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March 28, 2012

Trayvon Martin: Another Example of Victim Blaming

By now you've no doubt already been inundated by information - and speculation - regarding the shooting of Trayvon Martin. We're not exactly sure why this particular case has sparked so much media interest and attention. Martin is surely not the first unarmed black young man killed at the hands of a white man for what seems like no reason. Obviously we think it's tragic for anyone to lose their life at only 17, but we weren't there so we have no idea what really happened.

We can't see into George Zimmerman's mind and soul to know what his true motivations were... what he was really thinking... whether he really is racist or paranoid or remorseful... whether he really did fear for his life that night. We can't know for sure. There has been a lot of speculation from both sides of the issue, a lot of questionable claims made, and a lot of incorrect information floating around the Internet... but one recurring theme keeps coming up and it has rubbed us the wrong way so we'd like to address that.

Victim blaming.

Women - in particular, women who have been the victim of rape, sexual assault, domestic violence, etc. - have to deal with victim blaming so often, that it's easy to forget that we are not the only group that this happens to. There have been so many parallels in this case to the victim blaming of rape survivors and frankly, we're sick of it on all ends.

  • It doesn't matter what they were wearing
There has been a lot said about how Martin was dressed that night, in particular the fact that he was wearing a hooded sweatshirt. Even Geraldo Rivera came out from under his rock to declare that "the hoodie is as much responsible for Trayvon Martin's death as George Zimmerman was."
When you see a kid walking down the street, particularly a dark-skinned kid like my son Cruz, who I constantly yelled at when he was going out wearing a damn hoodie or those pants around his ankles [...]

Every time you see someone sticking up a 7-Eleven, the kid’s wearing a hoodie. Every time you see a mugging on a surveillance camera or they get the old lady in the alcove, it’s a kid wearing a hoodie. You have to recognize that this whole stylizing yourself as a gangsta — you’re going to be a gangsta wannabe? Well, people are going to perceive you as a menace [...]
When you see a black or Latino youngster, particularly on the street, you walk to the other side of the street. You try to avoid that confrontation. Trayvon Martin, God bless him, an innocent kid, a wonderful kid, a box of Skittles in his hands. He didn’t deserve to die. But I bet you money, if he didn’t have that hoodie on, that nutty neighborhood watch guy wouldn’t have responded in that violent and aggressive way. [Politico.com]

It's really pathetic to claim that his hoodie had anything to do with his shooting, but to state that it was as much responsible as the shooter is just downright offensive. Even if the hoodie did play a role in causing Zimmerman to believe Martin was a threat... Zimmerman (and his apparent prejudice) would still be to blame.

We've heard this kind of backwards argument so many times... We heard it about Ines Sainz in regards to the inappropriate behavior of the Jets, we've heard it from high school principals about kids getting bullying and we heard it from the Toronto police department, inspiring the SlutWalk movement. (We've also seen it on about a zillion TV shows over the years, a personal "favorite" being the Halloween episode of Beverly Hills 90210.) Putting blame on the victims for what they were wearing is wrong in each of these examples and is still wrong when it comes to Martin's shooting.

Rivera's position also seems to be based on a kind of old fashioned, outdated point of view about clothing. Wearing a hoodie and baggy pants means you're styling yourself like a "gangster" or "wanna-be gangster"? It's just fashion. I may not be a fan of the baggy jeans style, but it's certainly not exclusive to gang members or criminals.

We can't know for sure if Zimmerman is racist or if he judged Martin as a threat that night based on his race, but the "hoodie" argument is most definitely racially-loaded. Rivera specifically said "dark-skinned" and "black or Latino" youth should not wear hoodies because of the negative association, but doesn't mention that type of clothing being a threat to Caucasian or light-skinned teenagers. Why? Because racism is probably much more to blame than clothing choice. (Similarly, when Juan Williams cited his fear of people wearing "Muslim garb", it was clear to most of us that it wasn't the garb itself that scared him, so much as he knew that the people wearing it were apparently Muslim. It was Islamophobia, plain and simple.)

  •  It doesn't matter what they have or haven't done in the past
Another aspect of the Martin case that rubs us the wrong way is the way that some members of the media have been portraying Martin, and more specifically, the way we're supposed to feel about that portrayal. Many say that he's been slandered, but whether or not that's true shouldn't even make a difference. Because it doesn't matter what he did in his past or what "kind" of person he was. All that matters was what he was doing the night he was shot.

Michelle Malkin's Twitchy posted a photograph alleged to be Martin, of a shirtless boy in baggy pants with his middle fingers sticking out. Of course, it has now come out that the photograph wasn't of Trayvon Martin at all, but what if it was? Would that photograph somehow make Martin's shooting justified? One photograph does not paint a full portrait of the young man - and even if it did - does that somehow negate the fact that he was killed while "armed" with only Skittles and iced tea?

It has been reported that Martin had been suspended from school three times - most recently for carrying an empty baggie with traces of marijuana. Again, what does this have to do with his shooting? Although Zimmerman was never tested for drugs that night, Martin's dead body was and we haven't seen in any reports that he had any illegal substances in his system. But even if he did, what would that matter? It feels as though these "tid-bits" of information only serve to try to demonize the victim, to somehow defend his shooting - that if he wasn't as "innocent" as his family says he was, then he must have had it coming.

This is all too familiar territory. When a woman is raped (or assaulted or sexually harassed or stalked or abused) the attorneys - and the public - immediately jump to point out every single little thing she may have ever done wrong in her life, especially if it's sex-related, regardless of whether it's true.

When Chris Brown was first arrested for beating up Rihanna, discussions of what she might have done to "provoke" him (including the false rumor that she gave him herpes) spread like wildfire. Roman Polanski's supporters have always put a great emphasis on the so-called "reputation" of his teenage victim and the claim that she may not have been a virgin when he drugged and raped her. Dominique Strauss-Kahn's accuser was outright called a hooker in the New York Post (even though there wasn't any evidence to back that claim up). In the same way that a woman's sexual history and past indiscretions don't have anything to do with whether she deserved to be raped, whether or not Martin is a perfect angel who got straight As or a drug-using criminal (or more likely - something somewhere in between, like most teenagers)... doesn't have anything to do with why Zimmerman shot him.

One report - which we've yet to verify - claims that Martin was once caught with women's jewelry and a "burglary tool" (i.e., a screwdriver) but not the night that he was shot! That night he only had Skittles and iced tea on him. Even if he was guilty of burglarizing homes (there's no concrete evidence to support this) and Zimmerman was right to suspect him of such (again, no evidence to support this)... it still doesn't give Zimmerman cause for what he did. He had no evidence of any wrongdoing, no knowledge of any (alleged) prior bad acts and no reason to suspect that Martin was doing anything wrong.

  • They definitely weren't "asking for it"

This is one of the most common claims that rape apologists make. She was asking for it... because she was
dressed sexy, because she was drunk, because she flirted, because she just happened to be female. 

We've heard way too many people suggesting that Martin deserved what he got or may have attacked or provoked Zimmerman. But the facts just don't add up to that. Zimmerman has claimed that he shot Martin in self-defense and there has been a lot of debate and speculation as to whether or not Zimmerman was ever really in danger (or at least believed that he was in danger). But Zimmerman had no grounds to apprehend Martin because he wasn't doing anything wrong that night. And even if he had done something wrong, Zimmerman would still have had no evidence of that, no knowledge of any (alleged) prior bad acts and no reason to suspect that Martin was doing anything wrong. Being black in public is not a crime and it's not reasonable grounds for suspicion.

It has been reported that Zimmerman may use the "stand your ground" law as justification, but it probably wouldn't be applicable in this case. According to the legislator who wrote the statute, there's nothing in it that authorizes you to pursue or confront other people. Zimmerman was specifically told by the police not to follow or approach Martin, but he did it anyway... while carrying a loaded gun. Let's not forget Zimmerman is not a police officer (he's not even an official member of any neighborhood watch group) but apparently he considers himself some kind of vigilante superhero. Who does he think he is, Batman?

We're just so tired of hearing victims of crimes being blamed for what happened to them... what someone else chose to do to them. We recently wrote about a terrible victim blaming article in Cosmo and the parallels here are just too clear. What happened to Trayvon Martin is sad and was entirely avoidable. It doesn't matter if he was a good kid or a "bad" kid... it doesn't matter what he was wearing... it doesn't matter if he looked "suspicious" or was acting in a way that made Zimmerman think he was a criminal. It doesn't matter.

The fact is that Zimmerman should never have been following Martin, he should never have gotten out of his car and approached him, he should never have tried to play cop. Whatever the surrounding details of the incident, that fact remains true. We can't ever really know if Zimmerman intended to kill Martin or if he truly feared for his own life or if he had any actual reason to find Martin suspicious other than the color of his skin...

But the one thing we do know is that Zimmerman is the only person to blame for Trayvon Martin's death. Period.


Anonymous said...

I wish this incident could be called a "case". Unfortunately, Zimmerman doesn't even have to argue that the hoody was a factor, because he's not been charged with a crime. Geraldo is an idiot. I don't think he was trying to justify the killing. I think he was trying to paint himself as a concerned parent looking out for other parents. The statement that the hoody was as much to blame as Zimmerman was just moronic. It may actually be good advice to parents to tell them to not let their kids go out wearing hoodies (because it might possibly keep them safe from people like Zimmerman, even if no person should be forced to alter their attire to keep themselves safe), but now other moronic people are going to use the hoody argument to defend Zimmerman even if that is not what Geraldo intended. And you can bet, based on the media attention this incident and Geraldo's comments have garnered, that if Zimmerman is ever charged with a homicide, his attorney will use the hoody as a contributing factor to show Zimmerman's subjective "fear" of his victim. However, any judge who deserves to be a judge would not let that be used as evidence. Of course, even if it wasn't admitted as evidence, every juror would know that the victim was wearing a hoody because they saw it on the news. Another problem with this incident is that it has been tried in the media already without even having the shooter arrested. And at this point, who knows what a Florida jury would think about this. The worst thing I see here is that the law was completely ignored, because the police decided that the stand your ground law applied, when it is not the police force's job to decide whether self defense laws apply. Any time someone is killed by another, it needs to be investigated as a homicide, and then the courts can decide whether the law applies (which is their job). I also just realized that while this whole thing is a travesty of justice, it may actually be better for the future if there is no arrest and trial. If this does go to trial and Zimmerman is found not guilty, that could create a precedent which would give Florida residents the idea that they can shoot people even if they instigate the confrontation themselves, and that could lead to more killings like this one. On the other hand, a conviction might let Florida residents know that they need to think long and hard before they fire on someone. With that said, when you see victim blaming going on in cases that are actually being tried in the courts, don't blame the lawyers; they are simply doing their job, which unfortunately means making every possible argument (no matter how ridiculous) to have their client acquitted (no matter how guilty they may be). Blame the legislators (for not expanding shield laws), blame the judge (for allowing evidence of past acts, etc.), and blame the jury (for believing it). Most of all, blame the assailants who take our laws and misuse them to justify committing heinous acts.

Anonymous said...

Get your facts straight, Zimmerman is not white, he is Hispanic. Why do people love to transform things into white versus black? Also, why is it ignored that Zimmerman was bleeding from his nose and the back of his head, I suppose he did this to himself? There are only two people who know exactly what happened that night, and one of them is dead, but I get sick of people leaving out important facts just because they want to turn this into another white versus black issue.


Did you even read more than the first few lines? We're NOT making anything into a black-white issue. We're talking about victim blaming and that certainly has something to do with Martin's being black (regardless of what race Zimmerman identifies as).

But FYI - "Hispanic" is not a race. It is an ethnicity. Zimmerman's father is white, and he has been en described as "white Hispanic" in most of the press on this case.

As for Zimmerman's minor injuries. They could have resulted from Martin acting in self defense or they could have resulted from an unprovoked attack by Martin. We don't know and you don't know either. That's why we haven't mentioned it - it isn't relevant to the topic of discussion here. The cuts on his head have NOTHING to do with the points made in this blog.

Attempts to blame and demonize the victims of crimes like rape or murder are NOT okay. Martin is not to blame for his death because of what he was wearing or because he may have smoked marijuana in his lifetime.

However, if you think this case honestly has NOTHING to do with race, then you're the one who probably needs to get your facts straight.