What if Zimmerman had been a cop?

Many people have been asking the rhetorical question, “What if Zimmerman and Martin’s races had been reversed? Would a black man be allowed to ‘stand his ground’?” It’s obvious that the result would have been very, very different, and so this is a good way of highlighting the racism involved. Yet it seems to me to be a little too abstract. This isn’t about racism in general — it’s about the racist structure of law enforcement. We should be asking, “What if Zimmerman had been a cop?” And the answer is, if anything, more appalling: we probably never would have heard about this incident in the first place.

I don’t pretend to have exhaustive knowledge of the case, but the local police do not seem to have treated Zimmerman as just “some guy.” He was well known to them as a neighborhood watch volunteer and was in fact in radio contact with them when carrying out his “duties.” He clearly wanted very much to be in law enforcement — and his idea of what law enforcement does in this country is to control the black population by keeping them within their designated areas. We talk about the “militarization” of the police, and in addition to all the ridiculous weapons they now equip themselves with, they appear to think of their encounters with the black community in terms of a war. Ideally, the “rule of engagement” would prevent the deaths of innocents, but at the end of the day, you’d rather that an enemy teenager die than one of your own guys be over-cautious and wind up dead.

If an actual cop had shot Trayvon Martin, he wouldn’t have been arrested, either. There would have been protests, but there would have been no national attention and no trial. But this only happened because the local police in Sanford, Florida, appeared to regard Zimmerman as more or less one of their own — hence he walked away, hence he got a lackluster prosecution, etc. This isn’t just about some crazy white dude who up and shot a black teenager, nor is it simply about white people’s fear of black people. This is about the structure of the police violence that devestates the black community every day.

It was only Zimmerman’s self-appointed “unpaid internship” as a cop that allowed this event to register in the national discourse as something “wrong,” and that unofficial status risks obscuring the real stakes here. The problem isn’t just that Zimmerman was white and Trayvon Martin was black (as we’ve heard endlessly, actually Zimmerman is Hispanic…) — the problem is that Zimmerman was effectively a cop and Trayvon Martin was black.

8 thoughts on “What if Zimmerman had been a cop?

  1. Excellent insight, Adam. The legal result would have been in line with Zimmerman being a cop, in which case he would have had the authority to perform the initial actions that lead to the confrontation. And in that case, resisting the officer in that way would have prima facie justified Zimmerman’s response. Perhaps too many people are thinking of Zimmerman in terms of being a cop?

    Since I’m in Texas, most people I meet outside of academia (liberals) side with Zimmerman and are shocked that I would do otherwise.

  2. ^ Following up on Jason’s comment, I’d argue — and I think this is perhaps where Adam was going with this — that even if there were clear evidence to support the interpretation of events most unfavorable to Zimmerman (that he tracked Martin on foot, did not identify himself, deliberately initiated a violent confrontation, etc.), if Zimmerman were a cop, he would have been unlikely to suffer any consequences whatsoever. At worst, if the protests were long-lasting and intense enough, perhaps a brief suspension pending investigation.

    As an aside, I’d been thinking of the cop thing from a different angle — that the only way I could see the events unfolding in anything close to the same way, if the races of Z and M were reversed, would be if the “black Zimmerman” were a cop (even off-duty). Even then, I’m not entirely sure it would go smoothly for Z.

  3. In New York, things like this involving cops do in fact happen all the time, though of course not usually resulting in death. Here, where the openly illegal stop-and-frisk policy is an ongoing issue, two mayoral candidates today explicitly compared Zimmerman’s actions and his acquittal to stop-and-frisk. One, de Blasio, ostensibly disagreed by saying “I think they’re very different. GZ was a vigilante… Zimmerman had no authority to do what he did.” This was supposed to be a rejection of the comparison, but it actually expresses Adam’s point perfectly–as if Zimmerman having the authority would’ve made it okay.

  4. There was an incident not too long ago in Rochester where a black neighborhood watch named Roderick Scott fatally shot an unarmed 17-year-old white male named Christopher Cervini, and was acquitted on the grounds of self-defense. I don’t see a whole lot of difference between this case and the Zimmerman trial except that the races were reversed; no information is available (that I’ve found!) about how long it took for Scott to be arrested or for charges to be pressed. But the drastic difference in public reaction seems telling about our assumptions and priorities about race and racism; we’re a long ways away from being color-blind.


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