Trayvon Martin: We see things differently


In the 20-21st July edition of the Financial Times, Christopher Caldwell penned an article titled "A civil rights chase of Zimmerman is doomed to failure" in response to the ongoing call for justice for Trayvon Martin. Ahmed Sule writes his rejoinder to Caldwell’s article.


Mr. C. Caldwell
Financial Times
1 Southwark Bridge

Dear Mr. Caldwell,

Trayvon Martin: We See Things Differently

I have read with interest your article titled “A civil rights chase of Zimmerman is doomed to failure” which was published in the July 20/21- 2013 weekend edition of the Financial Times. In the article, you argue that the US Government’s plan to pursue a civil rights case against Zimmerman is likely to fail. While I have nothing to say about the conclusion of your article, I have something to say about some of the premises you use at arriving at your conclusion.

I agree with your statement that the Martin/Zimmerman case is a tragedy. I agree with your statement that the case raises questions about America’s gun rights and Florida’s “stand your ground law.” I also agree with your statement that Zimmerman’s acquittal does not mean that Martin was guilty of any crime. However, in general, your article appears to present the Martin/Zimmerman case from a particular point of view and I would like to use this rejoinder to present an alternative point of view. Hopefully, by combining both of our points of view, one can get a 360-degree perspective of the case.

In your article, you state, “One thing is clear: not a shred of evidence emerged at trial to indicate that Mr. Zimmerman’s shooting of Martin was motivated by racism.” Before one can arrive at such a conclusion, it is important for one to examine the distinction between conscious racism and unconscious racism. Conscious racism occurs when a person commits a racial act fully aware of the implication of his action, hereas unconscious racism occurs when the perpetrator of the racist act lacks an awareness of the effects of his action on others. While conscious racism can be described as explicit, direct, exposed and obvious, the unconscious form of racism is more implicit, indirect, hidden, subtle and institutional. In the past, conscious racism was rife on both sides of the Atlantic, but in the last couple of decades the unconscious form of racism has become more dominant.

When Zimmerman was driving in the Twin Lake neighbourhood, he saw Martin walking and he called the police reporting that he had seen a suspicious person. To get a better understanding as to why Zimmerman said to the police, “We've had some break-ins in my neighbourhood, and there's a real suspicious guy”, one has to understand the criminalisation of the black community and in particular the black male on both sides of the Atlantic. A key reason for the criminalisation of the black community is because the criminal justice system is institutionally racist. In Britain and America, a black man is five to seven times more likely to be remanded in prison, seven times more likely to be stopped and searched by the police and 50 per cent more likely to be referred through the criminal justice system relative to his white counterpart. If a black man commits the same crime as a white person, the black man is more likely to be arrested and given a stiffer sentence.

Another factor contributing to the criminalisation of blacks is the media, which tend to over report the criminal activities of blacks thereby creating an environment of suspicion against black people. The institutional racism that is prevalent in the media and the criminal justice systems creates a vicious cycle in which the media overemphasise isolated cases of criminal activities in the black community, which makes blacks more susceptible to be stopped and searched by the police and therefore more likely to be arrested and go through the criminal justice system, which is again reported by the media. So it should not be any surprise that Zimmerman became suspicious of an unarmed black teenager who was holding a bag of skittles and iced tea. In short, while the Zimmerman shooting was probably not motivated by conscious racism, it was more likely to have been motivated by the feedback loop of the institutional racism that had fed his mind.

To support your statement that “not a shred of evidence emerged at the trial to indicate that Mr Zimmerman’s shooting of Martin was motivated by racism,” you state that Zimmerman’s neighbourhood was mixed with a 20 percent black population. Shooting a black unarmed teenager in a 20 percent black neighbourhood is not a strong justification to exclude racism as a motive just as one claiming, “ I’m not racist because my best friend is black or because I have dated a black girl ” is not a strong justification to exclude racism as an excuse for one using the “N” word against a black person. You also write, “He does not fit the stereotype of a segregationist southern white ” which you suggest is because he is of Peruvian descent. Although Zimmerman’s father is a white American of German descent and his mother from Peru, however, because he is not “100 per cent white” does not mean that racism should be excluded as a factor for the shooting as racism is not only restricted to those who are “100 percent white.”

You also mention, “ There is a lobby for racial justice that can be summoned into action at a moment’s notice and to them this shooting of an unarmed black teenager carried an echo of segregationist violence. ” This lobbying you note put political pressure on the Governor to charge Zimmerman. It is essential for one to “lobby” when justice has been denied. If the tobacco, banking and pharmaceutical sectors can lobby for causes, which are sometimes detrimental to the general public, why shouldn’t a community lobby for justice when one of their members has been murdered in cold blood? In addition, you write, “ Mr. Zimmerman’s case that he was defending himself appeared strong ” and “ His head was bloodied and his clothing torn when they arrived, consistent with his story of self-defence .”

Sir, people in my community see things differently. We don’t believe Zimmerman has a strong case for using self-defence as a justification for killing Martin. To help you understand why we see things differently, perhaps we should look at the case from another point of view and then we can ask some tough questions.

Here is a scenario: A young white boy who loves rock music visits his friend in a certain neighbourhood that is 25% populated with white people. This young white boy is holding let’s say a can of diet coke and a mars chocolate bar. He is wearing an Arsenal football jersey with the name ‘Thierry Henry’ inscribed on the back. As the white boy is walking to his friends place, a black patrol officer guarding the area sees the white boy and concludes that the boy is up to no good because there has been some theft in the neighbourhood in the past. The patrol officer calls the police to say that he has seen a white boy that looks suspicious. The

police tell him not to follow the boy. The Black patrol officer disobeys the instruction and chases the white boy and catches up with him. A confrontation ensues and five minutes later, the black patrol officer shoots the unarmed white boy. The Black patrol officer is not arrested until say fifty days later. The case goes to court and during the proceedings, the defence lawyer presents evidence to show that the black patrol officer acted in self-defence. Pictures of the black patrol officer’s bloodied head and torn clothes are presented as evidence. At the conclusion of the trial, an 80 percent populated black jury find the black patrol officer not guilty of the cold-blooded murder of this young unarmed white boy. Later on, one of the black jurors tells a BBC journalist, “ Race did not come up during deliberations. ”  

Based on the above hypothetical scenario, one wonders how the family of the young white boy will feel? Would the community to which the white boy belonged not be justified to “lobby” for justice for the cold-blooded murder of the boy? Would the Black patrol officers “strong case” for self-defence hold water with the general public? How would the young boy’s community feel hearing that the cause of his death was due to his hip-hop rock lifestyle? How would the young boy’s family feel hearing a talk show presenter say on a TV, “ I am urging the parents of white youngsters particularly to not let their children go out wearing hoodies Thierry Henry inscribed Arsenal jerseys ”? Would the young boy’s community be happy that his name has been smeared in the public in order to justify the killing by the Black patrol guard? Would the young white boy’s community be happy to know that a man can be sentenced to prison for two years for participating in a dog fighting and dog execution ring, while the black patrol officer who killed the young white boy is free to roam the streets? How would the young boys community feel if they hear commentators and analysts saying, “ Why all the fuss about the death of a little white boy when everyday, white men kill each other in many white neighborhoods.” Unfortunately, I don’t have the answers to these questions.

Sir, one reason why people in my community view the Zimmerman case differently is because of our personal experiences. Please spare me a moment to tell you of my own experience. Sometime in 2009, while on a business trip to Jersey, I was stopped and searched by the authorities. After making an official complaint, I was informed that the reason why I was stopped and searched was because I “looked suspicious” as I was wearing a business suit and had a silver coloured Bose headphone over my ears. My brother who is a consultant medical doctor also had a similar experience. While he was on his lunch break, he went for a walk and some people in the neighbourhood called the police to say that they saw a “Black man” in the neighbourhood looking “suspicious”. The police stopped my brother and searched him. My brother found the experience so distressful that when he made an official complaint, he told a police officer, “ I don’t want my son to go through this same experience. There are some experiences that change you from a Trevor McDonald to a Malcolm X .”

Sir, while you may not see the Zimmerman issue as racially motivated, my community sees it differently. “ But Ahmed, you are being oversensitive ” some may say. Others may even go further and say, “ Why are black people always playing the victim and bringing up the race card whenever they fall into any misfortune? ” If one works hard and is successful one will transcend race just like Obama who never plays the victim or brings up the race card .” In response, I say, even President Obama like most black people, sees things differently. At a recent press conference while addressing the Zimmerman case, he said, “ It’s important to recognize that the African- American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away .” He continued, “ There are very few African-American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me .” From Obama’s statement, one can see that based on historical and current realities, an oppressed race often sees things in a different light.

Moreover, I don’t agree that the civil rights activists were attracted to the Zimmerman case because it had an “ultimately illusory conformity to Jim Crow archetypes”. Instead, I believe that the case conforms to a 21st Jim Crow archetype. After all, just like how the murderers of Emmet Till were acquitted in 1955, the murderer of another innocent unarmed black teenager has been acquitted in 2013. This is reality and not illusion. Furthermore, the fact that as you pointed out, “ Young American men of modest means murder each other frequently without drawing media attention ”, is not a necessary and sufficient condition for the Zimmerman case not to draw the attention of the media and activists. If the Zimmerman case is ignored or allowed to be swept under the carpet, it would send the wrong signal because if someone can murder another person in cold blood and get away with it because “ his case for defending himself appears strong ”, then what stops millions of other Zimmerman’s around the world from conducting similar acts? After all, Martin Luther King was right when he said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere .”

In conclusion, the people in my community and I see the Zimmerman case from a different lens. We don’t see Zimmerman’s self-defence claim as a strong one, we see it has an irrelevant one; we don’t see our call for racial justice as lobbying, we see it as what is right and necessary; we don’t see the shooting as not being motivated by racism, we see the shooting as a consequence of the criminalisation of our community by an institutionally racist criminal justice system and media; we don’t see the case as an illusion of past injustice, we see it as a realistic 21st century form of past injustice melted on our community. In short, we see unfairness, we see injustice and we see inequality.

Ahmed Sule, CFA