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Tuesday 20 March 2012

Lessons to Learn From the Stigmatization and Murder of Trayvon Martin

"Are you a God-fearing man, Senator? That is such a strange phrase. I've always thought of God as a teacher; a bringer of light, wisdom, and understanding. You see, I think what you really fear is me. Me and my kind."

- Magneto, X-Men

The shooting of Trayvon Martin is as telling as it is tragic.  The lessons we could learn from this senseless, entirely avoidable shooting could be applied, positively, across multiple fields – but is anyone looking to absorb them?

Let’s begin with the basic facts:

On February 26, 2012, George Zimmerman, 28, was serving as neighbourhood watch captain for the Retreat of Twin Lakes Townhomes in Sanford, Florida.  From what the media indicates, it was a dark, rainy evening. 

Zimmerman spotted Trayvon Martin, 17, walking around the gated community.  For his part, Martin was walking back to his home (media reports indicate both) in a gated community, carrying a bag of skittles and a can of iced tea.

Zimmerman made the assumption that Martin, a young black male, was a would-be robber and decided to take action.  Zimmerman notified 911 of the supposed suspicious activity and began to pursue Martin.  Martin, a 17 year-old, was on the phone with a female friend at the time; this friend has sworn that Martin told her he was being followed, then put on his hood as a defensive gesture.

Martin, who apparently weighed 140 lbs, told his friend he thought he’d lost his follower, however Zimmerman, apparently 250 lb, had not lost sight of his prey.

A confrontation ensued between the two parties; Zimmerman used the 9mm Kel-Tec semi-automatic pistol (for which he had a permit) he had on him to shoot and kill Martin.

Scratching the Surface

Those are the basic facts; of course, there is a lot more to the story than this.  Zimmerman says that he killed Martin in self-defense; multiple parties have suggested that Zimmerman is a racist and that this is a hate crime (in his defense, Zimmerman’s family has said he is not white, but Hispanic).  Florida’s Republican-controlled legislature has a strong relationship with the NRA; Florida has a “Stand Your Ground” gun law, courtesy of Jeb Bush, that allows citizens to use lethal force in self-defense in most public spaces. 

The usual suspects are lining up on these grounds, positions staked; anti-racism advocates are rightly pointing out that someone who shot and killed an unarmed youth should at the very least be arrested; before you even get into the issue of justice, there’s little preventing a recurrence.  The police are saying their hands are tied by the existing legislation and leaving it at that; the broader powers that be are sticking to the “we are doing everything we can to support” meme.  This is the layer at which the issue stands; cases are being built up to support positions and, in some cases, to distance from responsibility.

But what if we don’t stop there?  What if we go down one layer further?

Trayvon Martin

Trayvon Martin was a helpless, blameless victim in a legal framework that doesn’t believe in helpless, blameless victims.  In fact, it was the "an eye for an eye" balance of power logic that gave Florida Stand Your Ground in the first place, but we’ll get to that later.  The manner in which Martin behaved was entirely in step with the situation; he continued to talk to a friend, ensuring there was a “witness” of sorts – a wise strategy for someone in a potential victimization position. 

Martin pulled up his hood; this is the same behaviour people using their hair or hand to block out unwanted attention.  It’s a defensive mechanism, removing from your frame of reference those people who are threatening and, ideally, removing yourself from theirs.  Martin also tried to be brave – he didn’t walk or shout out for help until the threat was literally upon him.  Even then, he tried a verbal approach instead of lashing out.

All the right situational behaviour, but he still got shot. 

George Zimmerman

Zimmerman studied criminal law – it seems clear he wanted to get into law enforcement.  When his neighbourhood homeowners association decided they’d had enough of a recent spate of thef, it was Zimmerman who volunteered to take on the watchman role.  Prior to shooting Martin, it seems Zimmerman made 46 calls to 911 about suspected individuals and activity.  This kind of obsessive behaviour might be (semi) funny in a movie, but in real life it's pretty disturbing.

It seems Zimmerman took his self-ascribed duties very seriously, patrolling regularly, checking in with local home owners and using aggressive tactics that were disturbing enough to warrant a community meeting about it.  Zimmerman kept an eye out for black males, in particular; if he was of the opinion that black males were, by nature, criminals, then his grounds for suspicion would be reinforced each and every time one walked by the community.  Oh – and Zimmerman had previously been charged with committing acts of violence.

Objectively, the pattern of behaviour suggests someone that probably could do with a mental health diagnosis.  Yet, this guy not only was legally able to carry and conceal a firearm – he was legally able to use it without due provocation.

This is worth repeating – despite the community complaints and the overeager calls to 911, nobody did anything to stop this guy from carrying a gun or continuing to build up confidence in his internal mythos as Sherriff of Twin Lakes Townhomes.

Personally, I have a bit of trouble with the notion of Zimmerman trying to lord his power over a lone black youth in this instance; he could have intimidated Martin with a mere threat display.  Zimmerman's history, the nature of the 911 calls and the trajectory of his behaviour over the course of the tragedy paint a picture of a man not in control, but rather reacting to anxiety, bitterness and suspicion.  I’m left with the question – would he have acted equally as aggressive if the incident had happened during the day?

Getting into Zimmerman’s mindset for a bit, let’s say he is psychologically convinced that young black males are out to disadvantage his community.  He can rationalize that fear by saying they’re responsible for local thefts, but the core cognitive piece is that he sees black people as villains; not that he’s a conscious racist making a decision to dislike black people, but from his point of view black people simply are bad, just as they are black.  So, he sees a black youth near his community; an alarm goes off in his mind.  Martin was chatting comfortably on a phone (and talking to a girl – at 17, it’s a good bet he’s not using a library voice).  To add to the picture of suspicious behaviour – he puts his hood up.  Who hides themselves if they aren’t guilty, right? 

The appropriate, self-defensive behaviour of Trayvon Martin probably helped fuel the homicidal behaviour of George Zimmerman.  This is not to suggest that Martin is in any way at fault.  To me, that would be like saying it’s the fault of the homeless that they don’t have jobs or that women who get raped probably provoked it in some way.  That’s the point, though – be it the un- or underemployed, the mentally ill, youth who are bullied – there’s a social belief at play that victims are victims because they aren’t doing enough to not be victims.  We’ll explore this more later.

I see Zimmerman’s actions as exacerbated by his self-imposed responsibilities and his latent discomfort with what he perceived as an emergent problem.  With great power comes great responsibility; if you see your responsibility as to protect your world from bad guys, you’re going to enforce it. 

The Police

911 calls.  A community meeting.  A lack of arrest in the face of a shooting, justified by Stand Your Ground.  The police have done everything they could to not get involved in this.  Why not?  Why did the police not take interest in this emerging problem while it was still in the emergent stage?  Why hide behind a law that allows a big, armed man shoot an unarmed youth?

I would imagine a couple of pieces fit in.  Possibly a factor, but not a big one, is the fact that Zimmerman liked to think of himself as a cop.  Imitation as flattery, etc.  Partly, I’m sure they view this as an over-there problem; it’s every man for himself, sink or swim, etc.  If the police force is predominantly white and predominantly right-leaning in their ideology, then this shooting wasn’t of one of their own tribe, so it’s not so much an issue of concern.  More on this ideology later.

The Media

The Media has primarily taken the side of the victim, which is justified.  The unilateral coverage (that I've seen) is, however, unbiased.  In their depictions of Martin, the pictures being used show a happy young man in context; holding a baby, in his football uniform, etc.  When it comes to Zimmerman, though, the pictures are uniformly of a brutish-looking man with tired eyes wearing an orange shirt that kinda looks like a prison jumpsuit.  No context – just that face.  While it is possible this is the only picture they have of Zimmerman, the media has consistently portrayed Zimmerman as a heartless aggressor.  Monsters aren't born, they are nurtured. 

In the case of mental illness, proper identification and accomodation/medication can, in most cases, allow even individuals suffering from psychosis to have some social life.  Whatever factors shaped Zimmerman, why was nobody watching for tells that a problem was emerging?  Did social inaction contribute to this death?  In othe words, while Zimmerman is to blame, could society have done more to prevent the problem in the first place?.


I heard about this story today around the same time as I was reading about Kirk Cameron’s complaints against Piers Morgan following public reaction to the actor’s suggestion that homosexuality is “unnatural” and “destructive to the foundations of civilization.”  Also related are Rick Santorum’s comment that it’s wrong to put “earth above man” and his fear that “Satan is attacking the great institutions of America.”  In Canada, we have a Prime Minister that fears Socialists and Separatists, fears trouble lapping at our shores and fears foreign influences.  All these fears and his responsibility as Prime Minister give him, in his estimation, just cause to suppress information, disregard our democratic system and spy on the Canadian people, among other things.

Yes, there’s a direct connection here.  George Zimmerman felt that black youth posed a threat to his community and ended up shooting one.  Kirk Cameron sees gay people as a threat to civilization and is now left to justify to the public (and himself) that this doesn’t mean he’s a bigot.  Santorum rationalizes an anti-abortion, the death penalty and unsustainable use of our environment through Biblical entitlement (though there are plenty out there who would argue the teachings of Jesus don’t support his positions).  Stephen Harper’s fear of everything has become his justification for tossing aside previous pledges to transparency and accountability.

These are all reactive positions that completely avoid any sense of social responsibility.  The ends are justifying the means and the ends are all focused on keeping threats at bay; if there's no win for the player, they don't play the game.  With gated communities, the right (and almost responsibility) to bear arms and a legal definition that essentially codifies “survival of the fittest” with fittest being defined as who can draw their gun fastest, situations like this are inevitable. 

The Psychology of Ideology

Take it a step further; the ideology that says a man’s home is his castle and his to defend and use as he wills is tribal territorialism, pure and simple.  It’s fundamentally no different than a lion defending its territory.  If you’re defending territory, you’re perceiving threats and if your focus is on threat management, then everything gets viewed through that lens.  Anyone who is not your tribe is someone who could potentially make a play for your property and threaten your security.  There’s a word for this – stigma.  It’s stigma that allows us to justify inhuman acts against fellow humans, which is what happened here.

George Zimmerman was obsessed with the potential threat represented to his turf by black youth.  To him, Traydon Martin was a potential threat.  The fact that it was dark and rainy out didn’t help matters any – people are naturally concerned about the dark, because we can’t see what’s out there.  When we’re afraid, we’re more alert to threats and more reactive so we can respond quickly - a good skill to have when your life is in the balance, but less helpful when it's only perceived to be at risk.  Zimmerman ignored the instructions of 911 and pursued Martin because he didn’t have enough control over himself not to.

Stand Your Ground, isolationist communities, focus on weapon ownership and regulatory defence against others, so on and so forth – these are anti-social tendencies.  The same holds true when you choose, consciously or unconsciously, not to engage in the betterment of your community or worse, stifle it out of ideological self-interest.  Hate to break it to Kirk Cameron, but it’s the xenophobes, not gays, who would threaten civilization.


-          First and foremost – do unto others as you’d have them do unto you.  This means it’s not about survival of the fittest or individual respect, but about a strong society and respecting the rights of everyone

-         We really need to make a greater effort to understand behaviour, both in ourselves and others.  We’re pretty pitiful at it, now.  The signals we send and the manner in which we react to signals from others determines social interaction on a sub-conscious level, leading us to make short-term, potentially harmful choices.  Like breaking the law, telling a lie, or killing someone in cold blood.  How would the situation have unfolded differently if, say, Zimmerman had worn an identifying orange vest?  With the right behavioural training in a school setting, might Martin have been able to defuse the situation with words and gestures enough to get himself home safely?  Blame shouldn't be our goal - prevention and proactive preparedness shoud.

-          Context matters.  There are no “over there” problems; we can’t gate ourselves off from the world.  North Korea’s tried that, how well is it working out for them?  We need to understand the interconnectivity of our environments and be consciously mindful of the impacts we have on them (and each other) both individually and collectively.

-         When making laws, don’t just think about your interests, really think through the broader ramifications.  Do “what if” scenarios, actually engage with people and seek out different perspectives.  It may come as a surprise, but that’s the way the system is really supposed to work.

-          Might does not make right.  The best solutions are always collaborative solutions and, in a society that is growing in size and complexity, we can no longer afford to neglect our environment.


I believe George Zimmerman murdered Trayvon Martin, but I don’t think it was for the specific reasons people think.  Yes, it was a racially motivated crime, but one of stigmatic fear (which is perhaps the same as hate, anyway).

In my opinion, there was a whole host of external factors – starting with Stand Your Ground – that exacerbated this problem.  We like to say people need to take responsibility for their own actions; well, when we vote, wall out communities or pack heat, those are our own actions.  They have consequences.  Until we really internalize that fact, we’re going to keep finding ourselves faced with sad, avoidable tragedies like this one.

Do I think anyone’s going to take those lessons to heart?  Not really, no.  At least not yet.  We’re coming to a point, though, when or collective decision-making is going to have such an immediate impact on our lives that we’re not going to be able to ignore the facts any longer.  Only then will we truly start thinking ahead.

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