Lost in the Movies: What I feel needs to be said

What I feel needs to be said

Very rarely do I post on political issues or news stories, or non-movie related topics in general, mostly because I feel it's generally outside of this blog's purview. Only when I feel pushed or compelled beyond my usual vaguely depressive disengagement with contemporary U.S. politics or the daily news cycle do I step outside of this avoidance and post something from my gut about what's going on out there in the non-movie/arts world. The last time I did so was in April, when a bomb exploded at the Boston Marathon and I was drawn back to my connection to that city; what resulted was probably one of the more autobiographical posts I've shared on this site.

Tonight, a day after the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmermann verdict, it's hard to say why I feel so personally invested that I want to write a blog post on the subject. And yet I do. I've tweeted more on this topic than any other, and almost entirely since the verdict. I did not follow the trial very closely, and I didn't even know the details of the case until a few months ago (when it happened, I was in the midst of a move to L.A. and not following the news closely at all - I only knew the names and none of the specifics, so that until a few months ago when I delved into a Wikipedia article, and the relevant sources, on the subject I didn't even know that George Zimmermann had killed Trayvon Martin during an altercation in a neighborhood both belonged in). And yet here we are. I'll attempt to make sense of my jumbled reactions below; take it as you will. Maybe I shouldn't have posted this at all, yet - as a co-worker of mine is fond of saying - "let me tell you where my heart is."

Trayvon Martin is dead. No one disputes this fact. George Zimmermann killed him because he felt threatened. The justification of George Zimmermann's fear is under some dispute. Trayvon Martin was not committing any crime when Zimmermann decided to pursue him, he was in a neighborhood he belonged in, he was being followed by a suspicious armed stranger. These facts are not in dispute. What boggles my mind is this: that Trayvon Martin did not deserve to be killed or followed in the first place, that he did not "start" a dispute in fact begun by said stranger suspiciously following him, that being black and a teenager and tall and wearing a hoodie at night in an middle-class neighborhood is not in itself a crime - these facts are in fact in dispute. Huh? Within weeks of his - by all accounts, initially - tragic death, Trayvon Martin was (in the words of a memorable tweet) put on trial for his own murder.

I've been busy lately, preoccupied by a number of personal matters. I did not follow the Zimmermann trial closely. Yet I paid enough attention to have a sneaking suspicion that, despite the optimistic projections of many, Zimmermann was not going to be convicted of second-degree murder. I did not know until Saturday that the charge of manslaughter had been entered for the jury's consideration at the last minute, but once I discovered this, my skepticism about the evidence proving Zimmermann had actually killed Martin in complete cold blood turned to shock that he had not been convicted of anything.

Again, that Zimmermann initiated the altercation with Martin which resulted in Martin's death is undisputed. That Martin was in fact doing nothing wrong prior to Zimmermann approaching him is also undisputed. That Martin was unarmed, that Zimmermann was warned by the dispatcher not to follow Martin further, also undisputed. And here Martin is, dead. If this description isn't enough, you can find a picture of his corpse online. I considered linking it here, but as his parents don't approve it, I don't feel comfortable doing so. Maybe even mentioning it here is unethical, but I found it brought the situation home to me, and I feel obligated to point to its existence for you as well.

Here's the thing. I don't feel any great animosity or hatred toward George Zimmermann. First of all, the notion of making him stand in for some form of white supremacy is a bit silly. While as a former census enumerator I know that "Hispanic" is officially considered separate from racial classifications, I also know that in general consciousness this ethnicity is considered separate from white. In other circumstances, the same people who praise Zimmermann as some sort of virtuous vigilante would view him as a dangerous minority; I do not think it's fair to invent some new category for him whereby he's consigned to majority-race status simply because some within that group found it convenient to use him as a symbol.

And yet that doesn't mean this case, and the media buzz surrounding it, don't reek of white supremacy and a (paricularly white upper-class) racism against blacks. As I put it to my sister in a text: "Where 'white' does enter it to it is the conservatives jumping on justifying Zimmermann and slandering a teenager now that he's dead as 'thug'. And the double standard... I wrote on Twitter this morning: 'If "conservatives" were really color-blind they would be infuriated today that Trayvon Martin's right to self-defense was ignored. They want white dudes to be all 'don't tread on me' & ready to swing, but demand black be docile & know their place.' I think Zimmermann fucked up and should pay a price, probably manslaughter, but I don't have any visceral hatred of him."

The ones I do find myself absolutely, gut-level infuriated about are the smug, snarky right-wing tweeters, bloggers, and other commentators who feel it's their duty to slander a dead teenager in order to justify something that - in other circumstances - they would have decried. And this has been the focus of most of my tweets in the past day: the utter hypocrisy of those who claim to stand for freedom, liberty, independence, and self-defense, denying any of these principles when it comes to someone they don't culturally identify with - in this case, a black teenager wearing a hoodie who had smoked weed and gotten into some trouble in the past, and most importantly represented a culture they don't feel they control or belong to, and thus worry about.

When I was in high school, I self-identified as "conservative" because I felt most liberals I knew were knee-jerk and I myself felt an affinity toward the traditionalist stance on several issues. Those days are long past, my disillusionment beginning with the Iraq war and escalating over the years to the point where I hold self-described "conservatives" in such contempt I can barely contain myself. I use the appellation "self-described 'conservatives'" for a reason: I do not think most of these people are defined by any philosophical or ideological consistency (which I might respect) but simply a juvenile, immature form of cultural identification which seeks to annoy the perceived enemy, a in-many-ways-fantasized "Blue America" to which most of the more intellectual members of the right in fact self-loathingly belong.

It is these people who have most virulently seized on the Trayvon Martin-was-a-thug line, that nauseating form of argument which seeks to condemn a dead man for his own death. I can understand feeling that evidence was weak. I can understand feeling that Zimmermann's fear is comprehensible if unfortunate. I can even understand feeling that, in a violent altercation, Zimmermann thought it was necessary to use deadly force to save his own life. But the fact remains that he put himself in that situation. That his harassment of an innocent individual was unjustified and in fact warned against by professionals whose job it was to deal with potential criminal threats. That at the end of the day, the only word we have to rely upon as to whether a killing was justified is the killer's, and this is no sort of reliance at all.

I have made mistakes in my own life, which I won't go into here. I can completely understand how someone could fall into a situation beyond what they had expected and make life-altering, potentially life-ending, decisions. I also feel, very, very strongly, that such individuals must accept responsibility for the decisions they made, even if they never expected those decisions to lead to the consequences they did. If anything, this, to me, would seem the conservative position, at least if conservative means taking responsibility, accepting the harsh facts of life, and owning one's own actions. That self-described "conservatives" in fact take the opposite position, holding that the cowboy mentality of "stand your ground [with a gun]" faux-machismo is the honorable and justifiable option in such situations, that any potential consequences must be decried with immature temper tantrums...well, such a view speaks volumes about how hollow contemporary "conservatism" is in the United States.

Furthermore, the fact is that black people are profiled all the time here, and not just in "Red America." Since moving to Los Angeles, my eyes have been opened to the extent to which black Americans are expected to endure harrassment particularly from the police (although this case now seems to expand that right to self-appointed civilian patrolmen too). To name just one of several examples, I was pulled over recently, the only white guy in a car full of black co-workers who were harrassed by cops eager for a quota-achieving bust (they didn't get one, though they had fun antagonizing everyone in the meantime). I found it vaguely amusing until a co-worker rephrased it recently "Yeah, it sucks, realizing you only got pulled over because your friends are black, doesn't it?" Saturday night, reading about the Martin verdict, the last traces of ironic chuckle died in my throat. This is a sick society. And while my greatest animosity is directed right now at those who celebrate and justify the sickness, perhaps it should instead be directed at those who feel ashamed yet look the other way.

That's all I have to say on the subject. I don't know if it matters or was worth typing up, but there it is. Forget race and gun control for a moment. Somebody is dead, somebody who had done nothing wrong prior to the altercation leading to his death, the details of which altercation we will never know. Those who think think this is some sort of game should reflect on that for a moment, and feel the deepest, darkest shame. I doubt they will but then, if nothing else, Saturday night reminded us we do not live in a just universe after all. Sad.


Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Well said.

Joel Bocko said...

Thanks, Jacqueline.

Doug's Blog said...

Joel, you said so many things so well about this highly emotional case. I have had black friends and co-workers in California who have been treated badly by law enforcement in ways I wonder if I could tolerate as well as they have. But, as you intimate, the most frustrating thing about this case is the double-standard of the "Don't Tread on Me" crowd.

Something I'd like to add because it has haunted me :could Trayvon Martin been in fear of his life from Zimmerman, rather than the other way around? That is just as plausible as the defendants story. We'll never know since Martin is dead and no witnesses saw how this altercation started.

Joel Bocko said...

Exactly. My focus & amazement has been that, even given the most unfavorable interpretation of events possible, Trayvon Martin was still essentially in the right. But it may have been even more extreme circumstances. I haven't followed the case closely enough to know how compelling that evidence is. But the possibilities are disturbing. As someone tweeted recently, the best way to ensure a favorable legal outcome in an altercation in Florida is to kill your opponent.

Mike said...

I think the best thing to do is move on. I'm sick of all the nasty, mean spirited tweets/debates from both sides of the political spectrum that try to put some political slant on this tragedy. Seems like everyone has their two cents on this, and they just have to use this tragedy that they have nothing to do with in order to justify their beliefs. Whatever happened to remaining silent out of respect?

Anyways yours is the first (and most likely last) essay I've read on the topic. You do a good job of humanizing events but you are essentially feeding the fire by calling out the Republican's hypocrisy. I think they do a good enough job of making fools of themselves and others needn't stoop to their level. Let's all mourn the loss of a human and move on.

Joel Bocko said...

You make a fair point inasmuch as a lot of the trolls are essentially looking for attention, and I'm giving it to them, which could arguably be fuel for the fire. Where I disagree with you somewhat, while seeing where you're coming from, is whether or not the case should be a public event. While people are killed tragically every day without notice, this became a public event because it was not handled properly initially - only by becoming a public event was Zimmermann even charged in the first place. In a sense, it is the local law enforcement, and ultimately the legal establishment that conditioned Zimmermann's acquittal, which poliicized the case, not the protestors on either side. What happened here, in the events that transpired but even more so for the way it was handled and the eventual outcome, has major implications for all Americans and for that reason I feel this should spur a conversation (and a real conversation, not a shouting match) that should continue over time, unpleasant as it may be. That said, I certainly don't plan to post any more on the topic - I've said my piece. At any rate, thanks for leaving your thoughts, I appreciate different points of view chiming in.

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