I felt consumed by anger when I heard the Trayvon Martin verdict over the weekend. Anger not just at the verdict, but at how little it shocked me. I had accepted that George Zimmerman must be presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond any reasonable doubt. But what is so infuriating about this verdict is that in a case of poetic injustice, that principle of innocent until proven guilty that allows Zimmerman to go home to his family, is the very same principle he denied Trayvon Martin, setting off a chain-reaction that led to the death of a minor. If George Zimmerman hadn’t presumed Trayvon a criminal and started to stalk him on that fateful night, Trayvon would still be alive and Zimmerman would still be a wannabe cop nobody had ever heard off.
Pro-Zimmerman supporters have taken to openly gloating in the comments section of every newspaper. Not satisfied with ‘the not guilty’ verdict for Zimmerman, what they are most concerned with is imposing a ‘guilty’ verdict on Martin. Fox News’ Geraldo Rivera continues to stand by his comments that imply Trayvon brought his death upon himself by ‘dressing like a thug.’ Alleged musician Ted Nugent’s account of the fateful incident not only paints Martin as a violent, attempted murderer but also bizarrely as a racist? They are part of a repulsive group, united by their rallying cry, for the ‘liberal lamestream media’ to ‘show the real Trayvon Martin.’ Showing a disturbing lack of lack of empathy for a 17-year-old, violently killed before his life had even really begun, nothing angers them more than when they see picture of Trayvon looking young and innocent, which is, of course, the exact same way we represent any teenage murder victim. Their desire to expose the real Trayvon shows more about themselves than it does about the victim; there is no circumventing the fact that Trayvon was, in the eyes of the law, still a child. But for them, a young black male stops being a child not when he turns 18 or graduates from college but as soon as he starts to look what they would consider ‘a threat.’
Puberty is time of great change for everyone but I would argue that transformation is most drastic for the black boy. In many parts of the Euro-American world, there is no child more captivating than the baby black boy. My mother talks of walking down the street with me as a child upon moving to England and being confused by the amount of adult strangers ohhing and ahhing at me, always commenting on my skin color and asking to touch my hair. However, that time of the black boy looking and being treated like Michael Jackson in the Jackson 5, comes to an abrupt halt with the onset of puberty. He undergoes a metamorphosis into a figure that historically has been seen to be as as close to a beast as humans can be: violent, sexually uncontrollable, and inherently criminal. Those same strangers who once ruffled his hair will now cross the street from him after dark. This change in who he is perceived to be cannot be halted by class or wealth. Overlooked by those who look to expose Trayvon as a gang-banger is that his father’s fiance actually lived in the gated community where he was seen by Zimmerman. Trayvon was not from ‘the hood.’ His mother worked as a Miami-Dade government employee. Both parents, who have been remarkable in their dignity, must have hoped that their status could protect their boy from the aforementioned stereotyping. Not to the Nugents and Riveras of this world. For them the phrase ‘innocent young, black male’ is an oxymoron. Behind their desperate desire to edit out Trayvon Martin’s youthfulness is a desire to place him back into what black philosophers Frantz Fanon and Lewis R. Gordon describe as ‘the zone of non-being’, the place where your life is disposable because by your very existence you embody danger.
All this applies in the UK as well, although thankfully we have a lot less firearms around. Here, the Zimmerman verdict has now been knocked off the front pages by the police admitting that after black teenager Stephen Lawrence was murdered in 1993, they started investigating Lawrence and his family instead of the murderers, who were allowed to escape justice until last year. The police tried to smear Lawrence, an innocent schoolboy who had been stabbed to death in an unprovoked racist attack. If there had Twitter and Facebook then, maybe they could have found a picture of him with gold teeth to leak. This tactic worked in 2011 when the death of mixed race Mark Duggan lead to widespread riots around the UK. Duggan had no criminal record but he continues to be thought of as a gangster in the public consciousness, mainly because he is always shown wearing a gold chain and making a gun sign with his hand. Therefore, no questions were asked by the mainstream British public after he was shot dead by the police; everyone took one look at Duggan’s picture and knew that he was guilty of ‘something.’
You must understand this collective psychological phenomenon to understand why anyone can dismiss the shooting of an unarmed 17 year-old who went out to pick up some sweets as ‘one of those things.’ It is something already understood by every black mother, none more so than my own who still ends every message to me with the phrase ‘be safe.’ I am a lawyer, and as a member of the Bar of England and Wales, I belong to one of the most ridiculously elitist organizations in the country. Yet my mother knows that with just a pair of jeans and a baseball cap, I can be transferred back into that ‘zone of non-being’. Furthermore, with the internet allowing every persons meta-data to be available at the click of a mouse, I am sure that a narrative of me as a ‘troublemaker’ could easily be drawn up if necessary. I like to train in combat sports (violent), I like to be politically active (angry, militant) and I got into a lot of trouble at school (criminal tendencies from a young age). Would this, plus a few pictures of me at a party, be enough to remove the presumption of innocence in the court of public opinion were I to have an unfortunate confrontation with the police after dark?
For me, it is this lack of a presumption of innocence for the young black male that led to Trayvon Martins death. It is what led George Zimmerman to believe Martin a criminal for no reason. It is what led to the police doing a toxicology report on Trayvon Martin but not on George Zimmerman. It is what led to the fears of riots, looting and revenge killings from young black males should Zimmerman be found not guilty. Of course, after the verdict there was no violent revenge. Whilst I imagine most black men (barring Allen West) would disagree vehemently with the jury’s decision, everyone has, by and large, respected the right for Zimmerman to be innocent until proven guilty. It is about time the courtesy was returned.