimmerman apologists that have been coming out of the woodwork. The hard part is that many of these apologists are not hateful people, but people I have known for years. These aren’t angry racist people, but they are working very hard to absolve a man who shot a kid who he felt, by look, that he didn’t belong in that neighborhood. But this in many ways goes to the heart of the resistance to seeing privilege: Privilege is not about hate, it’s about how you want your world organized and who gets to be treated as people in that world. Privilege is about putting people into places and having those people know their place. Those who defend privilege don’t usually go out of their way to attack or harass, but they do get very defensive when that privileged status gets threatened.
George Zimmerman is not a good man. Now the fact he was acquitted of murder only because he was in a state where the laws were written and interpreted to declare him not guilty only means that according to the rules he was not guilty of a crime. By the report of juror’s themselves, the acquittal was based on their technical understanding of the law, despite a feeling that Zimmerman was morally guilty. Being technically not guilty does not make Zimmerman a good person. Technically, as a 35+ man, it is also not a crime for me to sleep with a 16 year old in most states. That doesn’t mean it is right to do so, in fact it is horribly, horribly wrong. But if I were to specifically seek out and have sex with a 16 year old, even though I would be a very bad, morally bankrupt person, I would not be guilty of a crime. Being not guilty is different from being good or right, especially when the law itself is flawed. Additionally, Zimmerman has no regrets about killing Trayvon. When a good man kills an innocent person, he feels regret. I was the victim of several mugging attempts in Peace Corps. I fought off my muggers using my Martial Arts skills. I felt bad afterwards. True they were attacking me, they were criminals, but I felt bad because I had to be violent towards another human being. Trayvon wasn’t a criminal, he wasn’t breaking any laws when Zimmerman started following him. Zimmerman just felt he didn’t belong in the neighborhood. Zimmerman was advised by the police not to follow Trayvon but did anyway. According to the phone call that directly preceeded the deadly struggle, Trayvon was making several attempts to get away from Zimmerman. Zimmerman has no regrets about killing this boy. Now it could be argued that he was trying not to incriminate himself in the interview. But the problem with that notion is he then takes it further by stating that his killing of the young innocent black boy was God’s plan. In his own words it was was God’s will that he shot Trayvon. If he were just trying not to incriminate himeself, a simple “I made what I thought were the right decisions with the information I had at the time, and hindsight can’t change that” type of statement. But no, he invoked the divine, making it his belief that his actions were part of the order of the divine plan. He profiled, stalked, and killed an innocent teen, and reports no regret. When asked about his regrets, the closest thing he could say was that he was sorry that the Martins had to bury their child, a statement he could only find after struggling for some reason to personalize it. Not the personal regret that he killed the kid, but the detached regret at the the abstract notion that parents had to bury a son.
There are those who are trying to make the case that Zimmerman was being unfairly portrayed as a monster by the media, especially by the NBC tape edits of this 911 call. Well, here is the original 911 transcript. Zimmeran starts by saying that Trayvon looked like he was up to no good or on drugs. Trayvon wasn’t, he was sober and buying skittles and an iced tea. But those were the words before any prompting from the officer. Also unprompted was when Zimmerman automatically classified Trayvon as one of “these assholes they always get away.” That was a spontaneous, unprompted, unedited statement. Finally, George admitted he was following Trayvon (which was the reason Trayvon was staring at him, Trayvon’s own phone call noted that he was aware he was being followed) and continued even after he was advised not to. In addition, the dispatcher did not encourage Zimmerman to get out and get more information, as some people are arguing, but told him to find a place to wait for an officer. So even without the edits, Zimmerman was still profiling and stalking. That is the legible part. In his under the breath comment, he refers to him as a “fucking coon”. All of those statements were unprompted by the 911 operator. So yes, NBC did edit, but no, the damning statements were not created by the edits
Many try to make this a “self defense issue.” Yes, legally, he was acquitted under a self defense law (that you are more likely to be freed with if your victim is black). But following and harassing someone until a fight breaks out (no witness ever reported seeing who through the first punch – And though his friend said she believed it “in her mind” but neither saw or heard anything to indicate he did), and shooting them, is not self defense, it’s an exercise in escalation. So why is Zimmerman, not Trayvon, the one who is seen as acting in self defense, and not seen as the threat in the scenario? Where was Trayvon’s right to self defense? Did he fear for his life? Afterall, he was the one being followed when all he was doing was getting some skittles from a store. If someone is following you at night, you make an effort to lose him, and he still follows, would you not be afraid? How close would you let the guy get before you felt threatened enough to defend yourself? But if you think that Trayvon still caused his own death, what are you saying his alternative should have been? Should he have accepted George’s profiling and stalking ? Should he have just accepted the harassment under penalty of George’s bullet? If you are placing Zimmerman as a champion of self defense, then the conclusion of your notion is that Trayvon should have accepted that stalking and harassment, that Trayvon was somehow lower and subjugate to Zimmerman.
He’s not someone you want as your spokesperson of self defense.
Finally, the newest defense comes as people are pointing out the recent event where Zimmerman came to the aid of an overturned SUV.
Here is a picture of the family he saved
Here is the thing about Altruism: it is mediated by how much you identify with the the target of the altruism. The more you feel the target is kin, the more you feel they are like you, the more likely you are to help. You can be altruistic and still subscribe to privilege. Like I said, privilege is not about hate, but about how you organize the world. The violence of privilege comes when someone challenges that world view.
The fact that Zimmerman still shows no remorse or regret over his killing of Trayvon does not get wiped away by the rescue. Instead the car rescue makes things worse, it reinforces the notion that his targeting of the teen was not due to some general paranoia or misanthropy, but because he classifies people, and treats them differently according to his pre-judgement. In the case of Trayvon, he saw him as one of those “fucking punks. Those assholes, they always get away with everything” (remember, Trayvon was doing nothing illegal that night). But the apologists want to believe that his slate can be wiped clean, that he can be proven to be a good guy after all. But unless he is willing to show regret for wrongfully stalking a teen, and regret for taking his life, there can be no redemption because there is no acknowledgment that nothing went wrong that night. The fact that he can be kind to certain people as well does not cancel out the fact he has killed an innocent teen without regret. Rather it shows that he treats people differently depending on how he judges them, and that difference in treatment comes with deadly consequences.
So why are people rallying behind him?
I can’t speak for individual people in this answer. I can’t analyze a reason a single person may hold if I haven’t sat down and discussed it with him or her for a prolonged time. However I can speak to the general tendencies of people as a whole, and there are parallels to the fundamental existential crisis of man.
One reason that people are rushing to defend him is the implications involved in “self defense” and gun control. The Stand your ground law was championed by the NRA, attaching it to issues of gun rights and gun control. It also is an extreme self defense law that lowers the requirements to claim self defense. This law favors a doctrine of escalation. There is no need to second guess, there is no requirement to remove yourself from danger (actually in its interpretation, a person can leave the situation, get their gun, return and kill). The person you kill can even be running away from you when you shoot him. What you have is a legal justification to kill whoever scares you. It doesn’t matter if the threat is justified. It doesn’t matter if the situation can, or even has been resolved in a non-deadly way. It doesn’t matter if you started the conflict and then just found yourself overpowered. Once the threat trigger is tripped you can make it go away by pulling a gun, and there are no legal consequences. This is a primal response. This is the child self lashing out on impulse. This is the Thanatos that society was built to restrain. This is why we build sophisticated and enlightened methods of conflict resolution, deescalation, and social alternatives to violence to restrain. Overcoming this urge is what makes use more mature and moral people. But it is a struggle, and one that people, if they could, would not undertake on their own out of fear and lack of faith in the more mature options. Self defense was always allowed, but you had to prove you had no other option, because, in a civilized society, the first option should never be escalation and death. But this law takes those obstacles away. Instead of forcing you to mature and grow, it indulges you and that primal immature desire to lash out at what frightens you. And that is one of the things that is so attractive about this law.
The second reason people challenge Zimmerman if that admitting her was wrong forces us to challenge our own conceptions about who we fear. Again, the common defense has been to justify Zimmeran’s both threat felt by Trayvon, and initial behavior of following Trayvon, while simultaneously ignoring that Trayvon was the child being stalked and harassed by a stranger with a gun. There was nothing to fear in Trayvon that night, no reason not to leave that teen alone. But he fit a profile, an simple equation people build in their minds to make quick decisions on danger. These profiles make us feel safe, because we can use them to quickly use them to judge threats and react. But we don’t often stop and question if these profile are true measures. We never stop and ask if this security is really a false security. For black teens, this creates a struggle for them as they are constantly under struggle not to be placed in the threat category just because of the way they look. It’s not about hate, its about being able to judge quickly, and create a safe and secure world based around those judgements. Its about maintaining the right to make a quick judgment on a profile, because that is exactly what Zimmerman did. This is where the attraction lies here. If he is guilty, then we are guilty every time we feel a fear spike in the presence of a someone we judge as threaten at first site. If he is justified, then we are justified with every snap judgement we make. But if we have to question him, we have to question ourselves, our judgements of people, and how we develop our sense of safety.
But failure to question, the failure to find the courage to live without these profiles, snap judgements, and prejudices, creates a dangerous and impulsive society. It is a society where each immature reaction is indulged instead of challenged. It is a society where ideas of equality and justice remain only abstract notions while the antithesis holds control. It is a society where we never grow and mature in mind and spirit because we are never challenged to grow. And it is a society where young man like Trayvon must work harder to get the rights to claim self defense, and even dress how he wants when buying a pack of skittles without getting shot.
Privilege exists when one group has automatic access to a right or resource that another group either has to work harder to access, or has no access at all.