The divides in public opinion about the guilt and respective innocence of Zimmerman and Martin are screens upon which differences in race and life experiences across the colorline have been projected. Interestingly, the most obvious element in this narrative about justice and the color line has gone little commented upon.
Yes, Martin's killing by Zimmerman is "about" race. But, race works in ways that are both subtle and obvious. Trayvon is blessed or cursed--depending on one's own point of view--with a "black" name. Names may not be destiny. But, as social scientists have demonstrated, they do tell us something about class, race, community, neighborhood, social capital, families, aspirations, norms and culture.
Consciously or not, individuals make judgments about one's relative worth or personhood based on their names. These judgments are also implicitly about belonging, national identity and citizenship--for an object lesson in this reality, one does not need to look any farther than President Obama and the conspiranoid Birthers.
For example, researchers at the University of Chicago sent out resumes with "black" sounding names and "white" sounding names to prospective employers. The former were imminently qualified with Ivy League pedigrees and great job experience. The latter were former felons with fewer skills. Not at all surprising to students of race, white privilege, and racial inequality, the white applicants were contacted for job interviews at a far higher rate.
In a complementary example, there is a social psychology experiment in which participants are given a story to read about a young woman with a child who goes shopping at a store for batteries.
There are two versions of the story offered. In one, she is a black woman (as indicated by her name and other clues); in the other story, the protagonist is a white woman. The other facts of the story are identical. When asked identical questions about the narrative(s), respondents envision the black woman as a welfare queen, a thief, and irresponsible. The white woman is noble, a single mother trying to do the right thing by her kids, and a good person.
Framing has been critically important in how various public(s) have responded to the Martin-Zimmerman saga.
The Right-wing media depicts a black, man-child, giant negro, thug ready to rape and kill at will. Here, Zimmerman is a noble victim. The mainstream and "progressive" media offers a different depiction of events. There, Trayvon Martin is an innocent person walking home with a bag of Skittles and a can of iced tea who is killed by an overzealous racist vigilante.
These divides are 1) significant because conservatives are motivated in their political worldview by racial animus in ways that others are not and 2) self-fulfilling where these disparate views of reality and political events are self-reinforcing, and self-perpetuating.
The story is the thing. As an experiment in perception and framing, I have removed any overt signals to either the race of Trayvon Martin or George Zimmerman. Moreover, I have renamed Trayvon Martin "Dale Hill." To my eyes and ears this is a very "white" name. I thought about playing around with the genders of Martin and Zimmerman--but parsimony and efficiency ruled out such a counter-factual.
I have also updated the story based on the new information about the investigation that has been made available these last few weeks. My framing of the story leaves out certain incidental facts, emphasizes other bits of information, and of course has a particular narrative.
How does "Dale Hill's" story change your perception (or not) of events? Are we really so shallow as a country that some would hear "Trayvon Martin" and think "expendable" criminal black male, while others hear "Dale Hill" and this signals valued life and good white person to be protected?
The story has been the focus of a nationwide discussion about "Stand Your Ground" laws that allow armed citizens to use lethal force if they feel that their lives are threatened. Advocated for by the National Rifle Association and the conservative lobbying group ALEC, "Stand Your Ground" laws are a clear break from existing self-defense statutes which placed a much higher burden of responsibility on those individuals who choose to use lethal force.
On a rainy Sunday evening, Hill was walking home from a local convenience store, having just purchased a bag of candy and a can of ice tea. Wearing a hooded sweatshirt for protection from the weather, he walked back to his father's home. At some point, Mr. Hill noticed a strange man following him. Dale told his girlfriend (who he was talking with on a cell phone at the time) that he was frightened and scared. She urged him to hurry home for his safety.
In a 21st century American version of the classic Japanese story Rashomon, the events of that evening are quite different when told from George Zimmerman's point of view. A self-appointed protector of his gated community, Zimmerman had taken it upon himself to be a one person security force, the eyes and ears of a neighborhood that had been subject to a series of robberies over the last few months.
His protective streak ran deep. Zimmerman was well-known by the police having called them dozens of times for everything from the seemingly minor--potholes--to the exaggerated--children walking down the street that he did not know. He would introduce himself to new arrivals in the neighborhood, handing out personalized business cards that suggested calling Zimmerman if there was trouble (as opposed to the police who may not arrive in enough time to be of immediate assistance).
Zimmerman was also known to hang out with police at local bars and other gathering spots; he participated in "ride along" programs; Zimmerman even tried to join a local police academy but did not graduate or matriculate. The portrait is clear: while Zimmerman was not a police officer he identified with them; Zimmerman also had fantasies of being a police officer even if he did not have the personal skills or temperament for the vocation.
On that evening, George Zimmerman saw Dale Hill, a teenager and a stranger to him walking down the street; subsequently, Zimmerman was immediately suspicious of this young person (and his right to be in the neighborhood). He imagined that Hill was walking "strangely," looking for houses to rob. In reality, Hill was simply walking home, terrified of the strange man in an unknown vehicle who was stalking him.
As was his habit, Zimmerman called the local police. As indicated by the recorded phone conversation, he was clearly agitated and excited. Zimmerman pursued Dale Hill, chasing him for several blocks. When clearly and directly instructed by the police dispatcher to remain in his vehicle and to stop following Mr. Hill, Zimmerman ignored these lawful directives. He exited the vehicle and pursued Dale on foot.
In the next few moments a series of events took place that remain in dispute, largely because one of the primary witnesses is now dead. Witnesses report that there was an argument between Mr. Zimmerman and Mr. Hill. At some point a fight ensued. Reports vary here. Some witnesses told police that Mr. Zimmerman was clearly the aggressor, attacking and beating Mr. Hill. Others report that Mr. Hill and Mr. Zimmerman were rolling around on the grass, fighting one another.
A new "mystery" witness reports that Hill struck Mr. Zimmerman first. The former's girlfriend, who heard the altercation on the phone, tells police that Zimmerman struck Hill first. What is not in dispute is that Mr. Zimmerman fired a lethal shot from less than 2 feet away, striking Dale in the chest. He would die moments later.
The coroner's report indicated that Hill had one small injury on his hand. These are marks which are not consistent with Zimmerman's claim that he was beaten ferociously about his head and face. Zimmerman also refused medical care at the scene. However, he would emerge a day or so later and go to his family doctor. There, a report was issued that suggested Zimmerman "likely" had a "broken" nose, although the evidence of the injuries were indeterminate. Zimmerman also looked relatively unscathed and uninjured in the footage taken by a surveillance camera the evening he was interviewed at police headquarters for shooting Hill.
The available audio recordings of the events that evening are a source of further controversy. The police dispatcher's recording clearly indicates that Zimmerman was flustered, angry, and more than a little exasperated. Expert voice analysts were unable to determine exactly what he said in one particularly provocative part of the recorded conversation where many in the public are certain Zimmerman used vicious slurs and other invective to describe Hill--a person he had never met.
The rage Zimmerman felt towards Dale, a stranger, was transparent as he clearly categorized him as one of those "fucking assholes who always get away." This was an allusion to the robberies in the neighborhood, and how Zimmerman took these as personal affronts to his authority and role and captain of the informal block watch.
Likewise, the experts are also split on who is screaming for mercy on the recording of a call made to the police by a neighbor and witness. One expert suggests that it is clearly the voice of an adolescent (as opposed to Zimmerman, an adult, some ten years older) terrified for his life and pleading with his attacker. Other experts suggest that there is too much noise and interference to make a determination either way. Hill's mother is certain that the voice is her son begging for his life. Zimmerman's father believes that the voice on the tape is that of his son.
Professional observers and experts in forensics agree that the investigation by the local police was neither thorough or proper. The local police were not skilled in dealing with homicides. They did not possess the expertise to either gather evidence properly, or to interview witnesses in a professional manner. Hill laid in the morgue for several days. The police neglected to contact his parents or procure a cell phone charger that would enable them to speak with the dead victim's personal contacts or kin. Zimmerman was not tested for drugs or alcohol.
Perhaps most problematically, witnesses reported being bullied by the investigating police officers. Apparently, when witnesses offered facts that were not in keeping with the police department's drive to favorably depict George Zimmerman as a victim, the detectives either ignored these details, or cajoled the witnesses into changing their testimony.
This improper gathering of evidence is further complicated by the fact that the detectives interviewing Zimmerman felt that he was lying, duplicitous, and should be charged with murder. For those watching the events of the investigation from afar, it is also worrisome that the investigating officers were overruled by more senior officials who may have been influenced by George Zimmerman's familial connections with local law enforcement.
Neither George Zimmerman or Dale Hill's lives are portraits of perfection. The latter was a teenager who had gotten into trouble at school on several occasions (but only for being late, and was described by teachers as "creative" and "smart") and was living with his father in an effort to instill some discipline. An adult, Zimmerman had been charged with domestic battery for striking his fiance. Zimmerman had also been in an altercation with a police officer. Perhaps because of his familial connections, he had successfully been able to avoid being formally charged and to take favorable plea deals that would eventually result in these charges being dropped and expunged from his record.
Nevertheless, there are several facts that are quite unfavorable to Zimmerman, and which could have a dire impact on his trial for second degree murder if the jury is made aware of them. He was described by neighbors as a bully and a bit obsessive in his self-appointed role as protector of the neighborhood.
Former coworkers describe Zimmerman as impulsive, angry, and as having anger management issues. One of these former associates (who worked with Zimmerman as a private security guard) paints a picture of an unprofessional person who was drunk with power.
The night he shot and killed Dale Hill, Zimmerman was carrying a gun in violation of block watch rules that forbid carrying a weapon. George Zimmerman was also in clear violation of the rules and procedures governing block watch groups which indicate that members are to observe and report only: pursuing suspects is a task exclusively for the police.
Both Zimmerman and Hill had foreign substances in their blood that evening. The toxicology report on Hill indicates that he had consumed marijuana several days earlier. The residual chemicals would not have influenced his behavior on that evening. Zimmerman was taking Adderall and Temazepam.
These drugs can impair judgment and cause paranoia, hallucinations, aggression, and violent impulses.
Ultimately, the Zimmerman's murder trial may come down to one phrase in the police report:
"The encounter between George Zimmerman and Dale Hill was ultimately avoidable by Zimmerman, if Zimmerman had remained in his vehicle and awaited the arrival of law enforcement, or conversely, if he had identified himself to Martin as a concerned citizen and initiated dialog in an effort to dispel each party's concern," the report says. "There is no indication that Trayvon Martin was involved in any criminal activity at the time of the encounter."
While the public now has more information about what happened the night George Zimmerman shot and killed Dale Hill, one fact remains certain. On that Sunday evening, George Zimmerman only saw a "suspicious" person who he was determined to stop by any means necessary. Dale Hill only saw a strange man, one who had a gun, hunting him down.
It is up to the jury to decide what, if any, laws were broken.