At around the same time that I read the news of George Zimmerman’s acquittal, 4 people were shot just up the road from the house here in Guatemala, as they were commuting in the same truck that Glendi’s siblings usually take to go pick coffee. A 7 year-old girl and her 16 year-old brother died in their mother’s arms. A man who was shot in the groin ended up losing both of his legs. If Zimmerman’s trial sent the message that black lives don’t matter—which it did—then what of these campesinos, whose deaths will not even lead to an arrest?
There is a connection here, between what is happening in Guatemala and what happened to Trayvon Martin in Florida—which itself is just a brutal extension of the profiling and violence that youth of color face across the United States. There are layers of lessons here, but to see them all we have to go beyond the easy conclusions about race and fear. We have to be willing to step beyond simple liberal outrage and even self-identification with Zimmerman’s fears of black masculinity. Of course, there is truth at that level, but if we want to just wallow there we might as well just loop Ludacris’ scenes from the movie Crash over and over on top of the cable news coverage and we’ll have all the in-depth analysis we need. People across our planet have been taught to fear black people. Yes, it’s absolutely true. I am absolutely included. But that is not all this is about.
What Zimmerman did wasn’t just the tragic overreaction of a scared and damaged man, and his acquittal wasn’t just a lone aberration of justice. Zimmerman’s trial was a personalized example of a deep yet unspoken U.S. doctrine: that disproportionate and deadly force is entirely justified in order to defend American comfort from even the slightest rumblings of The Other. Trayvon Martin was an outsider in a gated community, and he made Zimmerman uncomfortable. When Zimmerman acted on that racist discomfort and confronted Martin, Martin did what no Other is allowed to do, he responded naturally with appropriate defensiveness to a threatening and abusive person. That is, Martin stepped out of his place, and Florida law gave Zimmerman the legal right to defend himself—which is to say, defend his sense of entitlement and comfort—and he killed Martin right there.
Those of us North Americans who live comfortably in our privileges find it easy to shake our heads and pout our lips. We can cry for Trayvon and we can wear black solidarity hoodies. We can wring our hands and acknowledge the fearful Zimmerman that lives in all of us. I personally have no qualms with these responses. I must and will acknowledge my own racism and my place in propping up such a racist order. But let’s be real. What Zimmerman thought he was doing for his neighborhood is basically what happens each time our country sends out a drone strike, sponsors a coup, or authorizes an ICE raid. Self-defense. Standing our ground. The comfort levels of those that matter must be defended, at all costs to The Other.
What Zimmerman did was scarcely different from what the powerful have continued to do to Guatemala since well before 1954: strike out at even the slightest sign of justified self-defense with completely disproportionate brutality. The consequence of Zimmerman’s actions and acquittal is a U.S. environment where the lesser value–the Otherness–of black people’s lives has been re-affirmed, even by legal institutions. The simmering consequence of these same dynamics in Guatemala is that Glendi’s friends, neighbors, family members all have been touched by countless deaths that no one outside of these communities even cares about. They are just another permanent Other on the world stage. They pick our coffee and our bananas, but they are easily replaced.
If there is any truth to the connections that I’m making, then any calls for post-trial racial healing and introspection ring hollow without a far deeper soul-searching. If we are so interested in healing, are we willing to relinquish our comforts so that we can take our bloody boot off the necks of half the planet? Are we willing to stand down our drones and our bases and militarized police forces?
No? Am I being too extreme, too rhetorical? Then how convenient, and how useless so much chatter about one trial in Florida.