One of the social myths that George Zimmerman's acquittal reinforces is the popular belief that black men are menacing, criminals and gangsters. It was principaly this stereotype that led Zimmerman, a neighbourhood watch volunteer, to suspect the hoodie-clad Trayvon Martin for being a criminal high on drugs. Believing Martin to follow these racialised and criminogenic tropes, Zimmerman decided to pursue Martin in late February 2012, instigate a fight with the 17-year-old, and fatally shoot the teenager. While Zimmerman's defense team did not utilize Florida's controversial "Stand Your Ground" law that gives lethal leeway to individuals who can prove their life was threatened, the "Stand Your Ground" law was actively used by jurors in their decision. And in the end, Zimmerman's team successfully claimed that he killed Martin within the confines of the law, even though by following Martin, Zimmerman initiated the entire event.
Unsurprisingly in an interview with Fox News last year, Zimmerman disputed the claims that he disregarded a police dispatcher's advice not to pursue the 17-year-old Martin; Zimmerman attempted to justify his actions, saying, "I didn't mean that I was actually pursuing him … I meant that I was going in the same direction as him, to keep an eye on him so that I could tell the police where he was going."
It is not entirely clear why Zimmerman felt the irresistible urge "to keep an eye" on, or stalk Martin. What is clear though, is that the outcome of this case is consistent with academic research findings illustrating that, as Kathryn Russell says, American social institutions tend to be "more willing to believe someone White who says they were victimised by someone Black than someone Black who says they were victimised by someone White."
Whether or not Zimmerman, who is half Caucasian (his mother is Peruvian) and has a violent arrest history, acted with conscious racial bias when following and killing Martin, will remain a disputed and debated subject. But in examining the existing patterns that shape this tragedy and others like it, it becomes clearer that in cases where street and family violence occur, legal sanctioning of violence is racialised. Violent perpetrators who can benefit from dimensions of white, male privilege in a court of law, do so.
Historical Comparisons Demonstrate Patterns
As already pointed out by Al Jazeera, just over twenty years ago, the four male, Caucasian Los Angeles police officers – Stacey Koon, Theodore Briseno, Timothy Wind, and Laurence Powell – accused of beating African American motorist Rodney King with 56 baton blows were acquitted despite their actions being caught on camera. Like Zimmerman, the act of seriously harming an allegedly threatening African American male goes undisputed. Martin was killed and King severely beaten; nobody disputes either supposition. The four officers accused of beating Rodney King were able to escape conviction because the legal processes protected them. Their trial was moved to Simi Valley, California, where a high proportion of police officers resided, and their attorney utilized a loophole in the law. The four officers under scrutiny argued they were resigned to beating King so vehemently with weaponry because the law prohibited them from choking King into unconsciousness. These legal tactics, along with King's cultural construction as a menacing black male, led to the law and all its legal procedures working in the white males' favour. In short, the law protected them, allowed for their acquittal, and legitimized King's abuse.
Now compare and contrast the above cases with that of Marissa Alexander – the 31-year-old mother, holding a Master's degree without any prior criminal history who was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment after claiming she fired a warning shot to fend off her abusive husband, Rico Gray.
The two cases do not offer a perfect comparison; Florida prosecutor Angela Corey argues Alexander was ultimately not threatened and may have intended to shoot Gray. However, Alexander did have a restraining order filed against Gray, and Gray himself admitted he was "walking toward her, because she was telling me to leave the whole time and, you know, I was cursing and all that. If my kids wouldn't have been there, I probably would have put my hand on her. Probably hit her. I got five baby mommas and I put my hands on every last one of them, except for one. I physically abused them."
Furthermore, the key disturbing difference between the two cases is that Grey is able to express his thoughts because he is alive. By stalking and killing Martin, Zimmerman is able to present the sole account of what happened among those directly involved.
The double standards in these cases' outcomes illustrate that even if American laws have no racial biases written into their formal structure, they still operate de facto along highly racialised lines. In turn, individuals' personal tendencies and their related violent actions are not the only problem at stake.
Additionally, the legal system functions in ways that protect majority group members and sanctions their violence inflicted upon minorities; minorities who feel threatened cannot expect the same legal backing. The law protected and validated Koon, Briseno, Wind, Powell, and Zimmerman; not so for Alexander, a woman of color. Academics call this process institutionalised racism (that privileges white males in particular). Karim Murji, a senior lecturer at The Open University, defines institutionalised racism as attitudes and practices that lead to patterned racist outcomes "through unquestioned bureaucratic procedures."
No Faith in Institutionally Racist Legal Processes
In 2011, Michael Rocque, an American academic, published an article in which he exemplified how over the last 100 years research "has consistently demonstrated racial disparities with respect to criminal justice contacts in the United States. This is true whether one examines police contact or court decisions." It is with this historical background that we ought to view George Zimmerman's acquittal and Marissa Alexander's conviction of attempted murder. Similarly, it is against this backdrop that we ought to frame our analyses of why it took the police six weeks to charge Zimmerman in the first place. Historical analyses of how the law operates, and a careful examination of research-based evidence on who the law protects and doesn't protect explains why black communities across the United States are outraged by the Zimmerman verdict. Interestingly, prior to Zimmerman's acquittal, his brother, Robert, asked an anxiously awaiting public to respect the law and its legal processes. Robert Zimmerman asked, irrespective of the trial's outcome, that the public maintain social order:
"As we await a verdict we will remain hopeful and ask for the public to remain peaceful no matter the outcome. Though we maintain George committed no crime whatsoever, we acknowledge that the people who called for George's arrest and subsequent trial have now witnessed both events come to pass.
"We hope now that as Americans we will all respect the rule of law, which begins with respecting the verdict."
Robert Zimmerman's requests for law and order were supported by official state employees of significant social status. Sanford Police Chief, Cecil Smith added, "Fifteen months ago, 30,000-odd people showed up here and during that same time they requested that several things take place. They wanted an investigation, they asked for an arrest, they asked for charges to be made and they asked for a trial. Each of those things has taken place."
What people really want is justice, not a systemically biased justice system. George Zimmerman's trial was nothing but a show trial; in this broader context, Marissa Alexander's conviction of attempted murder is nothing but a travesty of justice. These historical patterns continue to show all of us, if the target fits the right racial stereotype, you can legally and lethally stand your ground, and the court will acquit, that is, if you are the right kind of perpetrator.
Mandisi Majavu is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of Auckland.