Recounting the story of an African American civil rights worker who was stabbed thirty-nine times by his white assailant for racially-motivated reasons, law professor Patricia Williams writes: “I wondered for a long time what it was that would not die, what could not be killed by the fourth, fifth, or even tenth knife blow; what sort of thing would not die with the body but lived on in the mind of the murderer.” After some reflection, Williams writes, “I came to see this act as not merely body murder but as spirit murder,” that is, as a “disregard for others whose lives qualitatively depend on our regard.” While “one form of spirit murder is racism,” she notes, other forms include “cultural obliteration, prostitution, abandonment of the elderly and homeless, and genocide.”
George Zimmerman did not stab Trayvon Martin thirty-nine times. Yet his act – stalking and then shooting Trayvon in the back, all in the name of self-defense – was most certainly an act of spirit murder.
How do I know? I’m sitting here looking at a photo of Trayvon and cannot help but see the beauty and possibility of my sixteen and seventeen year old nephews – still children in our culture, if I am not mistaken. Like Trayvon, they look like children in spite of the fact that they are approaching the magical age of eighteen when, voila!, a child somehow becomes an adult. Even my sixteen year old nephew, who is 6’4” and still growing, looks like a child – albeit a large and older one, but a child nonetheless. Both nephews act like older children often do: they laugh at dumb jokes, they walk and talk like children, they reason through issues in ways that are baffling as well as surprising, they’re wildly optimistic, they play. They remind me that I am getting old.
That George Zimmerman could not see what is, to me, quite obvious about Trayvon speaks volumes to what he did see while looking at an unarmed black male child who, from all accounts thus far, was aware of and was trying to get away from the grown man following him. Considering the myriad ways that adult males have victimized children, Trayvon must have been alarmed at first, and then terrified once he realized that a strange white man was trailing him. Looking at his picture, I am reminded of the photos of young black male children that I see pasted on the walls where I work. Missing. Probably abducted. Most likely dead.
What was it that Zimmerman saw, then, if he could not see a child? What did he so desperately need to kill when he stepped out of his car to stalk Trayvon – in spite of the 911 operator’s advice that he should stay put?
The most obvious answer – and one that has already been offered by so many who have followed this story – is that he saw what so many whites see when they look at black people (regardless of age, sex, or status): something “large, threatening, powerful, uncontrollable, ubiquitous, and supernatural” – to quote Patricia Williams. It is an image of black people through which whites have constructed themselves as victims and as endangered people. (That Zimmerman is a “white Hispanic” is of no matter, for this idea of black people, of blackness, looms large in the minds of Americans of all races, including – I am sorry to say – black people.) Trayvon the child was simply the black monster who “always gets away” and who always, regardless of age, poses a continuing threat to white peace, white communities, white families, white bodies. --- As an aside, I am reminded of the routine of a white comedian I heard once who talked about how “cute” young black males are as babies, as infants, as little boys. And here’s his joke: they become “scary,” he said, when they become teenagers (white audience laughing. Have you ever noticed how utterly ideological humor is? I mean, the Little Rascal’s character Buckwheat can only be funny if young black boys and their natural hair and smiles are themselves considered a joke, a cosmic prank offered to entertain white people. But I digress).
When Zimmerman killed Trayvon, then, he not only killed his body, but also that dangerous blackness that “always gets away” and that will just not die.
But I would argue that when Zimmerman saw Trayvon, he also saw himself or, rather, the truth that to be white is always to be unsafe – not, however, because whites are victims of the very people (including children, no less) whose subordination they have secured through their political, economic, and penal institutions. Quiet as its kept, whites who are victims of violent crimes are, more often than not, victims of other whites (which makes sense given how rigid is racial segregation). No, to be white is to be unsafe because safety secured through the subordination of others is always precarious, if not simply an illusion – a lesson well-illustrated by the Arab Spring.
Which means (I’ll wager) that what Zimmerman needed to kill even more than the idea of blackness that he saw in the child Trayvon Martin is the knowledge that in order to be truly safe, he is required to surrender and undo the privileges of whiteness (to whatever degree he exercises, or can exercise, these privileges). He must create communities where gates and vigilantism are neither necessary nor desirable. He must see that “we are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality,” and that “whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly” (Martin Luther King). That knowledge, however, proved too much to bear.
Consequently, until this surrender is embraced as the means to attain true peace and safety, then the Zimmermans of this country will continue to make it unsafe for us all.