by Irene Koo
The George Zimmerman trial, particularly the widespread and vocal response post-verdict, has left me more than uneasy. I am disappointed and angered, although perhaps not for the reasons one might expect.
As equal parts disclaimer and explanation, I don’t disagree with the verdict itself. I am unwilling to discount our country’s judicial tradition because of this decision alone. I feel that I have to acknowledge my own bias and judgment, and the fact that I did not, by any means, listen to every testimony and view every piece of evidence throughout the trial. As such, I can’t fairly criticize the jury for its decision when I have little knowledge of the details and nuances of the case in comparison. While some may consider my faith in the justice system naively idealistic, I just can’t bring myself to believe that our system is truly broken despite my own disappointment and conflicted feelings. As expressed by William Blackstone, “It is better that ten guilty persons escape than one innocent suffer.” If anything, the verdict validated the standards of reasonable doubt and innocent until proven guilty, and if only for that, I respect the decision.
That being said, I think my personal thoughts on the Zimmerman trial can be summed up quite simply: The law was served, but justice was not. Regardless of the verdict, a seventeen-year-old child is dead, and that will never change.
Even with the knowledge that this is such a contentious, emotionally charged issue, I have a lot of problems with the degree to which the case was sensationalized and callously debated over social media. The media latched onto Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman, touting the tragedy as a modern-day Emmett Till, fueling a debate that arguably should never have begun. What I’ve learned from the multitude of tweets and Facebook posts I’ve read over the past few days is that we are by no means a post-racial society, and that societal colorblindness has been taken to mean “pretend that race doesn’t exist.” It is 2013, and we still have so far to go.
I have no doubt that if the color of my skin were a few shades darker, I would be writing from a far different perspective. I cannot even begin to claim that I understand the implications of this decision on the black community. “This has nothing to do with race” is said far too often about things that are about race, and ignoring the systemic bias and inherent inequality in our country does not make the problem disappear. It breaks my heart that Rachel Jeantal was mocked and discounted before she even began to speak; that she was dismissed for failing to adopt the “right” dress or the “right” language, when she had every right to be heard as herself. I am hurt that many of my friends and peers now believe that the justice system was never meant to protect them, and that their lives mean nothing in the eyes of the country they love. I am angered that the sweet, perceptive fifth graders I teach in a predominately black school asked me on Friday why George Zimmerman might walk free, and why that could ever be seen as fair. I am upset because I don’t know how to answer them in a way that makes sense, in a way that validates their worth and intelligence when everything they know is telling them the exact opposite.
Yet, the problem that angers me most is relatively independent of race and instead has to do with how we approach violence in our culture. The defense claimed Martin’s martial arts experience as an indicator of violent tendencies; they noted that Martin was wearing a black hoodie; they cited evidence of drug use and his tattoos as a means to defame his character.
It is all too familiar.
I’m reminded instantly of victim blaming in cases of sexual assault, a phenomenon that eerily mirrors the rhetoric in the Zimmerman trial. Why do we focus on what Martin was wearing? Does it really matter that he had tattoos? Is it the same reason we ask what a rape victim was wearing, and whether or not he or she was intoxicated? The most difficult part to stomach about this trial, for me, is not that Zimmerman was found innocent – it is why the court and the public insist on placing the blame on the victim. Martin’s death was supposedly his own doing, because the language in the trial and in debates on social media became what Martin should have done differently, how he should have walked away, and why dressing the way he did gave a threatening impression – essentially stating that it is Martin’s fault that he was racially profiled and ultimately killed.
I want to know why Zimmerman felt the need to disregard the dispatcher on the phone who told him to remain in his car and not follow Martin. I want to know why wearing a black hoodie suddenly makes you a hoodlum, and when that would ever justify instigating a fight. I am fed up because I can’t reconcile the idea that in effect, we are blaming Martin for his own murder; and that by the same language and attitude, we are blaming assault victims for being assaulted. How different is it to accuse a rape victim of “asking for it” by citing her revealing clothing? Why do we send the message to victims of violence that their suffering is their fault? I have to wonder when we will reach the point where we ask not what the victims should have done, but how to hold perpetrators accountable for what should never have been committed in the first place.
My heart hurts for Trayvon Martin and for his family and friends. But I also ache for the countless, unnamed homicide victims whose murderers’ happen to share their skin tone, and will therefore only manage to make the local news. I worry for the victims of rape and abuse who are too ashamed to report, and will suffer in silence without an outpouring of public support and solidarity. This is not singularly about Trayvon Martin. It is not just a race problem or about rape culture alone, but a general need for real accountability. Victim blaming is so deeply rooted in all aspects of our society, and the most disheartening thing is that we have become desensitized to it. Tomorrow it will be another Trayvon Martin, or another Steubenville, and people will still ask, “But what was she wearing?” or justify murder with, “He was wearing a hoodie.”
As Macklemore so aptly put, “No law’s gonna change us, we have to change us” – it’s time to stop asking the wrong questions and blaming the ones who, at least in this case, can no longer defend themselves.
My thoughts and prayers go out to both the Martin and Zimmerman family, and all those affected by the tragedy.