Thoughts on Trayvon Martin and Reconciliation

On February 26, 2012, communities across the United States learned that George Zimmerman (“Zimmerman”), a 28-year-old Hispanic male part of a volunteer neighborhood watch in a gated community in Sanford, Florida, shot and killed a 17-year-old African-American male named Trayvon Martin (“Martin”). According to 911 tapes, Zimmerman, sitting in his parked vehicle, observed Martin walking in the community and believed Martin was acting suspiciously. Zimmerman stated that Martin kept looking back at him as he was walking.  Against the advice of the 911 Operator, Zimmerman left his vehicle and started following Martin. Zimmerman was recorded as stating, “[Martin] looks like he’s up to no good or on drugs or something.”  When the 911 Operator questioned Zimmerman about the racial identity of Martin, Zimmerman was recorded stating, “He looks black.”

The events that occurred afterward are unclear.  Zimmerman claims to have followed Martin before turning back and returning to his vehicle. He alleges that Martin followed him to his vehicle, at which time Martin pushed him. A fight ensued that ended with Zimmerman fatally shooting Martin. Zimmerman claimed he shot Martin in self-defense. Varying witness accounts claim that Zimmerman was not in danger when he shot Martin while other contradictory accounts concur with Zimmerman’s statement that Martin was beating him when he shot his gun.

The facts are disputed by both sides. The events were immediately painted in terms of racial profiling by the media when the Sanford police seemingly failed to act quickly in investigating the shooting death of a young black male in a predominantly white neighborhood.  Definitive racial lines were drawn between African-Americans and “others” when news correspondent, Geraldo Rivera, claimed Trayvon’s hooded sweatshirt contributed to his death because it is the clothing of choice for black gang members.  The hooded sweatshirt became a symbol of racial profiling. The “hoodie”, as it is termed colloquially, was worn by House Representative Bobby Rush on the floor and by the National Basketball Association’s Miami Heat. On March 21, 2012, a “Million Hoodie March” was held to show support for Martin and denounce the Sanford Police for not arresting Zimmerman.

Fast forward to 2013 and the country is nine days into the Zimmerman trial. We view it live streaming on CNN or catch commentary on other news stations. We are enthralled and we are holding our breath for the outcome. The jury verdict, when it happens, will not be a black and white decision—deliberating about death is always complex; however, the media will paint it in African-American and Anglo-American terms.

There is no question that race is an issue in the United States.  But was race the dispositive factor in the shooting death of Martin? Before official statements were made, the decision was that Martin was killed because he was a young black man who should not be walking in a “good” neighborhood. Why did American citizens align so easily into their mandated roles of African-American versus Anglo-American, or African-American versus “other”?  Why were African-American citizens so quick to agree that Zimmerman was racist?

Apology and forgiveness abounds between African-Americans and Anglo-Americans (e.g., the recent mea culpa of the cooking giant Paula Deen), but the two cultures have never reconciled our hurts with one another.  We resist creating a shared memory of history and refuse to address the history that makes it so easy to fall into our usual arguments and roles. This brief commentary explores whether reconciliation is “too little, too late” for the United States.

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by M. Nycole Hearon

M. Nycole Hearon is a Master’s of Law graduate and former Fellow of Pepperdine University School of Law’s Straus Institute for Dispute Resolution. Ms. Hearon worked as a Deputy District Attorney and private civil litigator in Las Vegas, Nevada prior to her enrollment at Straus. She holds a BA in English Literature from Baylor University in Waco, Texas and a JD from St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, Texas. Ms. Hearon is licensed to practice law in Texas, Nevada, and Connecticut.