Historians Weigh in on George Zimmerman’s Acquittal

In the immediate wake of a Florida jury’s decision to acquit George Zimmerman of both second degree murder and manslaughter charges, several UNC Press authors have taken the time to pen their thoughts. Anthea D. Butler, Minkah Makalani, and Robin D. G. Kelley share their opinions in hopes that Trayvon Martin’s death and the subsequent trial will provoke larger discussions on race, justice, and religion in America.

Women in the Church of God in Christ: Making a Sanctified World by Anthea ButlerAnthea Butler, author of Women in the Church of God in Christ: Making a Sanctified World, writes at MSNBC’s TheGrio blog:

The fevered murmurings of right wing pundits about riots prior to the verdict was a steady drumbeat of fear mongering and race baiting, based in constructed racial stereotypes. To infer that all blacks will start to riot if Zimmerman is let off is disingenuous.  Emotions are running high, but to assume mass riots is playing a particular race card, one imbued with the racial trope of black people inciting violence at a drop of a hat.

For more on the multitude of racial stereotyping and the variety of ways the “race card” has been manipulated since Martin’s death, please read her complete post, “Yes, the Zimmerman case was about race.”

In a separate post at ReligionDispatches.org, titled “The Zimmerman Acquittal: America’s White God,” Butler explores the troubling relationship of American Christianity and the supposed justice espoused by American Democracy:

When George Zimmerman told Sean Hannity that it was God’s will that he shot and killed Trayvon Martin, he was diving right into what most good conservative Christians in America think right now. Whatever makes them protected, safe, and secure, is worth it at the expense of the black and brown people they fear.

Their god is the god that wants to erase race, make everyone act “properly” and respect, as the president said, “a nation of laws”; laws that they made to crush those they consider inferior.

When the laws were never made for people who were considered, constitutionally, to be three-fifths of a person, I have to ask: Is this just? Is it right? Is God the old white male racist looking down from white heaven, ready to bless me if I just believe the white men like Rick Perry who say the Zimmerman case has nothing to do with race?

In the Cause of Freedom: Radical Black Internationalism from Harlem to London, 1917-1939 by Minkah MakalaniMeanwhile, Minkah Makalani, author of In the Cause of Freedom: Radical Black Internationalism from Harlem to London, 1917-1939, posted on NewBlackMan (in Exile) blog:

Making reference to defense witness Olivia Belatran, a young white woman whose home had been broken into by two young black men while she huddled in a locked upstairs bedroom holding her child and an inadequate pair of scissors, O’Mara assured the jury he did not present her for sympathy. “When you put a face on what was happening at Retreat View,” he explained of the series of burglaries in the months leading up to February 26, 2012, “she’s it. She’s really it.”
[ . . .]
Like The Birth of a Nation, which portrayed Reconstruction-era freed black men roaming the earth without chains, lawless, and lusting for white women, O’Mara dialed up the face of the vulnerable white woman terrorized by black teens unleashed by the same darkness that Zimmerman confronted. With considerable rhetorical skill and calm, O’Mara told a story almost as compelling, getting his point across to those six women jurors, five of whom are white: Zimmerman killed the horror you do not want to confront.

His blog, “Still a Threat,” focuses on how the problematic perceptions of the black body interfere with our ability to recognize humanity across race. In an engaging turn at the end of his post, Makalani turns to Martin’s relationship with the prosecution’s witness Rachel Jeantel as an example for hope:

If we can take anything redemptive from this horror, if any such possibility exists, it would have to be Rachel Jeantel. What never came out in her testimony (I guess it never occurred to anyone to ask), but what the public learned subsequently, is that her friendship with Martin was precisely because he violated those very same premises that cast him as a source of anxiety and her as a threat to racial respectability. Trayvon and Rachel were friends, she related through her attorney, because he never made fun of her complexion, her size, or how she talked. Their friendship stemmed from their ability to see one another as human beings, to love one another (not romantically but) as people who could see one another, and who could function from a vulnerable place where love functions as nothing other than honoring another’s life and presence, one another’s existence on this earth.

Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists during the Great Depression, by Robin D. G. KelleyFinally, Robin D. G. Kelley, author of Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists during the Great Depression, writes at CounterPunch:

In short, it was Trayvon Martin, not George Zimmerman, who was put on trial. He was tried for the crimes he may have committed and the ones he would have committed had he lived past 17. He was tried for using lethal force against Zimmerman in the form of a sidewalk and his natural athleticism.

The successful transformation of Zimmerman into the victim of black predatory violence was evident not only in the verdict but in the stunning Orwellian language defense lawyers Mark O’Mara and Don West employed in the post-verdict interview. West was incensed that anyone would have the audacity to even bring the case to trial—suggesting that no one needs to be held accountable for the killing of an unarmed teenager. When O’Mara was asked if he thought the verdict might have been different if his client had been black, he replied: “Things would have been different for George Zimmerman if he was black for this reason: he would never have been charged with a crime.” In other words, black men can go around killing indiscriminately with no fear of prosecution because there are no Civil Rights organizations pressing to hold them accountable.

And yet, it would be a mistake to place the verdict at the feet of the defense for its unscrupulous use of race, or to blame the prosecution for avoiding race, or the jury for insensitivity, or even the gun lobby for creating the conditions that have made the murder of young black men justifiable homicide. The verdict did not surprise me, or most people I know, because we’ve been here before. We were here with Latasha Harlins and Rodney King, with Eleanor Bumpurs and Michael Stewart. We were here with Anthony Baez, Michael Wayne Clark, Julio Nunez, Maria Rivas, Mohammed Assassa. We were here with Amadou Diallo, the Central Park Five, Oscar Grant, Stanley “Rock” Scott, Donnell “Bo” Lucas, Tommy Yates. [. . .]

The list is long and deep.

And:

The point is that justice was always going to elude Trayvon Martin, not because the system failed, but because it worked. Martin died and Zimmerman walked because our entire political and legal foundations were built on an ideology of settler colonialism—an ideology in which the protection of white property rights was always sacrosanct; predators and threats to those privileges were almost always black, brown, and red; and where the very purpose of police power was to discipline, monitor, and contain populations rendered a threat to white property and privilege.

Read Kelley’s full piece, “The US v. Trayvon Martin,” at counterpunch.org.

When we shared excerpts from what historians were writing soon after Trayvon Martin was killed last year, Billie Holiday’s version of the anti-lynching ballad “Strange Fruit” seemed sadly apropos. And so it is today.

Anthea D. Butler is associate professor of religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Follow her on Twitter @AntheaButler

Minkah Makalani is assistant professor of African and African diaspora studies at the University of Texas at Austin. Follow him on Twitter @minkahm.

Robin D. G. Kelley is Gary B. Nash Professor of American History at UCLA.

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