For the past week, I’ve been glued to the television screen watching as much as I can of the George Zimmerman trial. Accused of second-degree murder, the state of Florida is prosecuting Zimmerman for racially profiling and then shooting to death African-American seventeen-year old Trayvon Martin. Since those reading this will surely be acquainted with this infamous and racially-charged event, I will only briefly recount the happenings of that fateful night.
On the night of February 26th, 2012, Trayvon Martin was on his way back to his dad’s home in a gated town home community in Sanford, Florida, in the central part of the state. Carrying a bag of skittles candy, a can of Arizona iced tea, and wearing a hoodie on that rainy night, Trayvon Martin was walking through Zimmerman’s neighborhood as the latter followed him in his car, suspicious of the young man because of the color of his skin and due to a series of robberies committed in his area in the previous months. The prosecution holds that Zimmerman needlessly followed and then provoked Trayvon into a scuffle that ended in the teen’s death at the hands of Zimmerman’s pistol from point-blank range. The defense has an easier road to follow; while the state must prove beyond reasonable doubt to the jury (9 women, 8 of which are white) that Zimmerman murdered Trayvon with “malice” and “ill will”, all the defense team has to do is sow enough doubt in the case against their client and uphold Zimmerman’s theory of self-defense. They’ve done this with some success. They’ve poked holes and sought to deligitimize every prosecution witness from Trayvon’s friend Rachel Jeantel, who was on the phone with Trayvon during the initial stage of his confrontation with Zimmerman, to the Sanford police investigator of the crime, and the medical examiner who diagnosed Zimmerman’s head injuries as essentially insignificant.
The trial in itself is fascinating in the way in which the opposing sides meticulously scrutinize every detail of the situation to reinforce their story. The media outlets broadcasting the trial routinely take breaks in which commentators of various backgrounds chime in and give their viewpoints on how the case is proceeding and usually betray their sympathies for the defense or prosecution. The entire spectacle is fixated on the whether George Zimmerman legitimately feared for his life due to Trayvon Martin’s aggression and employed his self-defense right to “meet force with force” (as the Florida self-defense law dubbed “Stand Your Ground” Zimmerman claims to have based his killing on states.). The defense seeks to build up Zimmerman as an honest and trustworthy American who fell upon an unfortunate situation that required the use of lethal force. Several of the defense’s 18 witnesses know Zimmerman personally and went on and on about his concern for his community, his work with small children, etc., all in an attempt to influence the jury’s perspective on Zimmerman. This strategy, for the defense, implies framing Trayvon as just another street thug, a good-for-nothing criminal who asked for what he got. They’ve honed in on his tattoos as an example of that, although when Trayvon’s mother took the stand she told the defense lawyer Mark O’Mara during her cross-examination that those tattoos were in honor of her and his grandmother. The defense rejects any accusations of racism against their client as they employ typical stereotypes of Black men to slander Trayvon’s legacy and justify his death.
Amidst the confusion and complexity of the trial, the media and those who only focus on Zimmerman’s legal innocence or guilt miss the larger picture. Even if Zimmerman were not a racist, even if he did act in self-defense as defined by the law, the point here is that in the United States, Black men are routinely racially profiled by the racist capitalist state and reinforced in the realm of ideas through TV shows, movies, music, etc. The criminalization of Black men justifies, in our society, their mass incarceration and brutality at the hands of police. If it can be proven that Zimmerman held a deeply racist psychology, evidenced by his remarks against Black people and Mexicans, this is the result of the racist environment we are all raised in that demonizes Black people to enforce their material subjugation in America. A guilty verdict is just, but won’t change this reality. When Zimmerman saw Trayvon walking through his block, he immediately saw himself as an agent of the law and the latter as his criminal target. That is the social context in which the two crossed paths. This situation replays itself countless times each day in the US in the sense that Black folks are viewed with a mix of fear and suspicion, but which normally ends in white people (but also other people of color) saying racist garbage about Black people and moving on. In the case at hand, however, it ended in the murder of this young Black man and the consequent social upheaval angry at the impunity in which the killers of Black men are routinely treated with. The protests and popular disgust at Trayvon Martin’s death and this nation’s racist nature have forced Zimmerman’s trial onto the spotlight.
From the beginning, Zimmerman and his family attempted to deflect accusations of racism by saying they identify as “Hispanic”. As far as I know, he is half Peruvian. But anyone who knows Latinos in the U.S. understands the racial prejudices they hold against Black people. In addition, Zimmerman has displayed racist, anti-immigrant sentiment against Mexicans, evidence of where his actual racial allegiances lay. When Black officers kill Black people, or when a Mexican-descended US border patrol agent rounds up people who look just like him/her, they serve the white supremacist state regardless of their background.
White ruling classes run Latin America like they run the United States, presiding over a centuries-old racial caste system against those with brown skin, Afro-Latinos, and indigenous people. Herein lies the problem with the term “Latino” as a category the US state racializes Latin American immigrants into. It erases differences of nation, race, and class. A significant segment of Latin Americans in this country identify as white on a personal level and on the US census because they are white. To give one example, the initial flow of Cubans to the US after the revolution of 1959 were mainly well-off white Cubans fleeing from the property expropriations, executions, and roundups by the new regime. The US government provided them with great financial assistance to create a powerful bastion of right-wing counterrevolution. The CIA provided a large amount of employment to these exiles, many who attempted to, and still fantasize about, overthrowing Castro. Today, they remain key contributors to the Republican Party. In the 1980s Cuba opened up its floodgates and thousands of Cubans once again made their way to the shores of Florida, this time largely Black or poor. While they were provided with citizenship, they did not have the financial or political backing of the state. They became part of Florida and Miami’s low-wage working class, underemployed, homeless, and drug peddlers. These two groups of Cubans are diametrically opposed by race and class, as they were in Cuba. Grouping them under a general racial category erases these key differences. I’m not saying we should throw it out, because it also does represent a general experience most people of Latin American descent experience as workers, immigrants, and brown people. But it does contain contradictions.
George Zimmerman acted as an unofficial agent of white supremacy and is only on a high-profile trial because of popular demand and because he is an unofficial pig, a lawless vigilante who thinks he’s entitled to protect the purity of his lily-white republic by murdering unarmed Black men. He applied to be an official cop but they rejected him due to a bad financial record. He belongs to the same family as the KKK who still crawl around the country and the white “minutemen” who take it upon themselves to hunt down immigrants at the border and kill them like animals. Yet they are not the main problem plaguing Black and Brown people. It is the badged vigilantes, the police, the armed enforcers of the state who run wild killing Black people with complete impunity. They tear apart immigrant families, break down their doors, indefinitely detain them, and sow fear in their neighborhoods and workplaces through programs like E-Verify and S-Comm.
For all the talk of Zimmerman’s supposed self-defense against a young and unarmed Trayvon Martin, it is workers and people of color who must seriously think about self-defense, whether it be against random freaks like Zimmerman, racist mobs, or the state itself. All talk about “peace” in our communities after one of ours is killed, deported, or jailed merely serves to deepen our oppression and leave us defenseless against the racist violence of American society.