The Zimmerman Trial and the Tribulations of the American Environment


A 2012 New York City rally in Union Square. David Shankbone photo
A 2012 New York City rally in Union Square. David Shankbone photo

Discussion of the George Zimmerman case (and the criminal justice system) and a concurrent discussion of the environment seem to exist in parallel, disconnected universes.  But these narrative universes are integrally connected in a larger discourse of resentment about the “protection” of and non-interference in white property based on a radical race-based individualism.  So Trayvon Martin wasn’t where he was supposed to be/allowed and was a legitimate target.  Government, in collusion with people of color, is perceived to be interfering— even stealing through its meager efforts at wealth redistribution, civil rights enforcement or environmental regulation—with the hard won wealth that rightly belongs to white owners of property

 David Correia’s manifesto for the new La Jicarita calls for attention to the disconnection between these two registers when he writes: “Because the barrios in Albuquerque, swelled in the last fifteen years with the ranks of young people fleeing the forced economic depression in northern New Mexico, have become a racialized killing field for the Albuquerque Police Department, we need to rethink the relationship between the city and country and between violence and environmental politics.”

This essay focuses on two related linkages that the Zimmerman Trial raises for the sort of environmental politics that Correia (informed by an array of environmental justice struggles) calls for. The first linkage is that between the forces and agendas behind the recent expansion of “Stand Your Ground” laws and a wider array of legislative (i.e. regulatory) assaults on environmental regulation, exemplified by groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).  The second linkage, which conditions the first, is the set of philosophical and practical commitments to American concepts of “self” and “environment” that shape struggles for environmental and social justice in foundational ways. This second linkage can be illuminated by thinking through the ways the Zimmerman trial and the reactionary assault on the already limited possibilities for environmental and social justice seek to shape and define reality around a sense of white national anxiety and insecurity. In the process, realities are produced wherein a sense of insecurity legally sanctions a civic volunteer to follow and shoot an unarmed black teenager who was out to buy skittles and iced tea from a corner store, or where the value of corporate property and profit drives government agendas to regulate development in ways that minimize the costs of production by maximizing social and environmental devastation and abandonment.

On February 26, 2012, Trayvon Martin was walking through the neighborhood where George Zimmerman lived and played the role of neighborhood watch captain. This role involved being armed and skeptically appraising every body that appeared on the streets of the neighborhood as a potential threat. Martin, a 17-year old black high school student, was walking through the neighborhood to buy snacks from a local convenience store. Zimmerman saw Martin walking along the sidewalk and called the police (something he had previously done over forty times, often to complain about the presence of black men he perceived as threats). The police operator told Zimmerman not to pursue Martin, but Zimmerman decided against following this advice and set out, armed, to confront Martin. An altercation ensued, the dynamics of which were the subject of the legal arguments and deliberations of the trial, and Zimmerman shot Martin and left him dead in the street—an established fact not under scrutiny in the trial.

The legal apparatus of the state of Florida focused the arguments of the trial on narrow questions of the affective state of Zimmerman when he was undertaking the actions that resulted in Martin’s death. More specifically, of all the wide ranging issues and questions the incident raises, what the court instructed jurors to focus on was whether or not the evidence presented in court could disprove that Zimmerman believed himself to be in danger from Martin. This basis of deliberation is provided by the ALEC-sponsored Florida Stand Your Ground law through which Zimmerman’s actions were interpreted by the court (the defense did not rely strongly on the laws, but it was invoked by the judge). The “Use of force by aggressor” section states that an aggressor (i.e. the person in Zimmerman’s position) cannot justifiably harm someone if the aggressor “Initially provokes the use of force against himself or herself, unless: (a) Such force is so great that the person reasonably believes that he or she is in imminent danger of death or great bodily harm.”

The jury’s verdict absolving Zimmerman of guilt, bound as it was by the interpretive frames of the law, confirmed that the evidence presented in court could not absolutely disprove Zimmerman’s claim that he reasonably believed himself to be in such a condition of “imminent danger.” This is stated explicitly in the instructions given to the jury by the court (emphasis added):

 In deciding whether George Zimmerman was justified in the use of deadly force, you must judge him by the circumstances by which he was surrounded at the time the force was used. The danger facing George Zimmerman need not have been actual; however, to justify the use of deadly force, the appearance of danger must have been so real that a reasonably cautious and prudent person under the same circumstances would have believed that the danger could be avoided only through the use of that force. Based upon appearances, George Zimmerman must have actually believed that the danger was real.

 If George Zimmerman was not engaged in an unlawful activity and was attacked in any place where he had a right to be, he had no duty to retreat and had the right to stand his ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he reasonably believed that it was necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.

 What is remarkable about the trial is not so much that Zimmerman was acquitted, but that there was really no other possible outcome given the legal and judicial constraints that protect violence more than pursue justice, even in the narrowest sense of the word. The laws enshrine Zimmerman’s fear of property violation by young black men as a principle that justifies the use of deadly force. The defense’s “evidence” of Martin’s status as a threat hinged on the argument that Martin’s body, in combination with the urban environment, constituted a threat of imminent harm to life and property (the defense went so far as to state that Martin had “armed” himself with the concrete sidewalk, making Zimmerman out to be the victim).

In his article provocatively titled “Zimmerman is a Domestic Drone”, Vijay Prashad argues that Zimmerman’s role of securing domestic property from Martin and other perceived “threats” is the analogue for drone operators securing the homeland from people targeted by the Bush and Obama administrations. Both of these American operatives can kill with impunity, but as Prashad points out: “Zimmerman and the drone operators fire the shot – but the ideology comes from above their pay grade.”

Robin D.G. Kelley’s analysis of the case gestures to the socio-historical horizon of this ideology: “The point is that justice was always going to elude Trayvon Martin, not because the system failed, but because it worked.  Martin died and Zimmerman walked because our entire political and legal foundations were built on an ideology of settler colonialism—an ideology in which the protection of white property rights was always sacrosanct; predators and threats to those privileges were almost always black, brown, and red; and where the very purpose of police power was to discipline, monitor, and contain populations rendered a threat to white property and privilege.  This has been the legal standard for African Americans and other racialized groups in the U.S. long before ALEC or the NRA came into being.”

Together Kelley and Prashad bring out the historical and geographical context shaping the Zimmerman trial that might otherwise be subsumed within the sheer brute normalized existence of racial violence immanent in American concepts and feelings of “security.” Kelley is wise to remind us that this is much more socially and historically entrenched than just the ALEC/NRA agenda. In thinking about what the case provokes for a more expansive environmental politics, starting from ALEC’s assault on environmental regulation and drawing out connections to U.S. settler colonialism is as good a place as any to start .

Much of ALEC’s legislative agenda seeks to reform government institutions driven by the fantasy of the rugged individual, master of his own domain who answers to nobody. The Stand Your Ground laws, with their echoes of frontier (anti-Indian) and plantation (anti-Black) militia-vigilantism, partake in this concept of the world. Man and the objects of his domain are sacred and not to be profaned by the intrusions of Nature and Others from which he stands apart. If this sacred sphere is threatened, as much in the feelings of the owner-citizen as in actuality, then unleashing violence becomes the means for regaining a sense of control and safety. Of course, there is no brute emotional or affective “truth” to feeling threatened that is not already shot through by socio-symbolic mediation, as the tightly bound links between race, property, and fear demonstrate again and again.

ALEC’s anti-environmental regulation agenda also delineates a socio-symbolic and material rift between the sacred sphere of property, with its capacity to accumulate the world as mere bits and pieces of profit-fodder, and the profanities of environmental regulation in its various forms. Recently, ALEC has written a slew of legislation that seeks to eviscerate even the limited forms of environmental regulation achieved in the U.S.  The “Private Property Protection Act” seeks to redefine government regulations (environmental, zoning, land use, etc.) as takings that reduce the market value of private property, and outlines a process by which taxpayers, via the government, must pay property owners for the money-value lost by regulation. This is little more than a re-commodification of aspects of environmental well-being that have been ever-so-minimally removed from the dictates of capital. Additional laws have been written to completely get rid of any local land use regulation and planning (e.g. the legislative attempt in New Mexico to disallow prohibitions on oil and gas development), and specific bills aim to remove greenhouse gas regulation and any related form of limitation on capitalist profiteering out of concern for global climate change. The “Right to Farm Act” has nothing to offer the rights of farm labor or small farmers, focused entirely on exempting large-scale industrial operations from being accountable for pollution and other negative effects on the eco- and hydrological systems in which they are embedded.

The “self” defended in the Zimmerman trial was certainly not Trayvon Martin’s self, which was deemed killable under the law. It was not exactly the self of Zimmerman either, but the generalized “self” of the anxious property owners who fear the generalized “others” who threaten the rights and privileges of ownership bestowed unequally throughout the United State’s racial fiefdom. While ALEC and the reactionary right froth at the mouth about undeserving racialized and gendered others who drain that nation’s vitality though entitlement programs, they never question their presumed entitlement to accumulate wealth at great cost to everything else in the world. The national edifice of U.S. settler colonialism, forged through the dispossession and subjugation of Native and Black peoples, has been significantly transformed through centuries of intra- and international struggle. But its brutal realities in turn transform and resurface again and again: legally killable black people; legally sanctioned energy extraction and production routed from Native lands transformed into settler property; a legally protected grid of gated communities lorded over by armed elites who subsist anxiously and greedily off the labor and lands of others.

The protected “self” at the core of the U.S. legal system has, for centuries, proven to be less capacious in its ability to expand freedom and justice than it so loudly proclaims itself to be. Given this track record, political mobilization aimed at instantiating a different ethical order is necessary. The emotions and beliefs protected in the Zimmerman trial and the broader assault on communities and ecologies in the U.S. arise from an anxious ideology that seeks to constantly secure itself from the world while greedily appropriating its material substance. In a world under the sway of such an ideology, we should not fear bringing forward other emotions and beliefs.  Wonder, for example, could replace anxiety, and generosity could replace greed. The outpouring of protest that followed the verdict, in cities from Oakland and Los Angeles, to Albuquerque and Houston, to Chicago and New York, did in fact raise just these sentiments and beliefs. A tweet circulated recently expresses this well: “How cool would it be to live in a world where George Zimmerman offered Trayvon Martin a ride home to get him out of the rain that night?” Unfortunately, we will never be able to know how cool it would have been because that is not the world we live in. But we can wonder about how to build that world, and how to play a role in making the world a more livable place for those who are subject to an array of social and environmental vulnerabilities. For any and all who value having a world to live in that has ample generosity to share between human and nonhuman others, the task of reframing the environmental politics in relation to the politics of race and social justice remains as urgent as ever.

As a provisional conclusion to the issues brought out by the deadly interchange between Zimmerman and Martin, the trial has little to offer to the many people living under an empire in decline. The Right has already reacted to the possibility of federal prosecution led by Barack Obama and Eric Holder with the full thrust of racially inflected anti-government hatred. Yet, the Right mistakes the President and his administration for something they are not. While it seems likely that the NAACP will be successful in bringing forward a federal case that will admit discussion of race as relevant to what happened to Martin, no single U.S. court verdict will undo white supremacy in the ways the Right fears. Relatedly, the vitriolic rhetoric that declaims Obama’s EPA as an agency that works to redistribute wealth through the principles of environmental justice is (unfortunately) absurd. Mitt Romney spun this tale a number of times during his campaign. One line—“President Obama promised to slow the rise of the oceans and to heal the planet. My promise is to help you and your family.”—met with fervent crowd cheers. But, in the present conjuncture, Obama’s promises to address issues of racial and environmental justice are more dangerous than they are helpful to grassroots struggles insofar as they contain the possibilities of politics within narrow discussions hamstrung by the arid visions of liberals and conservatives alike.

Meanwhile, on a warming planet, the trigger fingers of vigilantes and police across the U.S. are itching for confrontation. From the cities and towns of high desert river valleys experiencing drought conditions that could cripple them over the long term to the coastal cities that will begin to flood in coming years as global warming continues unabated, creating forms of security not achieved through the barrel of a gun or the missiles of a drone become more necessary than ever.



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