The essay that follows is the chapter I wrote for the very fine anthology Killing Trayvons: An Anthology of American Violence edited by Kevin Alexander Gray, Jeffrey St. Clair, editor of CounterPunch, and journalist JoAnn Wypijewski. Its appearance could not possibly be more timely with the news dominated by the cold-blooded murder of Michael Brown in the middle of a street in broad daylight by a cop. As Kevin and I predicted (on Live from the Land of Hope and Dreams) when Obama was elected, the most certain result was that many black males would die. How many more will there be?
The question for you and me right now is whether we grasp the facts and allow the uniformed felon who shot Michael Brown get away with it, judicially and otherwise. The attempt to smear Michael Brown as a petty criminal based on his theft of some cigars is exactly what we’re likely to see more of unless there is activity against it–and not just by poor black people. Not just by black people, period.
So let’s get the important stuff straight: Stealing cigars is not a felony, let alone a capital crime. Jaywalking is not a capital crime. Delaying moving when a police office tells you to do so is not a capital crime. Lifting your hands is not a capital crime. Stepping towards a police officer in a confrontational situation is not a capital crime. Lifting your arms is not a capital crime. Turning to flee is not a capital crime. Being black and male and young — none of these are capital crimes.
That none of these is, for that matter, a crime of any kind–or even that we all “know” it– is beside the point. The defenders of the cops, the apologists for the system, the creeps who want to make the “looters” in Ferguson, MO equally culpable along with the cops. The public is ready, much of it even eager, to falsely balance the equation, with the usual bullshit about “wrong on both sides.”
Right now the media and the politicians, from the President on down, are acting as if none of what I just said is true.
The fact that someone has to say these things–that everybody isn’t saying them–is exactly why I had to write this essay, why Kevin, Jeff and JoAnn had to prepare their book.
When will it end? When you–and you, and you, and me–decide to make it stop. And what that means in essence, no matter who is in the White House, is this: It’s not up to black people. It’s up to white people. — Dave Marsh
Really the Invisible Man Blues
“…all unorganized violence is like a blind man with a pistol.”
~ Chester Himes
In his autobiography, Really the Blues, Mezz Mezzrow, locked up in a New York City jail on a drug charge, convinces the warden that he has a black mother and therefore must be placed in the Negro section of the prison – his life depends on it.
Mezz Mezzrow, a pot proselytizer and dealer as well as a pretty good trumpet player, was white, or at least he came from an all-white family. His is one of the few real-life stories in American history in which a white man passes for black and gets away with it. Whether John Howard Griffin, author of Black Like Me, in which a middle-class white writer blackens his skin in order to research what the too-much-melanin blues are like, got away with it is open to debate. He did not die, as has been widely reported, from cancer caused by Oxsoralen, the chemical he used to darken his skin, but the fact that the idea persists thirty years after his death suggests what grim desires his project may have inspired. Griffin is not by any means the only mortal casualty of the American obsession with melanin.
Give or take Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson, a reasonably fine novel, and Norman Mailer’s essay, “The White Negro,” which is a complete crock, that’s about the end of the literary aspect of passing for black. In Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison’s nameless protagonist, unquestionably a black citizen, has retreated to a clandestine life in a cellar in a whites-only building somewhere in New York. This man is invisible because other people refuse to see him. And throughout the story, whenever he is seen, disaster of one degree of another ensues.
Somewhere among these fantasies lies a truth about George Zimmerman, who, by his own account, accidentally on purpose murdered Trayvon Martin. Somewhere in there is an authentic human being, like Mezzrow, who imagined himself a superhero. Mezz sold reefer to the stars; Louis Armstrong was his best customer. George Zimmerman stalked the streets of a podunk Florida condo community with a gun by his side, a Batman vigilante.
What fascinates me is that George Zimmerman imagined himself a white superhero. Well, really, it’s not that so much. Name a black superhero, why don’t you? Richard Pryor dressed up as one for one of his album jackets, and that just about covers the point.
Whether George Zimmerman, by the bizarre and often contradictory codes of the United States, is ‘white’ isn’t the issue. It can’t be, because the matter is not so much in the eye of the beholder as in the beholder’s mind, or wherever each of our prejudices resides. There neither is nor ever will be a test of who’s black and who’s white based purely on skin color; thank you, Gregor Mendel. Americans appear in something more than 50,000 shades of gray and brown. Weeding us all out, separating the “Caucasian” sheep from the “Negro” goats (as Mitt Romney’s tutors might have put it) is a fool’s errand, a worthless quest and the core of a national argument that hasn’t changed much since the Tidewater tobacco growers invented the “white race” around 1680. Whiteness as a concept – a mass illusion that really means not-blackness – guarantees a genuine enthusiasm for servile status among white working people to this day. Because, with agreed-upon whiteness comes power, including the power of life and death. It’s amazing every neighborhood in the US doesn’t have a yearly ritual in which people fill out their brackets for who might or might not possess the coveted lack of melanin in their neighborhood.
Zimmerman’s mother has been described as Afro-Peruvian, and pictures alleged to be of his great-grandfather show a dark-
skinned man who might well be black or brown (the photos are black and white, in a way that race in America is thought to, but never can, be). His father resembles David Brinkley, only more pallid. Zimmerman himself looks as if his ancestry might be Sicilian, or Native American, or Hispanic, or simply a polyglot genotype commonly known as American. Zimmerman’s voter registration card lists him as “Hispanic.”
Trayvon Martin, on the other hand, was unmistakably a black manchild, African- or Afro-American, or any of two- or three-dozen hideous epithets. That Zimmerman shot Martin because he was black may legitimately be doubted. That Zimmerman stalked Martin and put himself in the position of murdering him because Trayvon was black is beyond dispute. It’s how Zimmerman’s version of the events goes. Broken down between perception and reality, what the shooter tells us is as follows.
I saw a colored kid walking around where he shouldn’t have been (according to Zimmerman), dressed as a criminal (that is to say, as one common variety of adolescent boys, many of them black), and when I attempted to stop and frisk him (Zimmerman doesn’t cop to the frisk, but that’s the general idea) he ran, a clear (to Zimmerman, though in reality doubtful beyond anything reasonable) admission of guilt (of being black where he didn’t belong), so I proceeded to accost him (because that’s what superheroes do to bad guys), and then he tried to hurt me, so I shot him.
It’s that cold and that confused. Chester Himes couldn’t have satirized it. Richard Pryor himself would have been hard-pressed to say anything sufficiently biting about it. Martin’s murder was everything but a metaphor.
I nevertheless submit that George Zimmerman may be the Lee Harvey Oswald of this historical period. His biography is just as sordid and pathetic. In 1997, aged 14, he joined ROTC, with the stated ambition of joining the US Marine Corps. (His father, Robert, is described as “ex-military,” but I’ve yet to find out which service.) George’s post-high school jobs fulfilled no heroic fantasies: he worked for an insurance agency and a car dealership. He went back to school, to get his real estate agent’s license, then to study criminal justice. He may have been in a ride-along program with the Sanford police: he claimed he witnessed “disgusting behavior” by the officers, but the local cops say they have no record of him in the program. That last role (it wasn’t a job or a hobby) came to light in the context of a town meeting, which Zimmerman attended, protesting the beating of a black homeless man by white Sanford cops. He shoved a cop who was busting one of his friends for drunken behavior and was sent into an anger management program. A girlfriend accused him of domestic violence; he requested a reciprocal restraining order. He applied for a job with the local sheriff’s office, and didn’t get it. He took part in the Seminole College graduation program even though he was a credit shy of his degree. At his pretrial hearing in the Trayvon murder case, the prosecutors brought up all of this. The judge described George’s record as “run of the mill.” His father was allowed to sit in on his initial interrogations by the police about Trayvon’s killing.
On the basis of all that, you’d have to say that George Zimmerman has been treated as a white man by the system, or at least a part of it. How he has been treated by classmates, teachers, administrators, recruiting sergeants and, for that matter, junk food-dispensing 7-Eleven clerks is a whole other set of issues. And we’ll never know.
Maybe George Zimmerman wasn’t out there stalking innocent black teenagers in pursuit of certification as an authentic European-American. You’re entitled to doubt it. I don’t. Maybe he had no crisis of racial identity that he was trying to work out by becoming a superhero.
On the other hand, there is that designation on his voter registration card.
So we might, if we are pondering whether George Zimmerman received anything resembling justice (let alone whether Trayvon Martin did), spare a thought for the myriad ways in which the issue of racial identity makes so many Americans crazy – the crazier, it seems, the murkier, the more borderline, their status.
The strange thing is, at trial it was the defense lawyers who kept bringing up Zimmerman’s racial status (albeit outside the courtroom, but trials aren’t really held in court anymore, if they ever were). It was they who allegedly provided the pictures of his mother’s grandfather. It wasn’t even implied; it was stated outright that if George had black blood there was no way he stalked Trayvon Martin and killed him with a pretext so thin even a blind Klansman could see through it.
And now George Zimmerman is a free man, or anyway as free as someone with an Afro-Peruvian mother can be in an America that only in its most privileged sanctuaries understands itself as “post-racial.” Here is the white supremacist dilemma spelled out with remarkable clarity, by a proudly anonymous correspondent to the “conservative” blog Draw and Strike, March 29, 2012, apropos the report that Zimmerman’s photograph had been craftily skin-lightened by the media (no mention of which ones, or of whether Fox had once again held the color line):
right or wrong it’s always a meme about how evil the white man is and how he be profiling everybody. But if the half jewish half peruvian Zimmerman is a white hispanic, doesn’t it follow that our muti racial preznit is indeed not black but white-black-arabic, in fact?
Why do people who essentially have no quarrel with Zimmerman’s vigilantism, who treat Zimmerman as if he has achieved a goal from their personal bucket lists (as indeed he has, especially the hard part, getting away with it), want him not to be white? Why has this question been ignored, even though it is a glaring part of the filthy residue of these crimes (the murder one, and the trial another)?
I think it’s basically because George Zimmerman has a brand new double standard available to him: he is white enough to get away with the shooting and dark enough to suggest to the bigots that there is something deeply wrong. But what’s wrong is not the shooting of Trayvon Martin, which was justified in the way that every vigilante execution has been justified since the Civil War. What we hear from the Draw and Strike crowd is a modern rendition of that tune they’ve danced to since Obama was elected and the chimera of post-racial society began to waver in front of blighted eyes.
In front of the cataracts of liberalism wobbles another image altogether: if this biracial society is such a swell thing, how and why did this acquittal occur? Liberals have no coherent answer, because formulating one would leave them no course except to understand the country in a way that the flag-bearers of post-racialism exist to occlude. Trayvon was shot in a mixed-race (“integrated,” we would once have said) neighborhood, by a vigilante who at least part of the time identified as a member of another ethnic minority. I don’t suppose this sounds like Crown Heights to you, does it?
The travesty of the trial does not stem entirely from the fact that everyone involved in the judicial system – judge, jury, prosecutors, defense counsel, cops – was non-black. Which raises another question: If we can talk about ‘non-white’ as a category, why not the more useful, because more accurate, non-black?
There’s nobody raised or even living long term in the United States of America who can’t answer that question accurately. There are just several hundred million Bartlebys who’d prefer not to.
Which is to say, the mystery of George Zimmerman is that there is no mystery. He did it, he got away with it without even having to deny it, and his kind will come again and again and again until we at least gain as much courage as Ishmael and crawl into bed with the truth.
“What started it?”
“A blind man with a pistol.”
“You heard me, boss.”
“That don’t make any sense.”
– Chester Himes
This essay is excerpted from Killing Trayvons: An Anthology of American Violence (CounterPunch Books).