The George Zimmerman Trial: Resources for Educators

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As I write this, Americans are processing the meaning of the not-guilty verdict in the trial of George Zimmerman, the former Sanford, Florida neighborhood watch volunteer who shot and killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in February, 2012.  Because of the high-profile agitation that led to Zimmerman’s initial arrest and the subsequent gavel-to-gavel coverage of the trial on cable TV, the case has become the latest vehicle for our national non-conversation about race and justice. With the possibility of federal civil rights charges  and a wrongful death lawsuit looming against Zimmerman, along with the promise from Zimmerman’s attorney that he will sue NBC for errors in its coverage of the case, it’s likely that we will still be talking about this matter for some time.

No doubt, this case is on the minds of college professors and co-curricular programmers at campuses in the US and elsewhere. TCNJ’s Department of African American Studies, which I chair, held and online discussion of the case in April, 2012. Herewith, a few thoughts and resources that might be helpful in that effort. This is a first take; additions, corrections and suggestions are welcome.

Case Details and Aftermath

Historical and cultural analysis

Politcal historian Jelani Cobb, director of the Institute for African American Studies at the University of Connecticut, penned a series of real-time reflections on the trial for the New Yorker that is concise, informed and provocative. His posts covered

  • the defense’s awkward opening with a knock-knock joke,
  • a compassionate take on the much-debated testimony of Martin’s friend, Rachel Jeantel;
  • questioning whether Trayvon Martin had a right to the “stand your ground defense,”
  • what the sympathy for George Zimmerman tells us about popular misconceptions about race and crime
  • how the Zimmerman trial reflects a growing American acceptance of racial profiling and surveillance
  • why so many African Americans see connections between Zimmerman’s acquittal and the 1955 murder of Emmett Till – and why the criticism that African Americans don’t care about black-on-black murder is wrong

Meanwhile, blogger Andrea Ayers-Deets says the case makes her aware of her “white invisibility cloak.” And The Root has African American views from multiple perspectives, including Ta-Nehesi Coates’ defense of the jury verdict. Susan Brooks Thiselthwaite offers a Christian theological perspective: “For Trayvon Martin, Is There No Justice?” Similarly, Michael Lerner offers a Jewish perspective in his essay, “Trayvon Martin and Tisha B’av: A Jewish Response.” Charles’ Pierce’s sharp irreverent series of posts for Esquire is called the Daily Trayvon. The Huffingtion Post has a dedicated Trayvon Martin section.

Related Cases

For legal scholars, the killing of Trayvon Martin is part of a larger set of cases related to “Stand Your Ground” laws that expand the traditional definition of self-defense and justifiable homicide. Below are links to several cases that have been cited in this context:

  • Jordan Davis – the 17-year-old was fatally shot while sitting in a car at a gas station by 45-year-old Michael Dunn, who complained about the loud music emanating from the car’s speakers. Dunn reportedly plans to invoke the Stand Your Ground defense when his trial begins in September.
  • Marissa Alexander was sentenced to 20 years in prison in 2012 for firing what she contended were “warning shots” to scare off an abusive ex-husband. No one was harmed in the incident.
  • CeCe McDonald  pled guilty to second-degree manslaughter in 2012 in a plea deal after surviving what her supporters maintain was a violent, transphobic attack.
  • Tremaine McMillen, a 14-year-old Miami boy who was wrestled to the ground, choked and arrested by Miami police who said he “clenched his fists” and gave them  “dehumanizing stares.” His family and supporters launched a petition in June asking that felony charges agaginst him be dismissed.

Stand Your Ground Laws, Racism and ALEC

  • Sociologist Lisa Wade reviews research findings that Stand Your Ground laws increase racial bias in cases of justifiable homicide. John Roman’s analysis includes data for white-on-white crimes (h/t Diane Bates.)
  • A June, 2012 Tampa Bay Times analysis of the application of Florida’s Stand Your Ground law found that white defendants were far more likely to be acquitted than black defendants, along with allowing, “drug dealers to avoid murder charges and gang members to walk free.”
  • The Center for Media and Democracy has been closely following the role played by the American Legislative Exchange Council in promoting “Stand Your Grownd” laws across the country as part of its ALEC Exposed project. According to CMD,  ALEC used the Florida law as a “template” for “model legislation” that has been enacted across the country.

Implicit Bias, Law and Public Policy

  • In the video embedded at the top of this post, Maya Wiley of the Center for Social Inclusion argues that our civil rights laws were designed to address conscious discrimination, but psychology and neuroscience are teaching us that bias operates far more frequently at an unconscious, implicit level. Thus, it is possible that both George Zimmerman’s claim that he held no racial animus against Trayvon Martin and his accusers’ claim that Zimmerman racially profiled the teenager can both be true. Jonathan Martin and Karen Feingold offer thoughts on Defusing Implicit Bias in this 2012 article in the UCLA Law Review that specifically notes the Zimmerman case.  Anti=racist educator Tim Wise also has a lot to say on the subject.

Related legal issues

Artistic responses

  • Anthony Branker and Word Play: Ballad for Trayvon Martin, from the album, Uppity
  • Watoto of the Nile, “Warning” (Dedication to Trayvon Martin)
  • Jasiri X.”Trayvon.”
  •  Art for Trayvon – Tumblr blog

    Portrait of Trayvon Martin
    By Sheppard Fairey
  • Editorial cartoons by Keith Knight, Daryl Cagle‘s cartoon blog

The Me Nobody Knew Then

The Re-education of Me Table of Contents

  1. What we investigate is linked to who we are
  2. The Me nobody knew then
  3. Mrs. Jefferson’s “Sympathetic Touch” meets Mrs. Masterman’s Philanthropy
  4. Discovering Masterman, discovering myself
  5. The electronic music lab at Masterman School
  6. The Interactive Journalism Institute for Middle Schoolers and the quest for computing diversity

“When I first get up in the morning I feel fresh and it feels like it would be a good day to me. But after I get in school, things change and they seem to turn into problems for me. And by the end of the day I don’t even feel like I’m young. I feel tired.”

John, 13

The Me Nobody Knows: Children’s Voices From the Ghetto, Stephen M. Joseph, ed.  (first printed in 1970, reprinted in 2003)

The word that I had been admitted to Masterman, a public school for gifted children, came not a moment too soon. It was April, 1967, I was 10 years old,  I was considered one of the top students at Kearny Elementary School, but socially and emotionally, I was failing badly. Had I not been transferred to Masterman when I was, I am not sure how I would have coped with my growing sense of loneliness and isolation. Reflecting upon these experiences leads me to think about how a child’s interactions with home, school, neighborhood and the larger environment affects her perceptions of her place in the world, and her chances of overcoming its obstacles and seizing its opportunities.

In recent years, psychologists have advocated for models of child development that give central consideration to the role of culture and socio-economic status in shaping the way a child views the world and functions within it. Yvette Harris and James Graham, author of the 2007 book: The African American Child: Development and Challenges (Springer Publishing Company, New York, NY.) argue that this is especially important for understanding children of color.

I had never been accepted in Penn Town, the neighborhood in which I had lived since moving to Philadelphia from Camden, New Jersey at the age of six. To begin with, I soon learned that only a few of my peers had ever been to New Jersey, so I was something of a foreigner. Even though Camden was only a few minutes away by car, and we lived fairly close to the Benjamin Franklin bridge, not many families owned a car, and the public transportation services that shuttle between the two cities now hadn’t yet been built. I must have talked about Camden too much, because I remember a boy telling me that he had been to New Jersey once, and it wasn’t so special, so there!

My  father’s second-hand Chevy and my outsider origins weren’t the only problems. I lacked the social qualities that would have given me some currency among my peers. I was a slow, awkward runner, I couldn’t fight, and I had left Camden before I learned to jump double-dutch. Worse yet, I was double-handed, which meant that I couldn’t turn the ropes with a sufficiently reliable rhythm. To make matters worse, I was an only child, so I had no natural allies, and I had my own room. My father and stepmother wore second-hand clothes, but I had a new school wardrobe from Sears every year, and the latest toys. Worst of all, I was the teachers; pet.

I might as well have had a kick me sign tattooed on my forehead. As is true in every neighborhood, we had our designated bullies, and I was a favorite target for teasing and occasional beat-downs. For the longest time, I didn’t fight back; I’m not sure why. Nor did I know how to play the dozens, the ritual game of  insults built on race, class and gender stereotypes. I also had the annoying habit of questioning the logic of the taunts directed at me and others during an argument. It was common, for example, for a girl to say that she would “beat the black off” another girl. I couldn’t help wondering about that, because they also went around saying there was something wrong with looking too black. Following that logic, wouldn’t they consider it an improvement to have some of the “black” removed? Like the robot in “Lost in Space,” I spent a lot of time saying, “That does not compute.”

Eventually, there was a girl who declared that she would beat me up after school that day. She had been threatening to fight me since summer camp, and now the weather was cold enough for a coat. She had been a constant menacing presence. We met at the appointed hour, and, thinking that I would stand up for myself for once, I took a swing at her. She pulled my coat over my head and pulled my hair out  An excited crowd ringed around us and made enough noise that eventually some neighbor heard and got my stepmother to come rescue me.

Her response to the incident is telling. She brought me and the other girl into our apartment and told us that we were letting down the race by fighting like dogs in the street. She extracted apologies from us, and a promise to try to get along. I think a conversation with the girl’s mother followed, or at least attempted – that would have been the norm.  I think it was not long after that when my birthday coincided with the date of our regular Girl Scout meeting and she decided to host it at our place, complete with cake and ice cream. My tormentors were part of the troop. I can’t say we became friends after that, but I don’t recall any more beat-downs.

But by then, I carried the terror inside of me. Not just the fear of the neighborhood bullies, but the spectre of even worse violence. There were the tales of the tackheads, dark–skinned black girls with (snap fingers) that much hair who would supposedly grab girls, beat them, and carve up their faces to make them ugly. There were the gangs – in our neighborhood, there was 12th and Wallace and the Valley – gang geography was a required survival course in in everyone’s curriculum. During my childhood, the gangs went from zip guns to real guns, and before I left high school, some of my childhood neighbors, schoolmates and relatives were dead, or had suffered near-fatal injuries.

These dangers were mostly visited on boys, of course. In her book, Getting Played: African American Girls, Urban Inequality and Gendered Violence (NYU Press, 2010), sociologist Jody Miller described the violence and threats of violence routinely visited up African American girls and women in urban neigbborhoods.

Without going into detail, I will say that by the time I was ten years old, I witnessed or experienced actions that I now recognize as acts of assault and sexual harassment, and coercion, and I know that I was not alone. One did not talk about having been the victim of such experiences, although it was not unusual to hear a boy brag about having “felt somebody up,” or to hear that some group of boys, “ran a train” (gang-raped) a girl. That was usually told without sympathy for the girl, who was thought to have allowed herself to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Layered on top of all of this was the violence in the adult world – the real and rumored incidents of police brutality, the arrest of a neighbor’s father for killing someone in a bar fight, the occasional sight of a violent domestic argument that spilled out into the street.

I write of these things now because I recognize them as experiences that could have derailed me, and that did, over time, derail some of my peers. I also recognize that today, I could easily have met with the fate that befell Derrion Albert, the  16-year-old Chicago honor student who was stomped to death in September, 2009 as he was trying to escape a street fight that erupted as he was leaving school.

If we are serious about getting more young people from under-represented backgrounds into computing-dependent professions, our interventions must be sensitive the lived reality of children’s lives.

In another section of this work, I will explore these culturally sensitive models of child development and their implications in more detail. For now, I want to close with a presentation by Dr. John Rich, a trauma physician who heads the Center for Nonviolence and Social Justice at Drexel University. Dr. Rich’s work focuses on young black men who are victims and perpetrators of violence. Using an ethnographic approach, he tries to help us see and understand the human hurt at the heart of behavior that is beyond the comprehension of most people.

Class notes on the History of Haiti

  1. Haiti’s revolution profoundly affected the development of the early United States and 19th-century Europe. It was a major consideration in US relations with England and France, was a direct cause of the Louisiana Purchase and contributed to Napoleon’s downfall. It struck fear in US slaveholders, snd led Denmark Vesey to ask for Haitian military support for his 1822 slave revolt.
  2. The leader of the Haitian Revolution, Toussaint L’Overture, a former slave, was a literate French-speaking Catholic who was profoundly influenced by Voltaire and other writers of the European Enlightenment.
  3. Vodou, the religion practiced by many Haitians, is a distinct religious tradition of African origin. Its practice was suppressed under French rule, and various Haitian regimes, as well as the Catholic church, have tried to stamp it out as well. However, the practice of Vodou has not only persisted, it  absorbed elements of Catholic theology and liturgy. Although missionaries still evangelize against Vodou, many contemporary Haitians profess belief in both Vodou and Catholicism. Retired  Webster University professor Bob Corbett’s 1998 notes on Vodou report that evangelical Protestants working in Haiti vocally condemn Vodou as “devil worshipper.”
  4. Haiti was forced to bankrupt itself for more than 100 years to meet France’s demands for reparations as a result of its war for independence. The effort to pay those reparations drove Haiti into hundreds of millions of dollars in additional debt.
  5. The European struggle to make sense of the Haitian revolution challenged the leading thinkers of that age, and might have led Hegel to his theory of the master-slave dialectic. (See Susan Bucks Morss, “Hegel and Haiti” Critical Inquiry, Vol. 26, No. 4 (Summer, 2000), pp. 821-865. Published by: The University of Chicago Press
  6. The American occupation of Haiti from 1915-34 had disastrous results for that country’s economy and political institutions. (Read JW Johnson’s 1920 pamphlet, Self-determining Haiti, to understand the role of the Monroe Doctrine and US financial interests in precipitating the occupation.
  7. After the 1915-34 occupation, the United States supported the brutal dictatorships of Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier and his son, Jean-Claude. The Duvaliers, who ruled the island from 1957 to 1986, were supported for their reliable anti-communist stance. The US trained Haitian security forces, in addition to providing financial support. As Prof. Claire Potter points out, because the Duvalliers looted the Treasury, requiring even more borrowing.
  8. Haiti’s economic crisis has been aggravated by decades of deforestation — a combination of short-sighted government policies and actions taken by desperate peasants who eke out a living through farming. Today, only 4 percent of the country is forested, as this graphic shows (.pdf)
  9. Some American corporations, such as Disney, have come under fire for alleged labor abuses at plants in Haiti.
  10. Even before the earthquake hit, Hait’s children were in crisis. poverty rate is so stark that parents routinely give their children up to work in the homes of wealthier people. These children, known as restaveks, are frequnntly abused.

Here’s my Jan. 31, 2010 report for BlogHer on the context behind the emerging narratives from Haiti: