An armed Hispanic man was found not guilty of killing an unarmed black teenager on Saturday. I wasn’t surprised. Just when you think America has come a long way from its embarrassing, hateful past, we are bluntly reminded in a jolting instant that true equality still doesn’t exist and might not happen for some time to come.
But let’s put that aside for a moment. This was an awful case to prosecute. There were no credible eyewitnesses. There was no video evidence. (Even if there was, would the incident have been clearly seen? Probably not. It was night time and the sidewalk wasn’t well lit.) We have no idea what George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin actually said to each other that February evening, we have no idea who threw the first punch and we have no idea what exactly made the neighbourhood watch volunteer pull out his gun and shoot a 17-year-old once directly in the heart at close range. As for the evidence that was used in the trial, quite a bit of it was disputed, to the great benefit of the defendant. Doubt set him free.
The prosecution did themselves no favours by pushing for a second degree murder charge, an enormous burden to meet in a case that didn’t need any more controversy. In order to get a conviction, a murder charge requires a definitive degree of pre-meditation. Is there irrefutable proof Zimmerman’s whole plan was to kill Martin that night? The jury answered that question even before they reached a verdict when they asked for clarification about the manslaughter charge they ultimately didn’t consider as an alternative punishment. (Yes, he did tell a dispatcher that night, “These assholes. They always get away.” But was he plotting a murder or an arrest? It’s not so clear cut, is it? That’s the problem.)
As horrendous as this tragedy is (and don’t think for a second that I support what Zimmerman did because I never have; racial profiling is unconstitutional and minor cuts do not justify pulling the trigger on someone), imagine how different the reaction would’ve been if Trayvon Martin was a Muslim.
Think about it. Would American citizens be nearly as outraged about his death if was wearing a turban or any other traditional Muslim head covering instead of a hoodie? Would they be wearing turbans in solidarity? Would they still be protesting in the streets demanding George Zimmerman’s arrest for weeks after the tragedy? Would they go out of their way to publicly support his grieving family? Would they demand changes to unfair law enforcement policies and criminal laws discriminatory to people like him? And, as far as the news media is concerned, does anyone believe CNN would have devoted so much wall-to-wall coverage if Trayvon’s name was Muhammed?
Considering the demonstrable lack of outrage (and TV coverage, for that matter) regarding President Obama’s ongoing, heartless drone program against hundreds, if not thousands of innocent civilians in Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan; the longterm, fruitless mass surveillance of American Muslims by the increasingly evil New York Police Department; the continuously bogus FBI sting operations that throw the most vulnerable away for decades and the ongoing nightmare that is Gitmo, it’s pretty safe to say that the answer to every one of those questions is a resounding no. Internationally? Yes, there would be plenty of anger. Domestically? Not so much. Case in point: when did Americans start caring about unlawful mass surveillance? After a white man named Edward Snowden blew the whistle and revealed that their private data was being accumulated and stored by Obama and company, as well. Did they care when this was only happening to law-abiding Muslims?
While Black Americans are still disproportionately targeted by misguided law enforcement, at least there is considerable public support for the injustices they face, as the Martin tragedy proves. Just look at all the spontaneous, peaceful protests that came together after the not guilty verdict which will likely continue for quite some time. Notable exceptions aside, do the plight of Muslims inspire nearly the same amount of sympathy and rallying cries from their fellow Americans? Of course they don’t.
And why is that? It’s very simple. When two successive federal governments go out of their way to demonize a good and decent people because of what happened on September 11, 2001 and the public swallows the propaganda whole courtesy of a compliant media, every Muslim in America becomes a target. Thanks to all this relentless negativity they’ve faced for more than a decade, to the rest of the country, they are enemies to fear, not neighbours to embrace.
In New York City alone, they face countless, unmerited suspicions from Ray Kelly’s disturbingly unconstitutional, deeply invasive surveillance programs to the point where even they don’t trust each other anymore. They’re not free to practice their peaceful religion and no longer feel comfortable enough to interact with one other unreservedly in any shape or form. And you can forget about having political discussions or watching coverage of the Middle East on TV. That makes you suspicious, you see, so do change the channel or turn it off entirely for your own protection. In America, being an Angry Muslim is even worse than being an Angry Black Guy. Because that means you’re secretly plotting some kind of attack from within your own home thanks to your irrational hatred of America, the greatest country in the world, don’t you know? How do we know this? Just look at them. They’re. Not. Like. Us. (Is it any wonder that NYC’s hated “stop and frisk” program, which mostly targets innocent Black Americans, is facing far more public resistance than the surveillance of Muslims?)
But as Trayvon Martin’s grieving family and many of the people who supported them this past year and a half are now belatedly realizing, America’s justice system isn’t so wonderful. Not for innocent black teenagers and most certainly not for Muslim Americans.
How can it be when almost a hundred Muslim men, all free to leave Gitmo (since they got the all-clear years ago) because they’re not guilty of anything, can’t leave because Sophia Bush’s fucking “unicorn” won’t let them out for fear they might do something horrible to America, something they didn’t do in the first place? How can it be when all of them (plus nearly a hundred more who also haven’t been convicted of any wrongdoing) have to starve themselves to get anyone to pay attention to their dilemma after years of being ignored? (For the record, this isn’t their first hunger strike, either.) How can it be when Muslim children as young as 1 are exterminated by drones whose missiles slice off the appendages of their thoroughly charred little bodies, sometimes beyond recognition, without any sustained public outcry? How can it be when the military officers who operate those drones think of dead Arabs in general as “bug splat”? How can it be when even an American football player of Palestinian descent has to assuage his fearful countrymen that he’s not one of The Bad Muslims? Because, silly: They’re. Not. Like. Us.
For all the anger people are feeling over Zimmerman’s acquittal, wouldn’t it be nice if that powerful energy went beyond this one case and into a larger movement of dissent against the state of the American justice system, especially the out-of-control militarization of law enforcement? Wouldn’t it be nice if the Obama Administration actually feared the wrath of its supporters rather than the other way around? And wouldn’t it be nice if all this collective disappointment with this corrupt state of affairs (the millions of deportations, the NSA surveillance scandals, the war on drug addicts and medical marijuana users, gun culture, rape culture, the war on abortion rights, a government-worshipping media and on and on and on) actually led to longterm, sustainable reforms?
While the world awaits the results of the Justice Department’s just revived civil rights investigation against Zimmerman, ask yourself this question: would this be happening if Trayvon Martin was an Arab-American? If you answer yes, you haven’t been paying attention. If you answer no, welcome to reality.
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Monday, July 15, 2013