by Shaun Knittel -
SGN Associate Editor
The shooting of Trayvon Martin is a national tragedy that has left many Americans stunned and saddened. George Zimmerman, a volunteer neighborhood watchman of a Florida community, was acquitted of all charges in the death of 16-year-old Martin, who was confronted by Zimmerman as he walked to his father's home in a gated community.
Zimmerman, who admitted to fatally shooting the unarmed Black teenager, was not initially arrested or charged. After nearly six weeks of public outcry, prosecutors charged Zimmerman with second-degree murder in the case, which became a flashpoint in the conversations about racial profiling and gun laws in America.
Martin was perceived to be a suspect by Zimmerman because he was wearing a hoodie and walking in a gated community. Despite being advised by a 911 operator not to leave his vehicle and engage the so-called suspect, Zimmerman got out of his car, a fight ensued, and an unarmed teen is dead.
Due to the overwhelming evidence that was introduced during the trial, it seemed to many a no-brainer. I thought, 'Zimmerman is guilty because he got out of his vehicle and confronted someone, at night, aggressively, and because he was getting his ass handed to him during the fight he panicked and shot the boy.' In all reality, any rational person can deduce that this trial comes down to one fact: Martin was unarmed, and Zimmerman was not. Simply put, Zimmerman shot an unarmed teen.
And yet, for some God-awful reason Zimmerman is a free man - kind of. Let's face it: more people despise him than anyone else on the planet at the moment. He is a marked man, public enemy number one. And it's all because he couldn't keep his dumb ass in his vehicle and follow the 911 operator's directions. And it is also because Zimmerman is a bigot.
Racism and how it related to the death of Trayvon Martin is as plain as black and white. Or is it?
'With no one of African descent - male or female - serving on the jury the nation sadly, once again, has shown to be neither colorblind with an all-white jury nor post-racial with one,' points out the Rev. Irene Monroe, a columnist for The Huffington Post, in a July 17 opinion piece for the San Diego Gay & Lesbian News. 'And the notion that an all-white-female jury would render a fairer outcome than an all-white-male jury assumes racial bias is gender-specific.
'Just as racial bias isn't gender-specific, it is also not race-specific. Zimmerman is of a mixed-ethnic descent (his mother's Peruvian, and his father's Jewish) who identifies as Hispanic,' she said.
Monroe, who is African-American, puts forth that it is her belief that from Matthew Shepard to Trayvon Martin, bigotry knows no boundaries. Monroe maintains that the question many are still asking is whether Zimmerman was motivated by racism because he, too, is a person of color; therefore, was Zimmerman racially profiling Trayvon?
Racial, gender, gender-expression, and the all the other biases float freely through society - landing on all.
'Just because you're a person of color or a member of an oppressed group it doesn't mean you don't buy into stereotypes and racial and cultural attitudes,' said Monroe. 'These themes inform our judgments and actions toward others as well as your own group (case in point: Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas).
'As a matter of fact, the bombardment of stereotypes has proven to have both subtle and unintended consequences toward people of different races, ethnicities, sexual orientation, classes, and religions, to name just a few,' she continued. 'It's not just regular people who succumb. Geraldo Rivera, a renowned Latino, stated that Trayvon wearing a hoodie was 'as much responsible' for his death as Zimmerman's pistol. Of course, Rivera later recanted.'
'GAY PANIC' PARALLELS
A young man has become the symbol of the horrific result of such stereotyping, and is fast becoming the symbol for a movement. Just as Matthew Shepard's death galvanized a nation, Trayvon Martin's is doing the same.
Gabe Zichermann, a successful entrepreneur turned author, agrees. 'For students of Gay rights in the United States, the emerging facts of the case, and particularly how police appear to have handled it, are eerily familiar.'
'For the better part of the last hundred years, killing people because they are Gay has been an acceptable practice in many parts of the country and the world,' he wrote in a Huffington Post article dated May 10, 2012, long before the trial had begun. 'All too often, perpetrators get away with anti-Gay violence because the police have failed to investigate, lawyers have failed to prosecute, or juries have pardoned the perpetrators. From high-profile cases like Harvey Milk's to hundreds of lesser-known incidents, a pattern of violence against sexual minorities met with official disinterest and inertia is all too common.'
The most common tactic to avoid conviction for anti-Gay violence is known as the 'Gay panic' defense.
'In this strategy, killers assert that they were hit on by a Gay person, felt threatened, and retaliated with violence,' said Zichermann. 'Often, the legal system's response to such incidents is to simply assert that the dead 'had it coming' or shouldn't have incited the violence in the first place, by keeping their interest to themselves.'
Like Monroe, Zichermann references Shepard as an example of how bigotry spills over into more than just race. 'Sometimes, it's the prosecutors who support Gay panic, as in the case of Matthew Shepard, where prosecutors asserted for some time that Matthew's drug use was the reason he was brutally beaten, tied to a fence, and left for dead, despite evidence to the contrary. In that case, the killers directly used a Gay panic defense in court, subtly aided by the prosecution's ennui.
'In this regard, Florida's self-defense act merely codifies for racial minorities something that sexual minorities have long believed: that if you get assaulted, Gay-bashed, or even murdered, the authorities are unlikely to make an effort to seek justice on your behalf,' he added.
SHEPARD, BYRD LINKED
In 1998, the same year that Shepard was murdered, James Byrd Jr. was the victim of a bias-motivated crime. Byrd, an African American, was killed by three white supremacists who chained him to the back of their pickup truck at his ankles and dragged him three miles along an asphalt road until he was dismembered.
Monroe points out that Byrd was targeted and murdered because he was Black, just as Shepard was tortured, tethered to a fence, and left to die because he was Gay.
The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act was passed in the wake of these murders. The measure expanded the federal hate-crimes law to include crimes motivated by a victim's actual or perceived race, gender, gender identity, and sexual orientation, to name a few.
'With Florida's 'Stand Your Ground' [law] permitting Zimmerman to walk without charges, the Shepard-Byrd statute not only reminds us of how bias-motivated crimes links Gays and Blacks together but that it's the best hope for Trayvon Martin and his family seeking justice,' said Monroe.
When the not-guilty verdict was handed down on July 13, police departments across the country braced for a violent reaction. Of course, this was just racial fear-mongering because, aside from a few brushes with police, the crowds that gathered held peaceful protests against what they perceived as an injustice.
'The prediction of violence was not simply wrong. It was wrong for all the wrong reasons, in an echo of the way responsibility in the case was shifted onto Martin's shoulders,' wrote Jelani Cobb in a July 15 article in The New Yorker. 'There's a sly inversion at work in the references to lynch mobs and riots, one that takes Zimmerman's acquittal and expands it to all of American history.'
'At some point in the saga of George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin, it became a truism in certain quarters that a not-guilty verdict in the Zimmerman trial would be greeted by fire, chaos, and mob violence,' she continued. 'This idea has apparently survived the almost completely peaceful protests over the verdict that took place this weekend.'
Marc W. Polite at Time magazine writes, 'The last major racial riot occurred in Los Angeles after four police officers were acquitted in the brutal beating of Rodney King. That was 21 years ago. Since then, there have been several other racially charged cases that might have provoked an outpouring of protest, but did not.'
Polite points out even after the police officers who killed Sean Bell in a hail of 50 bullets were acquitted in 2008, no riots ensued. Likewise, there were none when the indictment of the officer who shot and killed Bronx teenager Ramarley Graham was tossed out earlier this year, despite footage of the police following him into his Bronx home.
'His mother didn't call for riots,' said Polite. 'She made T-shirts to protest.'
'A TERRIBLE MESSAGE'
Martin's parents spoke out Thursday for the first time since Zimmerman was acquitted in the death of their son.
In interviews on three network TV morning news programs, Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin attacked the verdict and the Zimmerman defense team's argument that the killing was in self-defense during an attack by the unarmed teenager.
Fulton told CBS This Morning she was 'in a bit of shock' after the verdict. 'I thought surely that he would be found guilty of second-degree murder,' she said.
Fulton said the case is 'sending a terrible message to other little Black and brown boys - that you can't walk fast, you can't walk slow. So what do they do? I mean, how do you get home without people knowing or either assuming that you're doing something wrong? Trayvon wasn't doing anything wrong.'
Tracy Martin told CBS he wants America to know that Trayvon 'was a fun-loving child.'
Speaking to ABC's 'Good Morning America,' Martin added that he and Fulton did not find the verdict fair, 'and of course it's devastating.'
The parents have not said whether they intend to file a civil lawsuit. They are, however, urging the federal government - which is considering whether to file criminal civil-rights charges against Zimmerman - to examine the case closely.
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