AFRICANGLOBE – An armed neighbourhood vigilante, George Zimmerman, was recently acquitted of the murder of an unarmed teenager, Trayvon Martin. The Zimmerman-Martin case has been followed closely by millions around the world, including people in Africa. The case captured global attention because it combines an intriguing narrative of murder, economic disparities, stereotyping, gun culture, injustice, law and race in United State of America. It has continued to spark protests, essays, editorials and conversations centred on African-Americans in the American justice system.
The African media has not paid adequate attention to the case. Although this case took place in the USA, at the heart of the case is a murdered young descendant of the African continent.
In February of 2012, an unarmed African-American teenager, Martin went to the store. On his way home he was followed by Zimmerman, an armed overzealous White Hispanic vigilante neighbourhood watch person.
Through records from the 911 calls and witness accounts, we can begin to piece together some of the events of the night. Zimmerman followed Martin because he felt that the boy appeared “suspicious” but was told not to pursue him. According to the 911 records, Zimmerman explained to the dispatcher that:
“This guy looks like he’s up to no good or he’s on drugs or something,” Zimmerman told the dispatcher.
“It’s raining, and he’s just walking around looking about.” The man tried to explain where he was. “Now he’s coming towards me. He’s got his hand in his waistband. And he’s a Black male . . . Something’s wrong with him. Yup, he’s coming to check me out. He’s got something in his hands. I don’t know what his deal is . . .” — MotherJones.com
An alleged fight occurred between Zimmerman and Martin which resulted in Zimmerman shooting Martin. He claimed he shot Martin in self-defence. A year later, a jury consisting of five White women and one Hispanic woman voted unanimously that Zimmerman acted in self-defence and that he was justified in using deadly force against Trayvon Martin.
Africa’s Response to the Case:
African reaction to the Martin case in the media and press has been largely sparse. This is surprising in light of the case’s connection to the continent. So far, there have been some commentaries on social media and a handful of articles weighing in on the case. Generally, little attention has been paid to the case.
Little has been written about the death of Martin and its direct connection to the continent. Africans have expressed little solidarity with the African-American community in this case: the African Union has not issued any statements criticising the treatment of African descendants in the US justice system.
Few African newspaper editors have dedicated space for this case and there have been no protests in front of any of the 30-plus American embassies in Africa. However, the fate of the descendants of involuntary African migrants is connected to Africa in fundamental ways. These connections and their significance need to be highlighted.
The Politics of Location and Lenses
The Trayvon Martin case was tragic for all Americans and also tragic for Africans. When such incidents occur, it is important that Africans voices are heard and connected to the African-American community. Africans should care about the Trayvon Martin case because the fate of African-Americans is the story of African descendants.
Both communities have common roots and can learn from each other’s experiences. African immigrants in America in particular should pay greater attention to the case — they share common experiences. Trayvon, after all, could have been any one of the African males living in or visiting the US.
There are clear reasons why African-Americans have been vested in this case: they were seeking justice. It may be less apparent for some why Africans should care. Even though the plight of African-Americans is often seen as a domestic issue, issues concerning the involuntary migrants that make up the African Diaspora should concern Africans on and off the continent.
The lens used to view African-Americans is the same lens used to view all African people. When Zimmerman saw Martin, he was looking at him through a socially constructed lens of colour and race. Africans and their descendants typically have darker skin tones which have been used as a social determinant of status. In places where Africa and Europe interacted, lasting racial hierarchies developed that placed darker skinned people at the bottom.
Colour became the foundation for all interactions with people, Black or White. In Africa, this often takes the form of Africans awarding White “bwanas” with privileges not awarded to the majority of their citizens. At times, it manifests through treating members of a darker neighbouring ethnic group with suspicion.
These dynamics are also the case in America and what guided Zimmerman when deciding on how to treat Martin — with suspicion or trust.
White males are seen as individuals that possess emotion and intelligence. Historically, their aggression has often been presented and seen as justified because they are deemed to be protecting order, property or self.
Black males on the other hand are often presented and seen as a danger to property, order, and other individuals — the exact opposite. As such, their aggression — real or perceived — is seen as threatening. They become an archetype that is reduced to colour and all its associations — stripped of emotion, intelligence, and individuality.
As a result, aggression against Black males is often rationalised as necessary to keep order, protect property, and preserve life.
When Zimmerman was confronted with a Black male, the lens he drew on first was based on colour. This same logic and lens was used in other cases.