On Feb. 26 in Sanford, Fla., 28-year-old George Zimmerman shot and killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. So far, Zimmerman has not been arrested or charged with murder because he claimed he killed Martin in self-defense. The basic narrative of the killing, however, completely destroys any semblance of validity of such a claim.
Zimmerman, a self-appointed neighborhood watchperson, spotted Martin walking down the street in his gated community and began to follow him in his car. Zimmerman was alarmed by Martin’s appearance, apparently thinking he looked like he was up to something, so he called 911. The 911 responders told Zimmerman not to pursue the boy and that they would send an officer to the area.
Zimmerman did not listen and continued to pursue Martin, who was wearing a sweatshirt with the hood up. Eventually, Martin began running and Zimmerman got out of his car to chase him. Finally, Zimmerman caught up and an altercation allegedly ensued. Then Zimmerman, the grown man armed with a pistol, felt threatened by the boy half his size armed with candy and iced tea and shot him dead.
That is absolutely not a case of self-defense; I don’t care how Florida’s self-defense laws are worded.
But still, Zimmerman claimed to feel threatened and that was enough. Why did he feel threatened? And what social scripts are available for people to plug into in order to “get” why he might have felt threatened?
On March 23, Geraldo Rivera went on “Fox & Friends” and said that “The hoodie is as much responsible for Trayvon Martin’s death as George Zimmerman was … When you see a black or Latino youngster on the street, you walk to the other side of the street. You try to avoid that confrontation … I understand that the reaction might be overzealous or irrational to some extent, when you look at the statistics. But you’re not gonna rehabilitate the hoodie. [Martin] wore an outfit that allowed someone to respond in this irrational, overzealous way and if he had been dressed more appropriately, I think, unless it’s raining or you’re at a track meet, leave the hoodie home.”
You’ve heard it before, usually in the context of women being sexually assaulted. It’s called blaming the victim. And the jury says that this particular bit of (non)reasoning is still fallacious.
It is completely wrong to take the fact that people (in gated communities) feel threatened by black or Latino youngsters walking down their streets in hoodies as an explanatory reason for this murder. Rivera is right to point out that this fact exists. He is wrong to evaluate it in the way he does: “Leave the hoodie home.” It’s not the hoodie’s fault. It’s the fault of Americans who buy into the false narrative that hoodies and dark skin definitively equal danger.
As President Barack Obama said, we all have some soul-searching to do – myself and all of us liberal, well-meaning colorblind Geneseo kids as well. What can we do to change the scripts, so that a black kid in a hoodie is no longer a signifier of a violent threat? We can start by talking seriously about what race means in our country, while remembering that we are not merely spinning theory. People live and die over the ideas in these discussions. And when a child dies … well, I don’t have to say anything about that. You can ask Martin’s parents.
Oh, and it was raining the night Zimmerman murdered Martin.