Saturday, July 13, 2013

A Cry in the Dark

“Whose little boy are you?”
― James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time


Sixteen months ago, I commented - because I felt I had to comment - on the incidents in Sanford, Florida surrounding the death by homicide of Trayvon Martin. "Homicide" is the correct term in this case, since [pardon me, dear reader, for dragging in a legal definition] it is legally defined as "the killing of one human being by another human being." The legal definition continues:

"Although the term homicide is sometimes used synonymously with murder, homicide is broader in scope than murder. Murder is a form of criminal homicide; other forms of homicide might not constitute criminal acts. These homicides are regarded as justified or excusable. For example, individuals may, in a necessary act of Self-Defense, kill a person who threatens them with death or serious injury, or they may be commanded or authorized by law to kill a person who is a member of an enemy force or who has committed a serious crime. Typically, the circumstances surrounding a killing determine whether it is criminal. The intent of the killer usually determines whether a criminal homicide is classified as murder or Manslaughter and at what degree."

At the moment of this writing, twelve hours behind from my current time zone, the jury in the George Zimmerman trial for second degree murder is sequestered. It is getting late in Florida, and if they are being conscientious, those six women in the jury should be up late into this July night.

Sixteen months ago, I gave my comments on the taking of Trayvon Martin's life by George Zimmerman, which has never been in doubt, the title The Fire This Time. I was making reference to the title of James Baldwin's book-length essay, The Fire Next Time. Baldwin was quoting an old American hymn, "God gave Noah the rainbow sign,/No more water, the fire next time!" He was intimating that the racism that is deeply rooted in American culture will eventually end in disaster unless the problem is confronted and unless something is done about it.

The trial of George Zimmerman, which is about to end with a verdict, has taken place only because of the outcry of enough people when it became obvious that the state of Florida was not going to even bother charging Zimmerman with a crime. Despite the outcry against the obvious racial elements of the crime, the participants in the trial have been careful not to use the words "racial" or "racist". To some white people, Zimmerman was merely defending himself against Martin's alleged assault on him. He was "standing his ground". But to many black people, the simple presumption that Martin, dead on the sidewalk from a pistol shot to the heart, was the guilty one - not the man who pursued him that rainy night and had a confrontation with him that ended with a fatal gunshot. Black people perceive this as an essential racial element of the crime.

There is a splendid Australian film called Evil Angels in Australia and New Zealand, after the book of the same title, and A Cry in the Dark in the U.S. The film tells the "true" story of how Azaria Chamberlain, nine-week-old daughter of Lindy and Michael Chamberlain, was killed by a dingo in 1980. Without a body, and with a public turned hysterically against the Chamberlains by tabloid publicity, Lindy was put on trial for murder and found guilty. Late in her pregnancy, she is sentenced to life imprisonment at hard labor. Three years later, a small piece of a baby's clothing is found near a dingo's lair, and lab tests prove it was a l
knitted" matinee jacket" worn by Azaria on the night she disappeared. A new trial is convened with this evidence, and Lindy is aquitted and released from prison. 

The title of the film in its release outside Australia and New Zealand is a direct rebuke to everyone in the film who was so intent on establishing the validity of their interpretations of the truth. The truth is that one dark night in the Australian outback, a nine-week-old baby was killed by a dingo. Whatever happens to George Zimmerman, or to the judge and jury in his trial, and all the lawyers on both sides intent on establishing their own version of the events on the night of February 26, 2012, when a 17-year-old boy, while returning to his father's apartment with an iced tea and candy he's just bought at a convenience store, was shot to death by an armed neighborhood watchman. What does it matter whose voice it was on the 9-1-1 call, screaming for his life, when it was the only electronic record of the event of a killing in which the victim and the perpetrator are known?

I have been sickened by all of the legal talk on the news channels over this trial. Lawyers have done nothing but cavil over legal details, as if there were nothing more to consider, as if life and death are reducible to arcane statutory intricacies. By the legal interpretation, the trial is already over - Zimmerman has not been proven guilty, "beyond a reasonable doubt" of second degree murder. But to believe that George Zimmerman did not commit a criminal act is to believe that he was like the iceberg that sank the Titanic. Instead of leaving his car and hunting down Trayvon Martin, which is what must have happened, George Zimmerman was just standing there, minding his own business, when he and Martin collided.

Worlds collided that night, which is why the whole world has been captivated by the trial of George Zimmerman, and why so many people, all over the world, nervously await the verdict.

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