America has always been hooked on self-protection. Citizens are encouraged (and protected by law) to bear arms and stand their ground against perceived intruders. When a racist country is that obsessed with self-defense, the safety of men with white privilege — even those who, like George Zimmerman, have a record of abuse — takes precedence over the welfare of everyone else.
The six-woman jury (five white, one hispanic) that acquitted George Zimmerman of second-degree murder in the death of Trayvon Martin, a black teenager armed only with candy, never learned that Zimmerman had a long history of violence against women.
Zimmerman allegedly molested his female cousin for ten years, starting when she was just ten years old. Zimmerman's former fiancé sought a restraining order against him for domestic violence; she alleged (alongside other more violent claims) that Zimmerman was "trolling her neighborhood to check on her." These two pieces of character evidence were deemed irrelevant, even though the latter suggests that he had a thing for "checking up" on people who didn't want or need to be monitored and therefore seems particularly apropos.
Imagine if the races were reversed: what if Martin's cousin had accused him of molesting her, or if a former girlfriend said he pushed and slapped her? Given that the jury was informed that Martin had marijuana in his system when he was shot and killed — you know, the demon weed that turns Skittles-wielding teenagers into murderous sociopaths — we'd venture to guess that they'd hear about his past treatment of women, too.
We don't need a topical hypothetical for switching genders, because a Florida woman with a clean record who fired warning shots against her allegedly abusive husband was recently sentenced to 20 years in prison for attempted murder.
The court's decision to ignore Zimmerman's pattern of violence reveals "a system of power that dismisses the experiences and voices of survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence as invisible and untrustworthy," writes Salamishah Tillet at The Nation. We'll go one step further: it reveals a system of power that prioritizes the experiences and voices of men who are "just trying to protect themselves" without exploring the reasons why they're so paranoid in the first place.
We witnessed the same hypocrisy during the Oscar Grant case, which was incredibly similar to Martin's: the defense attorney for the BART officer that fatally shot the young black man in the back said he was entitled to show evidence that "Grant is the sort of person or had the sort of character that would lead him to" resist arrest, even though he wasn't armed or doing so at the time. The former BART officer, Johannes Mehserle, publicly apologized for his mistake, and a jury deemed that he had learned his lesson; he ended up serving only eleven months in prison.
This passage from bell hooks' All About Love, which was widely circulated after Zimmerman was acquitted, says it all:
The growing number of gated communities in our nation is but one example of the obsession with safety. With guards at the gate, individuals still have bars and elaborate internal security systems. Americans spend more than thirty billion dollars a year on security. When I have stayed with friends in these communities and inquired as to whether all the security is in response to an actual danger I am told “not really,” that it is the fear of threat rather than a real threat that is the catalyst for an obsession with safety that borders on madness.
Culturally we bear witness to this madness every day. We can all tell endless stories of how it makes itself known in everyday life. For example, an adult white male answers the door when a young Asian male rings the bell. We live in a culture where without responding to any gesture of aggression or hostility on the part of the stranger, who is simply lost and trying to find the correct address, the white male shoots him, believing he is protecting his life and his property. This is an everyday example of madness. The person who is really the threat here is the home owner who has been so well socialized by the thinking of white supremacy, of capitalism, of patriarchy that he can no longer respond rationally.
White supremacy has taught him that all people of color are threats irrespective of their behavior. Capitalism has taught him that, at all costs, his property can and must be protected. Patriarchy has taught him that his masculinity has to be proved by the willingness to conquer fear through aggression; that it would be unmanly to ask questions before taking action. Mass media then brings us the news of this in a newspeak manner that sounds almost jocular and celebratory, as though no tragedy has happened, as though the sacrifice of a young life was necessary to uphold property values and white patriarchal honor. Viewers are encouraged to feel sympathy for the white male home owner who made a mistake. The fact that this mistake led to the violent death of an innocent young man does not register; the narrative is worded in a manner that encourages viewers to identify with the one who made the mistake by doing what we are led to feel we might all do to “protect our property at all costs from any sense of perceived threat. ” This is what the worship of death looks like.”
This was evidenced today in The Washington Post, when Richard Cohen argued that it's logical to be afraid of young black men because "young black males commit a disproportionate amount of crime." Basically, black people are responsible for ending racism, and while they figure that out — "the problems of the black underclass" will be solved "someday," Cohen says, admitting he doesn't know how — white people are responsible for protecting themselves.
Meanwhile: a Milwaukee senior citizen was charged with fatally shooting his 13-year-old neighbor. The older men suspected the young one of stealing guns from his home; he shot the kid while he was taking out the trash, while his mother stood just a few feet away. Guess which one was white and which one was black?
Image via AP.