On Celebrating American Ignorance
Waiting out the noise of the Trayvon Martin trial verdict seemed prudent in an effort to avoid being emotional. In retrospect, good choice because so much of what I had initially assumed turned out to be dead wrong.
I frequently make jokes about living in Hooterville, my nickname for a Blue heart living in a Red State, but virtually seconds after the verdict, this place sounded like a war zone. I raced outside, thinking my home was under siege. What I witnessed can only be described as the saddest thing I’ve ever seen. My neighbors were across the lake around a bonfire shaking bottles of cheap sparkling wine and soaking one another with it as though the Hooterville Puck Suckers had just won the Stanley Cup. All over the lake, fellow residents had clearly held back plenty of incendiary devices from their Independence Day celebrations in the hopes of a not guilty verdict because the full night sky was ablaze with the rocket’s red glare. Some were (illegally) shooting off guns into the star-filled night sky. I quickly raced to the relative safety of my home, locked all the doors and windows and hoped like hell the drunks wouldn’t go hunting for a suspicious Yankee Liberal to make an example of. After an hour or so, the guns and fireworks ended, no doubt because they had exhausted their ordinance, but the drinking and whooping and hollering went on for several hours longer. I turned up the music loudly to mask the party they were having for the unpunished murder of a dead black teen, cowered inside my home and wept for parents of Trayvon Martin, grateful they could not witness this calloused display. No. Of course this trial wasn’t about race.
Curious about national reaction, I went into
my office to gauge just that on social media. Those pleased about the verdict couldn’t leave it at “fair”, but warned their friends of impending rioting, something they called the #NiggerChimpout on Twitter. No. Of course this trial wasn’t about race. They should be so grateful this wasn’t 1968. My brothers and sisters of color have learned that in the new militarized America, Homeland Security’s gift of riot gear, flash bangs, tear gas and copious amounts of pepper spray and tazers guarantee that even peaceful protests will be met with preemptive, excessive force. Been there. Done that. Calling for peaceful protests were met with deafening silence from the Media Machine. Peaceful protests aren’t sexy. And when the cameras are turned off, police departments across the country are initiating the violent clashes. All you have to do is look at who came dressed for combat. I sat in my office on Sunday night monitoring police bands across the country. The dispatches I heard were sickening. These people came to have a voice, not to burn down the city. The police were having none of it.
I had to try to see things from the perspective of the jury. I had to make sense of this and in doing so, found the text of the Florida “Stand Your Ground” law and posted it to social media to make people understand that this jury could have chosen not to follow their own morals or logic of what really happened and felt painted into a corner for that not guilty verdict. I was verbally assaulted by people I respect and took umbrage. It only took 2 days to learn just how wrong I was.
There’s a reason I refer to this as the “Trayvon Martin Trial”, for surely he was the one on trial here, not George Zimmerman. No one can ever complain George Zimmerman was not granted a jury of his peers – but there would be no jury of Trayvon’s peers – for there were six white Conservative Republican middle-aged women sitting on that jury – several of whom have guns. I tried to convince myself this was not the case until America met Juror B-37.
Monday morning was met with the announcement that a literary agent was representing Juror B-37 shopping for a book deal. Her announcement that “My hope is that people will read Juror B37’s book, written with her attorney husband, and understand the commitment it takes to serve and be sequestered on a jury in a highly publicized murder trial and how important, despite one’s personal viewpoints, it is to follow the letter of the law,” Sharlene Martin wrote. Spare me the talk of personal sacrifice. Personal sacrifice is when you do if from a sense of civic duty and leave it at that. You cede the moral personal sacrifice high ground when you set out to make money from a tragedy. I found it tasteless and ghoulish. She went on to say that Juror B-37 abhors publicity.
No. I don’t think she does. I’m certain of that because she initiated the interview that very day with CNN’s Anderson Cooper and appeared in shadow on that program to discuss the verdict. You can view Part I here and Part II here. What America witnessed was appalling. Never have I heard a woman use such racist, self-absorbed white privilege shrouded in an utter lack of self-awareness to broadcast her ignorance to a nation. I won’t be lectured on how this case wasn’t about race any longer. She referred to Zimmerman throughout the interview as “George” and Trayvon Martin as “that boy”. On Rachel Jeantel, the young woman on the phone with Trayvon Martin just before the shooting, she said, “I didn’t think it was very credible, but I felt very sorry for her. She didn’t want to be there. She didn’t ask to be in this place. She wanted to go. She wanted to leave. She didn’t want to be any part of this jury. I think she felt inadequate toward everyone because of her education and her communications skills. I just felt sadness for her.” You felt sadness for her because… what? Because you assumed she had enough self-awareness to know that she was nothing but an ignorant, uneducated woman of color, right? One can only hope Madame Juror took some time out of her press tour to watch Ms. Jeantel’s interview with CNN’s Piers Morgan to know just how wrong she was. You can view Part I here and Part II here. What I heard was a typical young woman who spoke of her friendship with Trayvon Martin, how they spoke of their hopes and dreams for the future. She certainly had no problem communicating and I had no problem understanding her, even with the cultural differences between us. The Juror seemed to have some issues with Ebonics because she’s not exposed to it in her self-described information bubble. In my world of white privilege, I’ve made an effort to understand people who don’t look or talk like me because it’s the path to understanding those cultural differences and cultivating tolerance. Of course, Juror B-37 has the privilege of remaining anonymous. If I could offer her one small piece of advice: she should cling to that anonymity for as long as is humanly possible.
It did prompt me to try to learn more about this juror in general. It wasn’t tough. Gawker published online her vior dire – the preliminary examination to determine the competency of a witness or juror. What I learned in watching explained a lot. She represents the Sarah Palin that is now common to the American jury system. Never reads anything. Isn’t informed about anything. Has no opinions on anything… until she’s offered a national stage, a huge microphone and an adoring crowd. Again, I’m frightened to think this juror was better than the the people dismissed.
Then came Tuesday morning. The literary agent, after being bombarded by literally tens of thousands of angry Tweets, rescinded her offer to represent Juror B-37 and her lawyer husband. Juror B-37 then issued a statement:
“Spirit of justice”? You jest, madame. I can make a hard case that justice belongs to the rich or the white in America. The farce in which you participated was not a justice system – it was a court system that provided only a veiled cartoonish façade of justice. Both your book announcement and your appearance with Anderson Cooper were proof positive that I and others will no longer be fooled into believing otherwise.
“But George Zimmerman is Hispanic!”, you cry. When someone with a name like Julio Ernesto Gonzalez goes on trial for the murder of an unarmed black teen, we can have that conversation. The Right Wing media machine tried desperately to paint George Zimmerman as a Latino to mitigate the racism charges. Zimmerman’s own mother is out saying she’s “Afro-Peruvian”, a phrase not recognized even in Peru. I called my native Peruvian friend. He said,
“There’s no such racial designation in Peru. Most Peruvians are descended from the Incas and think of themselves that way. Of course there is some African influence in Peru – but it’s not predominate and I’ve never heard that phrase used before.”
Zimmerman’s father, a white judge released a book that suggested “blacks are the true racists in America and that’s why my son is being maliciously prosecuted.” Guess when Judge Zimmerman found out about his wife’s “Afro-Peruvian” background, that was probably the reason for the divorce – he just couldn’t abide being married to a racist. *end sarcasm*.
People are judged not only on how they look, but how they speak and on the basis of their surname – ask Haitian native Rachel Jeantel. Before all this, had someone marched me up to this guy and said, “Carol, I’d like you to meet George Zimmerman”, never would it have occurred to me this guy was either Hispanic or African-American or Caucasian. If pressed, I’d probably have guessed he was olive-skinned and Jewish. I find George Zimmerman’s family proudly claiming his hispanic (and black?) heritage as a matter of convenience, not from any sense of cultural pride. His supporters hang their “this was never about race” hat on this very point. Nice try, but this teacher is giving you an “F” for originality.
So now, as if it didn’t happen enough
during the trial, Team Zimmerman is attempting to assassinate the character of a 17 year old dead teen. The post-verdict press conference by the defense team was purely disgusting. Mark O’Mara stated, “If George Zimmerman were black, he never would have been charged with a crime.” About that sir, you are correct. If the police arrived to see a gun-toting black man standing over the body of a non-black person, he’d have been shot to death on scene. No lengthy expensive trial and no lengthy expensive incarceration. The verdict is being used by racists as “proof” that Trayvon Martin was the aggressor who viciously beat George Zimmerman who was forced to fire a lethal shot to defend himself against this black thug. The verdict ‘proves’ no such thing. I have an opinion about what happened but it’s just that – an opinion. I wasn’t there. Neither were the millions of other people mouthing off about it. What can be proven is that Trayvon Martin was where he was supposed to be. Trayvon Martin was committing no crime. George Zimmerman, on ‘Neighborhood Watch’ violated the tenants of “observe and report but never engage and never carry a gun”. George Zimmerman did not like the looks of Trayvon Martin. When George Zimmerman called 9-1-1 (for the more than 50th time in a few short years), he was told not to pursue. Zimmerman chose to ignore that order. In the end, Zimmerman was alive and Martin was dead. What happened in the 4 minutes in between will always be a matter of speculation, though it’s clear a physical altercation took place between an almost man and a fully grown man. To me, one should have known better and that makes me fairly and naturally suspicious that the self-serving account of the last man standing is being accepted as gospel.
Since the verdict, good friends have confided they’re sufficiently scared of these gun nuts they feel they have no choice but to arm themselves. I gently remind them that the NRA and ALEC wrote the “Stand Your Ground” law that was passed verbatim as those same groups lined the pockets of legislators happy to put it into law. Those two groups represent the gun lobby and they want you afraid. They want you to rush out and buy a gun. I beg them not to give into that.
On Sunday morning, my dear black sister BFF called and asked the question I dreaded: “What do I tell my children? If they can’t walk down the street without being assumed guilty of something, how can I keep them safe?”
After a pained silence, I told her, “You can’t keep them safe. You can’t make them less black. You can’t make people who have been taught to fear everyone who doesn’t look like them to just stop being afraid. I think I’d have to tell them to be even more vigilant about their surroundings. To walk neither too fast or too slow, lest they be accused of loitering or running from a crime scene (though I’ve yet to figure out what ‘too fast’ or ‘too slow’ means universally). I’d tell them that while enough people feel this way to put them in danger, not all of us do. I’d tell them… I’d tell them… I don’t know what I’d tell them.” And together we cried.
There are those seminal moments in everyone’s life when they remember where they were the moment an historic event took place; President Kennedy’s assassination, the moon landing, the Challenger disaster… and the verdict in the Trayvon Martin trial. For me, that was the night the gun lobby reminded America in the most terrible way that our lives are completely disposable. That was the night when it hit home for me that America is a place where, if you’re black, it is now exponentially harder to vote but infinitely easier to die without justice.
George Zimmerman’s brother went on television to lament that his brother’s life isn’t worth a spit because ‘some people – vigilantes’ feel they have the right to take the law into their own hands and wish to kill him. The irony burns, sir. Vigilantism sucks now that the shoe is on the other foot. If only you understood that vigilantism has no place in a civilized society. I suggest that as a nation we need to take a hard look at the meaning of “a civilized society”. As of late, we’ve been acting anything but civilized.
The jury in this case seems to epitomize a phenomenon I’ve talked about before – the dumbing down of America. I wouldn’t have felt that way had Juror B-37 come out and said, “I don’t believe this was a just verdict, but it was the only verdict allowed by law.” Instead, she came on television and demonstrated what being insulated and self-absorbed and unaware will buy you in America today – intolerance. As such, I’d like to declare July 13th a National Holiday where Americans can properly celebrate their ignorance. On the anniversary of the verdict, we can rejoice in our collective ignorance and intolerance.
Believe it or not, I started my Sunday watching the movie, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”. It’s the story of a black man who surprises an affluent white couple inside their home and he manages to get through a meal without being shot and killed. Hard to believe that film is 46 years old. How far we’ve regressed.
I ended my Sunday in the only way I could – watching the Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.” I ended up digging out my old copy of the book. There was a particular moment in there I needed to find and once I did, I called my friend back, the one who asked what she should tell her kids. I read a part of it to her, knowing it wasn’t enough, but satisfied it was truth:
“Atticus said to Jem one day, “I’d rather you shot at tin cans in the backyard, but I know you’ll go after birds. Shoot all the blue jays you want, if you can hit ‘em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” That was the only time I ever heard Atticus say it was a sin to do something, and I asked Miss Maudie about it. “Your father’s right,” she said. “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing except make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corn cribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”
When I finished, I could hear her softly weeping on the other end of the line. We both knew it wasn’t enough… but it was the truth.