Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old black kid who played football and wanted to be a pilot, was shot and killed on February 26 while walking unarmed through a gated neighborhood in Sanford, Florida. Visiting his father’s fiancee there, he’d gone out to buy her son some Skittles. The man who shot him, George Zimmerman, 28, captained a neighborhood watch, a group of denizens devoting spare time to crime prevention.
All this is for non-American readers, since most US residents by now have heard the story. It’s a very American story. Both the gated community and the anti-crime watch are innovations of these shores: the former, privatizing the idea of neighborhood, a product of post-60s middle-class anxieties about cities and danger; the latter, privatizing the idea of protection, a product of equally middle-class fears about a police hamstrung by underresourcing and liberal-slanted laws.
From one perspective, in fact, this very public story, about a horrible killing on a street, is all about privacy. Specifically: it’s about the different ways black and whites experience privacy in a racist country.
The story exploded, of course, because the killer still hasn’t been charged with any crime. The local cops, besieged by indignation (their chief has now “temporarily” stepped down) sent out a Q&A justifying its inaction:
When the Sanford Police Department arrived at the scene of the incident, Mr. Zimmerman provided a statement claiming he acted in self-defense which at the time was supported by physical evidence and testimony. By Florida statute, law enforcement was PROHIBITED from making an arrest based on the facts and circumstances they had at the time.
The law they scream about in capitals is colloquially named the “Stand Your Ground” law; some in Florida call it “Shoot First.” Time usefully explains:
The cops have been balking in large part because, under the stand-your-ground statute, they’re virtually obligated to accept [Zimmerman's] argument that he was acting in self-defense — even if it was Martin who may have felt more threatened, according to recordings of 911 calls by neighbors that were released over the weekend. The 2005 Florida law permits anyone, anywhere to use deadly force against another person if they believe their safety or life is in danger, and it’s the state’s usually futile task to prove that the act wasn’t justified. Little wonder the St. Petersburg Times found that five years after the law was signed by then Governor Jeb Bush — who called it a “good, commonsense anti-crime” bill — claims of justifiable homicides in Florida more than tripled, from just over 30 to more than 100 in 2010. In that time, the stand-your-ground defense was used in 93 cases involving 65 deaths — and in the majority of those cases, it worked.
Pro-gun advocates like the National Rifle Association [NRA], which pushed hard for stand your ground, say it simply broadens citizens’ capacity for self-defense. But if … Zimmerman do[es] walk, there may be an understandable public backlash against a statute that in reality has made the streets, bars and parks of Florida — and of the at least 16 other states that have enacted similar laws since 2005 — more dangerous spaces.
British and American common law hold to what’s called the “castle doctrine” — you know, an Englishman’s home is his castle. Generally it means that within your dwelling (extended in some cases to such places as a car or workplace) you can attack an illegal intruder without risk of prosecution. There are certain conditions; for instance, in the common-law version of the doctrine, if you can safely retreat, the protection doesn’t apply.
Gun lobbyists tried to dub the Florida legislation a “castle doctrine” law, but in fact it turned the old principle on its head. Instead of limiting lethal self-defense to the home, the law says that, like a turtle, you carry your castle anywhere: you can shoot to kill anyplace anybody menaces you. And the whole point of the new law is that you don’t have to retreat: you should “stand your ground,” armed with righteousness and an NRA-endorsed weapon.
In other words, the domestic privacy the original doctrine was meant to protect now follows you down the street in your personalized penumbra, porcupined with gun barrels.
Whose privacy? Well, look at George Zimmerman, a would-be cop who had appointed himself guardian of a middle-class gated community. His own ethnic identity has been debated– he seems to have had a white father and Latina mother; but there’s no better way in the US to ratify an uncertain claim to whiteness than by taking the fight to black people, preferably in defense of white people’s property. Indeed, if you look at previous 911 calls Zimmerman had made to police, clearly he was waging what Dave Weigel identifies as a “long, lonely war against black youths doing things.” In the collective psyche as it insinuiated itself into Zimmerman’s brain, white folks are the possessors of privacy; black kids are the invaders. Mother Jones writes:
[E]ven more than cars, he was concerned about black men on foot in the neighborhood. In August 2011, he called to report a black male in a tank top and shorts acting suspicious near the development’s back entrance. …Three days later, he called to report two black teens in the same area, for the same reason.
Coupled with the shoot-first law, this attitude is a road map to murder. Timothy Noah cites a University of North Carolina psychological study six years ago that looked at how race inflects “weapons bias.” Researchers asked subjects
to distinguish between images of harmless hand tools and images of guns, both projected onto a screen. Immediately before each image appeared there flashed a lightening-quick (more or less subliminal) image of a white face or a black face. The subjects were told to ignore the faces and focus on identifying the objects.
The result? In a carbine shell: if a black face flashed first, it made both accurate IDs of guns and false positives more likely. This suggests the Florida law and its clones are “catastrophically bad public policy,” Noah says. “If people are more likely to imagine guns in the hands of black people than white people then the result will be disproportionate deaths for innocent black people.” Invade my privacy, will you?– says the white guy standing in the middle of the public street. Die, invader, die!
But the other side, of course, is how African-Americans experience their bodily existence under view. Is there any comparable umbrella of inviolability there? And the answer, clearly, is that where somebody’s monitored and surveilled constantly for signs of deviance and violence, you watch yourself and police your movements for your own life’s sake. One of the saddest things I read this week was from Janice D’Arcy’s “On Parenting” blog at the Washington Post, about “parents who say that to raise a minority in this country, particularly an African American boy, is to live with the understanding that the child will be arbitrarily mistreated. It is also to live with the burden of explaining this reality.” She found an account by Jonathan Capehart, for instance, of the warnings his mom gave him before his first day at a mostly-white school:
“Don’t run in public.” Lest someone think you’re suspicious.
“Don’t run while carrying anything in your hands.” Lest someone think you stole something.
Or a blogger who listed “the rules” she’s instilling in her 6-year-old black daughter:
1. Don’t touch anything when you go into stores. …
2. Always ask for a bag for the items you purchased. … My mom didn’t want anyone thinking that we walked out of the store without paying for our merchandise. …
3. Know who you are. You can’t do everything they do. In other words, just because your white friend does something that doesn’t mean you can do the same. Whether it’s hanging at the mall or going to a house party, police, teachers, and other authorities treat white children differently than black children. …
This is grimly awful. These children are learning at home, in what’s supposed to be the safe space of the family, precepts of inculcated inferiority that could save their lives. As Khaled Beydoun and Linda Sarsour write for Al-Jazeera: the après-Obama myth that the US has become a “post-racial” society is way premature.
Obama himself weighed in about the Martin killing today, saying that “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon … I think every parent in America should be able to understand why it is absolutely imperative that we investigate every aspect of this. And that everybody pull together.” It’s a moving thing to say; but it also situates the grief and the suffering back behind closed doors, as a “family” issue, when in fact it reaches into most every part of our public life. So, too, I resist his calling this a “tragedy.” Tragedies are the work of Fate, or the hero-victim’s overreaching; in that spirit, exculpating the world around him, Fox News’ Geraldo Rivera attributes Trayvon’s death to blind pride in wearing “gangsta” style, the hubris of the hoodie. (For photos of Geraldo wearing a hoodie, see here. Shoot first, criticize fashion later.) But there are no resentful gods exacting retribution here. Just historical legacies and human choices.
The truth is: white people get to be private even in public. And for black people, public facts and figments follow them home even to the private sphere. These are truths that, given suitable laws and armaments, kill. When we talk about the “right to privacy” — in contraception, in abortion, in Lawrence v. Texas – all of us need to be conscious of the different enjoyments and possibilities it can mean.