Op-ed: Where Trayvon Martin and Matthew Shepard Collide

By Michelle Garcia

Originally published on Advocate.com July 16 2013 4:00 AM ET

I could not watch the George Zimmerman trial.

Look, it was great when the mainstream media, including this website, started to pick up on the case. When people from across the country banded together to encourage the Florida judicial system to take on the case of a young unarmed black man, gunned down by a member of the local neighborhood watch who claimed that he was using "self defense" to "stand his ground." Even though he was told by authorities to leave the young man alone, to which Zimmerman apparently countered, "They always get away." Sounded pretty open-and-shut to me.

But then they chose a jury, comprised of people who would most likely not empathize with Martin. Inquiries about lessening Zimmerman's sentence were pitched. There were questions as to whether they could use a toxicology report, showing that Martin had smoked marijuana, the least violence-inducing drug of all. Then there was America's collective mocking of star witness Rachel Jeantel, and the defense attorneys beating up on a black crash test dummy. And, let's face it, this case was being tried in the American South. Florida, in particular.

So no, I did not have the stomach to watch this trial, because I knew how it would end. Zimmerman being found not guilty on Saturday evening essentially upheld "black panic." Sort of like gay panic: the defense that a person experiences a sort of temporary insanity because he or she was the target of advances by someone of the same sex, causing them to be so frightened that they simply had to murder the supposed perpetrator.

Even with federal hate crime laws in tact, I cringe whenever a murder case like this goes to trial. I'm reminded of the murder of Lawrence King, the 15-year-old boy in middle school who not only was discovering his sexual orientation, but also celebrating it, to the point that it made Brandon McInerney so uncomfortable that he shot him point-blank, in class.  

Just as we know Zimmerman shot Martin, we know that McInerney shot King. But that wasn't really the legal question. Instead, the motive was the thing. Never mind that a child's life was taken from him. McInerney claimed he felt so humiliated when King flirted with him in front of other classmates, that he felt it was permissible to kill him. And even though McInerney was sentenced to decades in prison, every dirty, damning detail of King's life was dragged into public light.

Martin's murder reminds me of the murders of Matthew Shepard, Marco McMillian, Angie Zapata, Ali Forney, Brandon Teena, Sakia Gunn, and Gwen Araujo. All young people, many of whom were also people of color, targeted and murdered simply for walking down the street; for answering a hookup ad on a website; for living as a transgender person. And sometimes, their killers — that's if their killers were identified and brought to trial, by the way — used the good old gay panic or trans panic defense.

In honor of the 15th anniversary of the brutal murder of another teenager needlessly slain, Matthew Shepard, the American Bar Association is considering making the so-called gay-panic defense a thing of the past. Sadly, the Zimmerman trial has left this country still so divided that it will certainly not prompt the end of the black-panic defense. Too many people empathize with Zimmerman for things to change. I believe other people see themselves in his situation and think, "I would have been scared, too" or "I would have shot him, too."

Honestly, I really don't care about how Zimmerman identifies racially or ethnically. So what if he is part Hispanic? So am I. That doesn't make him less paranoid, biased, or filled with hatred. The fact of the matter is that a black teenage boy was murdered for walking down the street because he appeared to be menacing. As a 5'3" woman, I don't want to be alone on the street in the dark with any unknown man, of any color either. That doesn't mean I have the right to shoot any guy walking around West Los Angeles in a hoodie—maybe I should join our neighborhood watch first, if I'm going to carry out that sort of task. But if this sort of "man panic" were truly permissible, we'd have a lot more women aiming guns at men who get off on shouting rudeness from cars, following them for blocks, or walking intimidatingly close to them. But even then, would the man-panic defense only be permissible for a certain few?

Take for instance the case of Marissa Alexander, a college-educated black woman with a clean record from Florida who exercised her state's Stand Your Ground Law, by firing two warning shots at the ceiling to keep her allegedly abusive husband away from her. No one was harmed, but she's headed to jail for 20 years because that jury said she was guilty of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. Twenty!

Martin's and Alexander's congresswoman, Rep. Corrine Brown, says that Florida's Stand Your Ground Law is clearly, inherently biased.

"If women who are victims of domestic violence try to protect themselves, the Stand Your Ground Law will not apply to them," Brown said. She added, "If you are black, the system will treat you differently."

When I see Trayvon Martin, I see the old white women who clutch their purses and cower when I (yes, nerdy old me!) pass them on the street. I see a boy who could be my son. I see my uncles and cousins. I see my father, my grandfather, and the fathers who precede them. I see the families of LGBT people left behind after senseless acts took countless lives, with little to no legal recourse. And I see Trayvon Martin's parents, Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin, a mother and father who are undoubtedly still grieving at the loss of their son, no matter who threw the first punch, who pulled the trigger, and who said what in those fleeting moments.

 

EDITOR'S NOTE: The column previously stated, "then they chose a jury, none of whom were Martin's peers,"  which is incorrect; the jury should be Zimmerman's peers. The story has been updated to reflect that.

MICHELLE GARCIA is The Advocate's commentary editor. She lives in Los Angeles. Follow her at @GarciaReporting