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.