Monday, March 19, 2012

Walking (and Running Away) While Black

This is Trayvon Martin. A 17 year old African American youth from Miami Gardens,  Florida, Trayvon was visiting a family friend, along with his father, in Sanford, Florida on February 26. Sanford, which is in the Orlando metropolitan area, is a small city with a population of about 38,000, about 30% of whom are black or African-American. In a fatal mistake that night, Trayvon decided at the half-time of NBA game that they were watching on TV, to go get some candy at the nearby 7/11 store. Trayvon, a skinny 140 lb, 6' 3" tall young man, promptly disappeared, so far as his father could see. The high school junior never returned to his father's girlfriend's home to see the end of the game. Instead, he was reported missing the following morning by his father, who had begun frantically calling the Sanford Police Missing Persons Unit, then finally, 911, in hopes of finding out if his son had been reported injured. 

Every parent's worst fears awaited Trayvon's father, Tracy.

On the way home from the 7/11, armed with a bag of Skittles and a can of Arizona ice tea, Trayvon had the grave misfortune to encounter one George Zimmerman, an overzealous neighborhood watch captain who had placed 46 calls to the police in the past 14 months from the gated community in which he resided. What happened from the moment that encounter started is of much dispute but one thing is clear: Trayvon Martin ended up dead, body-bagged and catalogued at the Sanford Morgue until his father identified his body from a photograph shown him by police, on February 27.

Zimmerman,  a white Hispanic whose call to 911 is proudly provided by the Sanford City Police on their city website, along with a number of other calls from that night, is certainly thorough in his characterization of Trayvon.  In his call, Zimmerman describes Trayvon as "real suspicious", "up to no good", "probably on drugs", "walking slowly and looking around". (He, of course, had no way of knowing that Trayvon was visiting from out of town. I'm sure glad I wasn't there visiting and looking around that night!) These words from Zimmerman's call kind of stick out to me:

"Something's wrong with him... I don't know what his deal is... These assholes, they always get away."

(Edited to add: Zimmerman points out twice, after prompting for information as to the young man's race, that Trayvon is black. Please see the transcript of the complete 911 call below.)

After following Trayvon from his car, Zimmerman got out and followed him on foot. Trayvon, meanwhile, ran, as reported by Zimmerman in his 911 call. Only, Trayvon didn't get away. Whatever went down, neighbors nearby reported hearing cries, or wailing, almost like that of a child and then a gunshot. One witness said that Zimmerman had a bloody nose and was flat on his back with what was reported to be blood on his head. No detail of his medical treatment for any injuries is available nor was any drug or alcohol testing conducted. However, he was bleeding and had grass stains on his clothing. (Anybody wonder if he slipped and fell while chasing the big, skinny teenage boy who was running? Hmmm?) But another witness came forward and said that she emerged from her house after hearing the shot to see Zimmerman on top of Trayvon, first pinning him to the ground then putting his hands to his head in the universal "Oh man, I messed up" gesture. Trayvon, still holding his candy and iced tea, lay dead with a gunshot wound to the chest from Zimmerman's 9 mm Kel-Tec handgun. Mind you Zimmerman, who had a valid carry permit, had been advised by the police not to follow the 'suspicious' Trayvon that night, as is clearly audible on the 911 tape. And yet he pursued him, fought with him (purportedly) and killed him. Now, I don't know about you, but when weird people follow me in their car and then chase after me on foot, I'm scared. And just I'm a middle-aged white woman.

As many of you may know, George Zimmerman has not been arrested for Trayvon Martin's death. The police in Sanford initially passed around this story about how they had no reason to distrust his claim of self-defense because he was kind of injured and hey, he had a squeaky clean record. (And of course, Trayvon was guilty of being black, but hey, we can't say that in polite conversation...) But, as the Orange County Clerk's office public records shows us, George Michael Zimmerman was arrested for felony battery on a law enforcement officer and resisting with violence on July 18, 2005. These charges were administratively transfered to the county court, where they were reduced to misdemeanor resisting without violence, permitting him to enter a pre-trial deferment program for first time offenders. The charges were finally dropped after one year of community supervision, in July 2006. But I guess his interactions with police back then weren't relevant to the Sanford police. Besides, those charges were in Orange County, next door to Sanford's Seminole County. Yep. Squeaky clean. Those Sanford police are so heartwarmingly generous, aren't they?

This story is one of the many, many scary stories about sad and bad things that happen to young African-American men. But some articles are failing to mention the quite dismal history of Sanford's police department, especially when race is involved. As one current piece mentions, Trayvon Martin's death salts (not so) old wounds in Sanford. The Sanford community still smarts from a number of apparent *cough* injustices and now this one...

As Charles Blow aptly put it in his NY Times column on the matter, 

"This is the fear that seizes me whenever my boys are out in the world: that a man with a gun and an itchy finger will find them “suspicious.” That passions may run hot and blood run cold. That it might all end with a hole in their chest and hole in my heart. That the law might prove insufficient to salve my loss."

Sybrina Fulton, Trayvon's mother, has been firm in her belief and statements that her son was murdered by George Zimmerman. The HuffPost's article cites a slew of reasons to believe that justice may be hard to come by, as does Blow, who cites that the same officer who was at the scene for Trayvon's death was the one who investigated and initially declined to arrest the son of a fellow police officer who had been videotaped beating an unarmed homeless black man in 2010. (The teenage son finally was arrested and prosecuted and the officer's family paid for the homeless man's medical bills.) 

As more than one person has pointed out, had the situation been reversed and Trayvon Martin been left holding a gun and George Zimmerman dead on the grass lawn with his candies and iced tea, there is no question as to whether Trayvon would have been arrested. We all know how that would have gone down, don't we?

I don't know that there is any way to salve Trayvon Martin's family's loss or to restore the damaged faith of the African-American population in Sanford. But I do know that we are a country weary of seeing these horrific injustices witnessed on young black men. In a current poll running on the Miami Herald website, 89% of all respondents think that the US Justice Department should investigate Trayvon's death and the Sanford Police Department's handling of this case. 

Let's hope that the Justice Department does take up the investigation. Justice, thus far, seems to have been elusive here.

Two readers asked for more detail about that 911 call. (One is at work and can't listen to it.) Here is a transcription of the 911 call placed to the Sanford PD by George Zimmerman on the night of February 26:

PD: Sanford Police Department – (inaudible)
GZ: Hey, we’ve had some break ins in my neighborhood and there’s a real suspicious guy – ah – (inaudible) circle.  Um, the best I can address I can give you (address edit) – This guy
looks like he’s up to no good or he’s on drugs or something.  It’s raining and he’s just walking around looking about.
PD: Ok, and this guy is he white, black or Hispanic?
GZ:  He looks black.
PD: Did you see what he was wearing?
GZ: Yeah… a dark hoodie like a grey hoodie – and either jeans or sweatpants and white tennis shoes.  He’s here now he was just staring…
PD: So, he’s just walking around the area?
GZ: …looking at all the houses.
PD: Ok.
GZ: Now he’s just staring at me.
PD: Ok, (address edit)…
GZ: That’s the clubhouse.  He’s at the (inaudible)
PD: That’s the clubhouse. Do you know what the… He’s near the clubhouse right now?
GZ: Yeah, now he’s coming towards me.
PD: Ok.
GZ: He’s got his hand in his waistband.  And he’s a black male…
PD: Ok, how old would you say he is…
GZ: …he’s got a button on his shirt.  Late teens.
PD: Late teens, ok.
GZ: Um hum, something’s wrong with him.  Yep, he’s coming to check me out.  He’s got something in his hands.  I don’t know what his deal is.
PD: Ok now just let me know if he does anything ok?
GZ: Can you get an officer over here?
PD: Yeah we got ‘em on the way – just let me know if they guy does anything else.
GZ: Ok. (inaudible) These assholes …they always get away. (inaudible) …Yep, when you come to the Clubhouse you come straight in and make a left, actually, you would go past the Clubhouse, 
PD: So this is the lefthand side of the clubhouse?
GZ: (inaudible or wind) No you go in straight through the entrance, don't turn. Shit, he's running, he’s down towards the, ah, other entrance of the neighborhood.
PD: Ok.  Which entrance is that he is heading towards?
GZ: The back entrance.
PD: Are you following him?
GZ: Yeah.
PD: Ok, we don’t need you to do that.
GZ: Ok.
(wind noise)
PD: Alright sir, what is your name?
GZ: George… He ran.
PD: Alright, George – what is your last name?
GZ: Zimmerman.
PD: And George what’s the phone number you calling from?
GZ: (phone edit)
PD: Alright George, we do have them on the way.  Do you want to meet with the officers when they get out there?
GZ: Yeah.
PD: Alright, where are you going to meet with them at?
GZ: (inaudible edit) If they come in through the gate, tell them to go straight past, ah, the clubhouse and ah, make a left, and then they go past the mailboxes. They'll see my truck.
PD: What address are you parked in front of?
GZ: Um, I don't know. It's a cut-through so I don't know the address.
PD: Okay, do you live in the area?
GZ: Yeah, yeah…
PD: What is your apartment number?
GZ: It's a home, it's (address edit).
PD: Okay, do you want to just meet them right near the mailboxes then?
GZ: Yeah, that’s fine.
PD: I’ll let them know – we will be out there – alright
GZ: Actually, actually could you – could you have them call me and I’ll tell them where I at?
PD: Ok, yeah that’s no problem. 
GZ: You need my number or you got I'll?
PD: Yeah, I've got (phone number edit)
GZ: Yeah, you've got it.
PD: Okay, I'll let them know to call you when they're in the area.

You can read transcribed excerpts from some of the other calls here.

© Bright Nepenthe, 2012

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