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How Living Overseas and Obama’s Speech Can Help You Understand the Martin Case

On my first full day in Korea a foreign co-worker, an American, picked me up at my apartment and took me for coffee before we walked to work. He gave me the lowdown on my new job and gave me some quick and useful tips about our neighborhood and Korean culture. Just as we were finishing our coffee and were about to head to the office, his tone changed and became much more serious. “Brian,” he said, “if you should ever get in an altercation with a Korean, no matter whose fault it is, you need to know that the police will not be on your side.” I could hear the emotion in his voice as he continued.  “They will assume you started it, and you will go to jail. The police are not your friends here.” It was clear to see that there was a story, a personal experience, behind this advice, but I didn’t ask about it. I was too busy trying not to laugh and not just because I’m a bit of a prick sometimes.

I know that was important advice offered in complete sincerity. I also know it’s something many foreigners need to be told, but not black Americans. We were raised knowing this kind of injustice. Many of our parents have specifically talked to us about the fact that a presumption of innocence is something that will never be afforded to us and that we have to work extra hard to stay out of trouble because our margin for error in our personal conduct is so much smaller. So, yes, if you’re a foreigner who has lived overseas in a country where you knew you could not count on or trust the authorities or the legal system to treat you fairly or to respect or protect your rights then you have inkling of the frustration, anger, humiliation and constant mindfulness that are an inseparable part of being black in America.

I say inkling because in Korea, like most foreign countries I’ve been to, the cops aren’t particularly aggressive and actually prefer to avoid interacting with foreigners. This is the opposite of the U.S. where the police are extremely aggressive and seek out and target blacks (see New York’s stop-and-frisk rate among many other examples). I also think it’s somewhat easier to accept a second-class citizen status in a country where you are not a citizen.

The Martin Case

The reason the Trayvon Martin case resonated so strongly with many black Americans is because this ruling reopened a chapter many of us thought closed with the successful completion of the Civil Rights Movement. It is still understood by blacks that the authorities and legal system are things that are tilted against us and are things every black parent needs to warn their child about at some point. However, what was thought to be a thing of the past was the idea that an ordinary person could exercise authority over us, follow us or require us to explain our presence someplace because they decided we don’t belong there, but the Martin case tells us that this is still acceptable.

I’ve tried to use my legal education to convince myself that this verdict was understandable; that this case was difficult to prosecute and that the jury actually did an impressive job of simply following the letter of the law, but I can’t.

My hope in this case with an all-female jury was that they would be able to see Trayvon as a child (some of them were mothers and he was a child) and they would understand that a child would be scared to death if they were being followed by a man – first in a car and then on foot – and that maybe they would understand that an older teen might think he’s big enough to protect himself, but they didn’t. They saw the scary caricature of a black man and overlooked all the ways George Zimmerman caused and exacerbated this situation and decided that the 17-year-old boy’s first crime was going to be beating George Zimmerman to death with his bare hands.

I can’t get over the fact that our lawmakers keep making it easier for people to carry guns everywhere while simultaneously making laws that tell people they no longer have any requirement to try to avoid confrontations and can actually provoke them and still claim self-defense. The way case law in Florida is playing out it’s hard for a person not to conclude they’ll be better off killing someone they get in a fight with then they would trying to avoid a deadly conflict by firing a warning shot. Killing an unarmed teen allows a person to walk free, but a woman firing a warning shot to protect herself from a husband with a long history of domestic violence can get her 20 years, no lie. And for all those people who think Stand Your Ground was not a part of this case then you need to read the instructions about self-defense that are now given to juries in wake of this fight-incentivizing law and resulted in the jury in this case being told no one had to retreat or try to avoid confrontation. Well, except for Trayvon.

Another aspect of this case that has nothing to do with the courts or the government is the tactics being employed by the people siding with George Zimmerman. It is one thing if you can acknowledge this was a tragedy but think there was enough reasonable doubt to support the jury’s verdict or that the law required this outcome. However, it is entirely something else to treat George Zimmerman as a folk hero and to try to argue Trayvon was the cause of his own death. The people who claim the latter center their argument on the character assignation of dead, unarmed teen. “He smoked weed.” “He had stupid pictures of himself online.” “He got in trouble at school.” While these hardly seem like death penalty offenses to me, they clearly are to many Americans so long as the person committing them is black. This argument is something straight out of Reefer Madness , that old 1930’s anti-weed propaganda movie where weed was said to be a gateway drug to a life of crime. It might be more accurately said to be a gateway drug to the presidency if the last three are any indication.

Silver Linings & Obama’s Speech

While there is no doubt this verdict was a major gut check for our country on where we actually are in terms race and how blacks are still never viewed as being innocent, there are some silver linings. For the first time in my life I felt like a lot of my white friends have actually understood some of the lingering racial issues that many blacks are dealing with regularly in their personal lives. They are also seeing how some of their countrymen really view blacks. They are getting to see this because it is so easy to talk about this case without explicitly mentioning race but nearly impossible to talk about it without a person’s views on race being made clear. Just look at the interview with the one juror to come forward so far. She said race had nothing to do with the jury’s decision and then made it clear she had viewed the case through a racial filter and had a complete inability to see Trayvon as child or as a person. Instead she only saw him the way ‘George,’ the proven liar, had described him: a suspicious black male.

Another important mark of progress for our country – and I don’t think this can be understated -is that two of the most important people in law enforcement in the country, the President and the Attorney General, are black men and appropriately talked about their life experiences that affected the way they saw this case. I can’t imagine their frank, informal and very personal stories didn’t help some people understand better that every black man in America looked at this case and was able to think of a time where their mere presence aroused someone else’s suspicion or caused someone to be fearful of them, not because of anything they had done, but because of the color of their skin.  They both explained how all black men feel they could have been Trayvon if the person profiling them had been as aggressive as George Zimmerman. They also explained the concern that has been stirred in all of us that people might be more aggressive now that they know there are no consequences for it.

However, the usual suspects loudly took issue with Obama saying something about the case. Honestly though, there is nothing I need to say about them. They are the same slightly veiled racists who don’t see any tragedy in this situation at all, except for how Zimmerman has been victimized. And they are the same people who complain about everything Obama does and predicted black people would riot. The bigger story with these clowns would be if they ever said something supportive of their black president.

As for anyone more moderate who might take issue with our black president talking about how race has affected him, like I said in my piece on Clarence Thomas, there is no point in breaking the mold in terms of what our leaders look like if they cannot draw on their different life experiences. If you think the first black president shouldn’t speak to America about race then the election of him was meaningless and purely an exercise in tokenism. I most certainly expect and want the first female president to be able to speak about gender equality and sexism. I want the first Hispanic president to speak to immigration issues, and I want any president who has lived overseas to be able talk about how that experience has helped make them who they are today and to be able to share how that colors their view of the world because it does just as surely as race and gender do.

Sidebar: Isn’t it interesting the way all the gun rights people and the NRA who are supporting Zimmerman never use their normal rhetoric of arguing that if Trayvon had had a gun he would still be a live and would be walking free. After all, it would have meant he shot a man who was following him with a gun. Also, for more on the undertones of race that permeate this situation, please read my article on clueless racists.

Brian M. Williams
Brian is the author of the recently published travel memoir "Stranger in a Stranger Land: My Six Years in Korea." (Click this profile for more information.) He's also a law school grad with Southern charm and Virginia roots. He recently returned to America after nearly seven years traveling and working abroad. He loves dive bars, international travel and foreign accents. He's particularly good at small talk and was the first person to notice there's no "I" in "team."

7 thoughts on “How Living Overseas and Obama’s Speech Can Help You Understand the Martin Case

  1. The thing that gets me most upset about the case is how the media has completely distorted both Trayvon’s and Zimmerman’s images, both physically, and the narrative surrounding their personalities. Honestly, I didn’t know Trayvon was 17, 6’0″, and 154 pounds until midway through the trial. And the NY Times, creating a word like “white-Latino” to depict this as white on black racism was terrible.
    Also, when we delve into the facts a little more, I think the jury had no choice but to come their conclusion. 2nd degree murder? No chance. All the expert testimony also point to Zimmerman’s innocence, Zimmerman passing liar detector test, police bluffing Zimmerman saying that the whole thing was on camera and his reaction “Thank God”, eyewitness saying he saw Martin on top of Zimmerman “MMA style” before gunfire, and just a lot of other things. If Zimmerman is guilty of something, it’s bad judgment to get out of the car and follow. But the media is making it out like he had his gun out and judging his intent, like some vigilante or something. I know people are going to point to the fact that he profiled Trayvon, and while Trayvon being black had something to do with it, so did the fact that there were dozens of reports of burglaries in his neighborhood in the past 6-8 months whose suspects were mostly black youth. Also, Zimmerman noted to the police dispatcher that Martin’s BEHAVIOR was suspicious. Look, if I lived in a neighborhood that had seen dozens of reports of attempted break ins and would be burglars casing homes, and most of the suspects were young black males, and then one night, I saw a black youth that I’d never seen in my neighborhood, in the middle of the night, in a hoodie, in the rain, (quoting Zimmerman) “walking around, looking about…He was just staring…He’s just walking around the area looking at all the houses…” you can bet I would be suspicious. The profiling only happened because of the fact that the previous suspects were black, not the fact that Trayvon was black in itself (at least from all the evidence presented in the case… and there is little to no evidence that Zimmerman is racist like the media portrayed him to be). If the suspects were Asian, and I saw an Asian kid in the same situation, you can bet I would be suspicious as well. Or white. Or Latino. At that point, I’m only matching the descriptions of previous suspects. And just looking at this through a racial lens ignores the behavior exhibited by Trayvon (or at least perceived by Zimmerman in his testimony, the walking around, looking about, staring at all the houses). Shouldn’t this be given SOME weight in the national discourse?

  2. Well, Paul, I wasn’t really trying to re-litigate the case, and I don’t think I do that in the article as much as I simply try to explain how this case is seen by blacks and what this verdict means in terms of the law.
    However, let’s look at what you said. 6’0 and 154 pounds is a pretty skinny kid. Middle of the night? Try 730pm. There were witness who thought they saw George on top, but could not say with 100% certainty. MMA style? Expert witnesses put George being hit at a max of two-three times. And his injuries were “extremely minor.” This counters George’s statement that he was hit between 20-30 times. This was just one of the many lies he was caught in during his police and media statements. He said he got out of his car to see what street he was on. The next day in a police interview he effortlessly talked about the rout Martin took while he was following him. There are only 3 streets in this place and GZ obviously take’s his fake job seriously and knew them well. He said he knew nothing about Stand Your Ground, but was the top student in a class that covered that subject. He said he kept the gun on his back and that Martin, while on top, had his knees up to GZ’s armpits. How on earth do you get your gun if that was the case. Given this string of lies, you are going take everything else he says at face value?
    Regardless, more important than these facts is the law. Was the jury able to, under the law, reach the verdict they did? Clearly. But it required them to ignore certain things like the fact that Martin should of had the right to defend himself from an unidentified man following him. The jury focused on the 1% of the situation where Martin MIGHT have done something wrong (protect himself) and ignored the 99% of the situation GZ caused and made worse.
    But proof that Martin had the right to defend himself is that it’s clear under the law that if Martin had had a gun and shot GZ, he would be alive and free today. After all, it would mean he shot a man following him who was carrying a gun. Given he could of shot and killed GZ and gotten away with it, how on earth could he not simply punch him? (this is where race comes into it for blacks. this is where we see the legal system and jury going,well, he was black so he couldn’t have been entirely innocent or scared and isn’t allowed to make use of self-defense, which anyone else would have been).
    Still, the issue is this insanely messed up law. It encourages deadly conflict as the best way to avoid charges of any kind and allows the provoker in a conflict to use deadly force. It’s messed up.
    And, Paul, if I want to walk around and look at my surroundings as I do, I can! It’s my right! And fuck any random person who wants to come and ask me what I’m doing. If I’m looking in windows and checking door handles, fine, but looking? Bullshit! But if you’re worried call the cops and let them handle it. But now, because of this law, if some fucken hillbilly fuck wants to come question me, I have to mind my manners to avoid making him feel threatened and hope he doesn’t shoot me cause I’m black and in his neighborhood and black people are never completely innocent and are always scary. Oh, and by the way, Im huge.
    You might read this last paragraph and say it’s a hypothetical situation, and for you and people of most races it is, but for black men it’s not. Every last one of us has been profiled, and followed while shopping and questioned randomly. So yeah, this is not an intellectual exercise on what could happen because of this law for us. This is what this law now means for the next time we’re profiled. And many of us wont have to wait long for that next time to happen.

  3. And Paul, please read my other article on the Martin case. I explain how there didn’t need to be overt racism to make this a racist act. The racism that we are all exposed to just from being in American society was enough. Blacks are scary. We are all told this every day in a million little subtle ways.

  4. I can’t imagine how black men must feel in this country, and this case has definitely opened my mind to how they are perceived, profiled, and experience prejudice from pretty much everyone. I’m not one of those folks on the right that thought the President’s speech was race baiting, or anything like that, although I’m not MSNBC saying it was all “historic”. He had a lot of interesting and thoughtful points and drew from experiences in his own life which I thought was genuine, and was probably one of his most human and non-political moments.

    There may definitely be a subtle narrative in this country that “blacks are scary”. This lumping together of all black people is obviously ridiculous and I think, like you say in your other article, people should judge others as individuals. I’ll admit, Brian, it’s certainly not easy. Everything from media, sports, music, cinema, politics, and even history say one thing about blacks, whites, and others. We draw from our own experiences and find that oftentimes those stereotypes are manifested in our daily lives. The black athlete. The Asian nerd. The white yuppy. We are all products of our own environments and cultures, and are influenced by everything that I listed above. Now, recognition of the negative things seem to be racist (i.e. those incarceration statistics you spoke of and other violent crime statistics), and recognition of the positive things seem to be cultural enlightenment (black people’s influence on entertainment, sports, music, etc.). But I think there is a subtle difference between someone saying that the black community has a violence problem vs. blacks are violent. The latter is racist, but the former is social commentary but can certainly lead to racism.

    I’ll be honest. I have my own prejudices. Everyone does. I try not to let it surface but I guess I just hate how the term “racist” has become so loosely used in this country. You can pretty much be racist for anything.

    Sorry if this seems like a ramble of thoughts.

  5. I hear and understand everything you’re saying. We are all the product of our society, and I get really annoyed when I hear someone say they don’t have any prejudices. I have prejudices, there’s no way not to as Americans. I’m very progressive as a man on gender equality, but I’m still sexist in some ways. It’s just too ingrained in our society not to be, and you’re right the word racist is used too much, but people do have to understand that just because they don’t have a hatred of another race doesn’t mean they have transcended race. We have advanced on all racial issues but are still viewing it through the same lens. I guess what I’m saying is that we’re still wearing glasses but it might be time to get our prescription updated.

    But I have to say, I wish I had put some of the things in the comments in my actual article.

  6. The most important idea to me in this whole case is precedent. The kind of implications this type of outcome opens us up to in the future. While it is clear to anyone able to read that racism still exist, the scarier thought is that someone can be justified in killing an unarmed minor regardless of circumstance. At the very worst, this 17 year old child beat the living shit out of a guy he didn’t know because he was following him… On the other side of the spectrum, a 17 year old was minding his own business after buying snacks and was killed in cold blood. In my book, in either one of those scenarios, death by firing squad was not justified.

    I think the other thing to keep in mind is that I can’t help but think that if this child WAS white, conviction would have been guaranteed. As much as it pains me not to be able to give benefit of the doubt to our country’s legal system, we see this on a daily basis. To further aggravate matters if you aren’t disheartened already, we see cases wherein SYG legislation should have protected an individual in fear of real bodily harm, only to have it rejected as a valid defense. In the case of Marissa Alexander even though she had ample reason to defend herself, which she did by pointing a gun and shooting a warning shot, she was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Turns out, she should have killed her husband instead of just trying to let him off with a warning… Had George Zimmerman exercised a fraction of that restraint, we might have been able to hear Trayvon’s side of the story… How a creepy middle aged fat man kept following him and he was forced to defend himself against this would-be (rapist, murderer, stalker, fill-in-the-blank).

    My last point here is that I definitely agree that while profiling could be a result of mere statistics and not a commentary on race, the underlying cause for the high instances of violent crime within the black community is the environment of failure and hopelessness we bred into those communities. If anything WE as a country are responsible for how Trayvon acted. We are the people who glorified fighting in media, we are the people that encourage people to defend themselves by any means necessary,and we are the people that send the Trayvons packing when they need help. If I grew up like that, I would have easily stopped and gave George that proverbial stomp to the balls and made DAMN SURE he wasn’t going to get up or follow me ever again.

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