When people think of Florida, they think of oranges and pink flamingos, palm trees and beaches, the blue-green ocean. They think of Disney and margaritas. … But it has a feral heart, a teeming center that would rage out of control if not for the concrete and rebar that keeps it caged.
-Lisa Unger, from Black Out
As I watched the trial of George Zimmerman in Sanford, Florida, and absorbed the verdict of six White or Hispanic women jurors, my involvements with race in Florida as a kid all rushed front and center in my mind. The trial was an amazing racial lightning rod saturated with the unpleasant legacy of race in America, especially in the South. It seems appropriate that it unfolded in Florida, which has become the nation’s most bizarre and confused state.
Given this, it’s easy to understand why Seminole County Circuit Judge Debra Nelson sternly kept race out of the trial. In the end, while it may have tempered sensationalism in her court, the decision feels like an example of the problem itself and very much a real shortcoming of the trial. The way things work, thanks to the double jeopardy issue, the State cannot appeal the verdict. Had it gone the other way, appeal geniuses like Alan Dershowitz had already begun working the angles for a lengthy appeal process, like he was ready to do for O.J. Simpson and did for Claus Von Bulow.
As it stands, the only appeal process George Zimmerman has to face is possible threats to his life. His security concerns are no doubt serious; one might say, while he may have “walked,” it might be prudent if he walked fast under an assumed name to a secret location.
The most amazing thing about the trial was that the dead victim seemed to be the one on trial. I was often confused which legal team was the “prosecutor” and which one was the “defense.” It felt to me that the defense attorneys, especially Don West, were acting like prosecutors, while the prosecutors were acting like defense lawyers. As it turned out, the real prosecutors were acting pretty ineffectually in that role. You had to wonder whether this might be because it’s anathema to prosecutors to seriously question the actions or motives of a police officer or — in this case, a “wanna-be cop.”
In an interesting footnote to the case, George’s father, Robert Zimmerman, a full-time magistrate from 2000-2006 in Virginia, wrote an e-book entitled Florida v Zimmerman: Uncovering the Malicious Prosecution of My Son George in which he calls the Congressional Black Caucus a “pathetic, self-serving group of racists… advancing their purely racist agenda.” He also writes that the NAACP “simply promotes racism and hatred for their own, primarily finical [sic], interests.”
One hypothetical we’ll never see is how might things have been different if a robust and strong prosecution had been undertaken by the Martin family’s African American attorneys if they had somehow been allowed to try the case. It was their pressure that led to Zimmerman’s arrest in the first place.
The abject absurdity of a man getting off scott-free (not even a slap on the wrist) for “standing his ground” in self-defense against a 17-year-old kid who was, it seems clear, the one who was initially defending him-self from the threat of a mysterious man eleven years his senior stalking him. The fact this man’s ultimate act proves he was lethally dangerous was never apparently even raised by the prosecutors. For the sake of justice, one must ask: Was the prosecution lacking in effectiveness because Florida prosecutors aren’t constructed to think hostilely toward insiders in the Criminal Justice System? It may be racially provocative to point it out, but a cursory examination of the record will, I think, show prosecutions of cops who kill black men do not often get to the indictment or conviction stage. At best, they end up in the place Geraldo Rivera of Fox News placed the Zimmerman case: “It was just a tragedy.”
Joy-Ann Reid of MSNBC and The Grio blog summed it up succinctly when she pointed out there were two winners from the Zimmerman verdict: “the gun lobby and stereotyping.” Front and center in all this, of course, is Florida’s gun-lobby-friendly Stand Your Ground law.
A Florida Boy
In 1958, when I was eleven, my family moved from a town 20 miles outside New York City to a little scorpion-infested concrete-block house in rural South Dade County just north of the Florida Keys. I adjusted to a life of separate drinking fountains, which my mother carefully explained to me in a grocery store, and two “separate-but-equal” segregated school systems. I wasn’t aware of the term at the time; but the vestiges of a Jim Crow racial hierarchy were strong in South Dade County in the late fifties and early sixties.
It was a world in which I became accustomed to migrant labor camps near my house and underage drinking parties in avocado groves. I picked limes for 25 cents a field crate next to migrant Hispanics and poor blacks during the summers. I lost my virginity to a black prostitute in a shack in an avocado grove. I learned that a baseball bat was also known as a “nigger knocker.”
After a tour in Vietnam, I went to Florida State University in Tallahassee in the panhandle. I then left the state and have lived in the Philadelphia area ever since.
The state of Florida is a unique ethnic mix of the very rich and the very poor. There’s traditional white southerners, home-grown African Americans, lots of transplanted white Yankees like my family, Haitians and all varieties of Hispanics and Chicanos. The Miami area has become a capital of sorts for the Latin American right, with anti-Castro Cubans in the lead. The warm climate also seems to draw all sorts of high- and low-rent criminal types. There’s over 2,000 miles of beach coastline with the upper class Palm Beaches and Naples and working class resorts like the “Redneck Riviera” in the panhandle. Finally, to complete the gothic possibilities, there’s vast interior stretches of primeval swamp like the Everglades, populated with alligators, snakes and inbred humans.
I don’t wish to tarnish the goodness of fine, decent Floridians, of which there are countless many. And Florida certainly has evolved in many positive ways over the years. Still, the place is a pop-culture magnet for weirdness, scams and violence. Someone once said the nation was tilted to the southwest and the nation’s oddest-balls rolled by gravity to California. I would argue that the nation may have shifted and gravity is now rolling the odd-balls to the Florida peninsula.
Adam Gopnik points out in a June 10 New Yorker article — “In The Back Cabana: The Rise and Rise of Florida Crime Fiction” — Florida is the undisputed favorite locale for a sub-genre of crime fiction he calls Florida Glare (or one may prefer the more paradoxical term, sunshine noir) that he suggests has replaced the classic L.A. Noir sub-genre established by Raymond Chandler and others. The Florida noir list includes John D. MacDonald, Elmore Leonard, Carl Hiaasen, Lisa Unger, Randy Wayne White and Tim Dorsey to just scratch the surface. Many are newspaper writers besides being crime writers, like Hiaasen, who has referred to Florida as “Newark with palm trees.” Some like Dorsey’s (Florida Roadkill and Nuclear Jellyfish) are over the top psycho rides. Gopnik emphasizes Florida’s intimacy with Latin America and says of the state: “This is a society without basic repressions. There are no dirty secrets. …Corruption begins to have a Third World quality.” (For a truly dark and gothic example of cinematic sunshine noir made from Pete Dexter’s novel of the same name, see the recent film The Paperboy directed by the gay black director Lee Daniels.)
My father had a PhD in Physiology and taught at the University of Miami Medical School, while we lived in the agricultural area of South Dade County so he could work his hobby as an amateur nurseryman filling an acre with tables of exotic potted plants. We had guns that I would shoot in the back yard, which amounted to acres of empty pine and palmetto where we would encounter wild turkeys and sometimes an Eastern diamondback rattling a warning. After my two brothers and I left, some criminal types one dark night cut the phone line and tried to break into the house, we presume to do harm to my aging parents. The old man fortunately heard them trying to break in and began to blast away with his WWII Navy-issue .45 automatic, shattering the night silence and scaring the threat away. Had he hit one of them, the cops would no doubt have congratulated him. Soon after that, they moved to the safer area of Naples on the Gulf coast.
As a northeast-born white kid growing up in rural south Florida, it’s been a long road getting to where I am now. Some no doubt will call me a “self-hating white man.” That would not be true, of course. What that kind of label really means is the person either doesn’t understand, or is too dishonest to recognize, that what someone like me has come to “hate” is the persistent legacy of white-based racial animosity toward, and consequent oppression of, African Americans in the United States.
What I disdain is a deep-rooted legacy that only seems to become more sophisticated, more submerged and more coded with the years. The point is, it’s the rare individual who voluntarily gives up or turns against a historically-established privileged status and its benefits in the absence of a more painful alternative. The tragic fact is, the immensely secure majority status in population numbers, wealth and power precludes white America being presented with any kind of painful alternative. So it just goes on, and our prisons keep filling up.
White Man’s Guilt
Nothing explains the above from the point of view of the African American better than James Baldwin’s 1965 Ebony essay called “White Man’s Guilt.” It’s in the form of a plea, and the tone is one of sheer amazement at my race’s capacity for self-interested self-delusion. He starts off by saying it “can be unutterably exhausting” having to deal with this capacity in white people.
“I am speaking as an historical creation. … [I]t is probable that only a creature despised by history finds history a questionable matter” — unlike “people who imagine that history flatters them.” He sees white people “impaled on their history like a butterfly on a pin … incapable of seeing or changing themselves, or the world.”
“They are dimly, or vividly, aware that the history they have fed themselves is mainly a lie, but they do not know how to release themselves from it, and they suffer enormously from the resulting personal incoherence.”
This sort of “incoherence” was so blaringly evident to me in the Zimmerman trial at moments like the one where attorney Don West continuously grilled 19-year-old Rachel Jeantel about Trayvon Martin referring to the ominous man following him as a “crazy ass cracker.” In his exhausting mind, West wanted to see the term “cracker” as equivalent to something like “nigger.” To her credit, Ms. Jeantel softly stuck to her guns. No, “cracker” did not seem like “racial language” to her.
Baldwin then raises “those stammering, terrified dialogues” that we whites tend to initiate with blacks when white guilt comes up. “Do not blame me. I was not there. I did not do it. … Anyway it was your chiefs who sold you to me.” I can hear Sean Hannity saying this kind of thing, his mien an earnest, friendly, smiling guise of incredulity. “I have nothing against you, nothing! What have you got against me? What do you want?”
The bottom line, of course, is who benefits from the accumulations of the history in question and who doesn’t. Baldwin again: “In the most private chamber of his heart always, the white American remains proud of that history for which he does not wish to pay, and from which, materially, he has profited so much.” On the other side of the ledger, though, “in the most private chambers of [their] heart always, black Americans … begin to suspect an awful thing: that people believe that they deserve their history.” He calls it “the trap of believing that they deserve their fate” — as white people feel they “deserve” theirs. This is all consistent for me with a Clarence Thomas cynically appointed by a Republican President to sit on the US Supreme Court to replace a Thurgood Marshall.
Finally, Baldwin raises the big one — white fear, “a muffled fear that black people long to do to others what has been done to them,” leading white people “to a fearful baffling place where they have begun to lose touch with reality … where they certainly are not truly happy for they know they are not truly safe. They do not know how this came about; they do not dare examine how this came about. …[T]hey can scarcely dare to open a dialogue which must, if it is honest, become a personal confession — a cry for help and healing which is, really, I think, the basis for all dialogues.”
Further preventing such a healing process is the other side of such a dialogue, the confessional aspects of the black person’s story, “which fatally contains an accusation.”
“One can measure very neatly the white American’s distance from his conscience — from himself — by observing the distance between white America and black America. One has only to ask oneself who established this distance, who is this distance designed to protect, and from what is this distance designed to offer protection?”
For me, this explains why Judge Nelson so sternly disallowed the discussion of race in the George Zimmerman trial. As a white woman assigned to represent a deeply flawed criminal justice system she knew in her heart all that Baldwin speaks of, and she knew that once the lid on this stuff is raised it’s a Pandora’s Box. Her trial would become an extended media circus and a terrifying ride to a place no one in charge could predict. She did not want that to happen. She wanted the trial to be constrained within the controllable realm of the state’s established and codified laws, thus preventing any outbreak in court of the painful, healing dialogue Baldwin speaks of. Since white guilt and black victimhood are so often historically associated with police, or would-be police-like, abuses of power, the preclusion of racial issues from the Zimmerman trial became the metaphoric concrete and rebar Lisa Unger writes about that keeps Florida’s feral heart caged.
How the Scales Fell From My Eyes
The capacity for white people in America to delude themselves that they’ve transcended the nation’s racist history is awesome to behold. I’ll never forget my widower father’s last words to me on the phone before he died at age 87. Speaking with his notoriously “liberal” middle son living in Philadelphia, he had suddenly veered into a rant trashing black people for something I’ve since forgotten. I said nothing. By then I had given up, and out of love I suppose, resigned myself to let him run. He soon sensed the dynamic and caught himself. There was a pause as if he suddenly realized who he was on the phone with and what he was saying. Then he said: “I’m not a racist.” Another pause. “I just hate the bastards.”
I don’t mean to expose my dear father, who I had come to terms with before he died. But I’ve always been amazed by that remark. What could he possibly have been thinking? Was there a nuance I was missing? How could he so delude himself that he could see such a distinction? And what exactly was it that he hated or, more accurately, feared so much?
Baldwin’s essay has helped me understand that moment. Because one thing you learn about James Baldwin when you read him is that he’s not a hateful man. Maybe it’s because he was a homosexual — or maybe that just came as part of the baggage he accumulated in life from insisting, like a Walt Whitman before him, that he was going to walk the Earth courageously without relinquishing a love for everything that lived and breathed. In Baldwin’s case, it was certainly a Christian love steeped in the Bible.
In the end, I decided to see that final phone call as an exchange between an aged father and, by-then, a well-read and experienced prodigal son with whom he had squabbled since the kid was a teenager working with black fruit pickers in the summer — and liking them.
My father was a very smart man, but I’ve come to realize he lived with great fear. I now suspect it was the very same fear Baldwin speaks of based on beloved delusions highly invested in, “where they [men like my father] certainly are not truly happy for they know they are not truly safe.” I came to understand that my father truly loved me despite my rebellious nature; and I’m convinced on some level he understood how I felt and why I felt that way. I became, in a strange way, the filial manifestation of the fear he lived with. He had found the courage not to disown me, but he could not find the courage to unburden himself of what I had tried to unburdened myself from. The evidence I have for this feeling is that he often announced in some public setting or other, half-joking, that sometimes at night he wondered if I was not right.
I think he realized in that final phone conversation that he had hung himself with his own rope, and in the pregnant pause between phrases he had desperately tried to work his way out of the noose. He did that by distinguishing between being a “racist” and “hating” a class of people.
The former term has become over the decades a social epithet that connotes a pariah status. Being a “racist” in America today is even a bad thing for the farthest right conservative. So he did not want to be branded with that label; he did not want his liberal middle son to attach that label to him. And I should say my father was complicated; there was a black man named Clarence who was a janitor at the University of Miami Medical School who my father really liked. The man and his brother once came down and put a new tar roof on our house. I remember being amazed that the old man seemed to really like this guy.
He wanted to explain himself to me in less stigmatizing, pariah-like terms. So I see his clarification, in his mind at least, as a form of mea culpa or self-deprecation. He was conceding something, that, indeed, yes, maybe he was a racist but that he was more complicated than that and, most important, he wanted me to accept him and love him as my father. And, of course, that’s how it ended — all in a very WASPy unspoken way. Then he died, and I never spoke with him again.
All this simmered in me as I watched the Zimmerman trial, bouncing back and forth evenly between MSNBC and Fox News.
The trial seemed so incredibly inadequate and absurd to me that I planned to write a “modest proposal” essay in the form of a memo to the attorney representing New England Patriots star tight-end Aaron Hernandez, a University of Florida football hero charged with one gun murder and suspected of at least two others. I was going to suggest to Mr. Hernandez’s lawyer that he study the George Zimmerman defense, especially the notion that you can declare justifiable homicide when you shoot someone you had exhibited hostile intentions toward. If that person defends himself from your aggression, it’s OK to shoot him dead. And since the guy’s dead, he can’t testify.
“Look, it was like this. The guy was on the ground and he tried to kick at me. Hard! I feared for my life. I had no choice. It was me or him.” Hernandez might even do like George Zimmerman did with Sean Hannity and cozy up to Christians by saying the way things turned out was part of God’s plan. With some high-priced lawyering using histrionics and maybe even a rubber dummy with a kicking leg it’s not out of the realm of possibility to wedge open some key reasonable doubt space to set loose in the jury’s mind so they must arrive at an acquittal.
This is America. The land of opportunity. Do it right, and you have a good shot that Hernandez will walk. Unfortunately, the trial will be in Boston, a place now famous for FBI-protected killer celebrities like Whitey Bulger. It’s not Florida, a place where a killer can stand his ground and walk free.
But to realize what a really spooky place Florida is and what a crap shoot justice can be there, all one has to do is consider the all too real 2012 case of Marissa Alexander, a 31-year-old mother of three living in Jacksonville. Alexander had a protection order against her husband who had assaulted her in the past. One day in August 2010, to protect herself as he chased her around the house, she fired three rounds into a wall. Florida State Attorney Angela Corey — the same woman who oversaw the ineffectual prosecution of George Zimmerman — said Ms. Alexander, who is African American, was treated differently from Mr. Zimmerman because when she fired her weapon her kids were in the room.
Here’s where it gets really weird. Under Florida’s mysterious legal system, firing a gun in Ms. Alexander’s case meant a mandatory 20-year prison sentence, because a gun was used “during the commission of a crime” — even though she was apparently legitimately scared and only fired warning shots to protect herself. That is, she seems to have used a gun to stand her ground and didn’t hurt anyone in the process. But, then, in Zimmerman’s case, the same criminal justice system says, if you’re scared and feel the need to shoot a 17-year-old kid in the heart who was minding his own business — who you had been stupidly stalking — you walk free and clear because you were defending yourself after he stood his ground and was successfully defending himself against you.
No wonder comedic noir writers love the state so much.
Maybe there is some brilliant legal analysis from Ms. Corey to come whether if Ms. Alexander had decided to shoot her husband between the eyes she might have been able to successfully argue to a Florida judge and jury that she was standing her ground. I’m not holding my breath.
Watching the grief of Trayvon Martin’s parents as they listened to Don West aggressively question 19-year-old Rachel Jeantel about Trayvon Martin’s cell-phone reference to Zimmerman as a “crazy ass cracker” was the nadir for me. Thanks to Judge Nelson’s strictures it bizarrely seemed the only reference to race allowed in the trial. The term cracker, we’ve learned, comes from the plantation owner’s whip “cracking” against a “bad” nigger’s back. Sometimes, of course, the one doing the whipping was also black. I’ve heard Floridians refer, in a friendly cultural reference, to wooden houses of a certain age with porches on all four sides as “cracker houses.”
But in the world of Sean Hannity and Don West everything is different. That the Hispanic Zimmerman was glibly labeled “white” in a trial in which the discussion of race was precluded piles further absurdity onto the case. It should be clear the more apt identifying label for Zimmerman would be that he was a not-very-bright, self-appointed lawman acting too aggressively.
Again, one can only speculate how the minds of State Attorney Angela Corey and her prosecution team worked in this case. Maybe they honestly just didn’t get it. But one thing is clear about Florida’s criminal justice system: that system should have been on trial along with George Zimmerman.
There is, accordingly, one silver lining, here. The historic Zimmerman verdict leaves no restrictions on publicly damning the State of Florida for its part in this travesty.