With George Zimmerman released, much of the attention on the trial surrounds Florida’s “stand your ground” law and determining who “instigated” the violence. Much of the case is seen to hinge on this question, for, so it is assumed, whoever threw the first punch is the aggressor here.
I want to suggest otherwise, that Martin entered a scene of violence and aggression from the moment Zimmerman laid eyes on him. Minimally, I will show that the “script” of the scene–revealed in the transcript of Zimmerman’s 911 call and the account of Martin’s phone call to his girlfriend–is filled with indicators that Martin had already been reduced to the status of mindless, hostile flesh, devoid of will and reason, or subjectivity, from the outset. He existed in this scene, before Zimmerman’s eyes, under negation, as a negation, as that which has no part in but threatens the civilized order of law and of life.
In Zimmerman, we have an armed man who seemingly identifies himself with the law (neighborhood watch) to the point where “the law” and “his will” coincide (he also reportedly wanted to be a police officer). He is sovereign in this scene, seeing, interpreting, and evaluating every detail, without hesitation or question: “something’s wrong with him” Zimmerman says, with no qualification (no “I think” or “maybe” even). Zimmerman’s sovereignty is further displayed by his choice to ignore the dispatcher, who tells him not to chase Martin.
“Looking” is quite important to Zimmerman. He sees this suspicious kid who looks like he’s up to no good. Notice again the objective vision (not looks to me but just looks). In contrast to this discerning, objective vision assumed by Zimmerman, Martin (to Zimmerman’s eyes) is “just walking around, looking about,” empty-minded, unfocused, presumably on drugs, “just staring…looking at all the houses.” When Martin turns his eyes on Zimmerman, Zimmerman does not acknowledge this as a reciprocated look but as a continuation of the mindless staring: “now he’s just staring at me.”
The repetitive “just” empties out Martin’s volition and conscious thought, reducing him to mere responsive flesh. He’s not a subject with reason and will but merely a body responding to stimuli: just walking, just staring, just looking, just staring. However, when Martin approaches–that is, forces Zimmerman to acknowledge that he actually sees Zimmerman–this approach is seen as hostile, as Zimmerman notes that Martin’s hand is hidden in his waistband. He also at this precise moment notes that Martin doesn’t just look but is black. Yet, even at this point, Martin’s approach still remains, to Zimmerman, unquestionably irrational (“I don’t know what his deal is”–which doesn’t mean that he recognizes the potential for a motive yet to be understood but again affirms his conviction that Martin lacks such a thing as rational motive).
Martin, in contrast, quite correctly sees the situation and attempts to escape. When physically cornered, he again tries to get Zimmerman to exit his position of sovereignty, challenging him “why are you following me”? Instead of taking this invitation to acknowledge Martin’s reasonable fear, Zimmerman ignores it and demands Martin tell him what he’s doing here.
So, here we have a young black man being cornered by an armed man who identifies himself with the law and who cannot see a teen boy engaged in mundane activities but only a drug-crazed, mindless, criminal, threatening body. You have this happen in a country with a legacy of slavery, the criminalization of black persons after abolition for prison labor, Jim Crow, lynching, and the current criminalization of black youth. It is not a scene “before” violence but is already, abundantly violent. From the moment Martin entered this scene–came before Zimmerman’s sight–he was brutally reduced to a sheer thing, deemed irrational and crimi. Martin’s two attempts to reframe the scene and interrupt this script (looking and approaching Zimmerman, then verbally demanding Zimmerman account for himself) were ignored.
In this context, trying to determine “who threw the first punch” to account for who was “the aggressor” is just absurd. Martin had already been negated as a community member, as a person with reason and will, and therefore as someone with rights or whose life “counted.” His efforts to resist this negation were refused, and he was physically cornered. There, cornered, before a punch has been thrown or a gun fired, Trayvon Martin stood, already under assault, facing an armed man who takes himself to be an extension of the law and who had continually refused to see in Trayvon someone with a socially meaningful life.
Justice for Trayvon Martin means in part–and this is only part but, I think, an essential part–recognizing the determinative racial violence in this scene. The pursuit of justice demands we ask what it would take–socially, ethically, and legally–to ensure that Trayvon Martin did not–and other Black children do not–have to encounter such forces of social negation.