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Trayvon Martin is dead, and George Zimmerman walked free two weeks ago. Is this justice? Is this racism? These questions may, ultimately, be unanswerable. Zimmerman might not be a racist, but his actions leading up to Martin’s death—Zimmerman with weapon in hand, stalking Martin through the streets, afraid of some phantom criminal who just turned out to be a black boy in a black hoody—aren’t sparklingly innocent. Admittedly, this crime wasn’t committed in a vacuum. Zimmerman operated within a larger cultural framework which views anyone black or poor as “threatening” and “dangerous” if they don’t or can’t assimilate into white, middle-class cultural norms. This is almost self-evident, given the way that the trial of George Zimmerman quickly degenerated into the trial of Trayvon Martin and his girlfriend, Rachel Jeantel, who found herself in the exasperating position of explaining black/white, rich/poor cultural differences to the defense. Only the radical left, it seems, grasped the injustice here, while libertarians remained typically silent. Those who profess to “love libery” often ignore the subtler forms of domination perpetrated by one culture over another, believing this kind of oppression to be “non-coercive” and therefore harmless in the long run. But Jeantel’s mistreatment, and the culture which permitted and even encouraged it, deserves repudiation—particularly by anyone laying claim to the title of “libertarian.” And no amount of strict propriety—of sticking to the letter of the law and ignoring the influence of culture—will suffice.
Victims on trial
This mistreatment is maybe best exemplified by the Great Cursive Revelation: Rachel Jeantel admitted to the court that she’s unable to read cursive, making her just like almost anyone else under the age of 40. However, this fact provoked the defense and from the (white, middle-class) general public into shock and outrage. To boot, Jeantel also initially refrained from mentioning that Martin had called Zimmerman (scandal of scandals) a “crazy-ass cracker” during their last phone call. She’s also been criticized for posting shots on Facebook of her “court nails,” and other such “ghetto” behavior.
All of this has been hashed and rehashed, by feminists and leftists of all stripes. But the only noise coming out of major libertarian mouths is in defense of Zimmerman. And even left-libertarian organizations have tended to be peculiarly silent on the subject of Martin’s death and Zimmerman’s acquittal. Two of the only libertarian articles which went beyond this case’s immediate verdict were posted by Thoughts on Liberty—a notably feminist website, and one of the few feminist libertarian publications out there. Why haven’t the supposed defenders of liberty, on the right and the left, been all over the Martin case and its implications for American race relations—and, therefore, for American liberty?
I don’t claim to have a better understanding of the specific facts of the case than the jury, the prosecution, the defense, or the defendant (not to mention the victim). But a court system, media, and popular culture which put a young woman on the stand only to mock her for her lack of formal learning, are in dire need of reevaluation and, possibly, restructuring. Why did Martin go “ground-and-pound, MMA-style” on Zimmerman, as Sean Hannity put it, when all Zimmerman did was follow him? Maybe because Martin grew up in a country where he knew that killing a black man tends to elicit little government investigation or adjudication, or even an arrest, as his own case would illustrate. Why did Jeantel not immediately call the police when she had at least an inkling of what was about to go down with her boyfriend? Maybe because she was aware, as many people of color have to be, of the dangers of getting the cops involved at all. As Rachel Samara put it, these are some issues and experiences that white people have a harder time grasping than do the people of color and of lower economic class who live them. In and out of court, Jeantel refused to apologize for her culture, her mannerisms, and her adversarial relationship with the State. She can’t read cursive, and she doesn’t seem to give a shit what you think. And maybe that’s what libertarians should be looking for in converts to the cause.
No more cursive, no more niceties
Rachel Jeantel’s vivacious refusal to conform to white, middle-class standards of education and propriety, framed defiantly against Trayvon Martin’s posthumous dissolution into just the image of his hoody and his skin, dominated much of the cultural dialogue over the case. But it was for all the wrong reasons. Articles on the tragic death of cursive proliferated, as if a young man hadn’t been shot to death, and his killer set free, for right or wrong. Why does Jeantel’s formal schooling matter on the stand? More importantly, what does it have to do with her worth as a person?
And why didn’t libertarian writers rush to criticize the way racist, classist, and sizeist (see also: this, this, and this) voices shaped the way Jeantel was treated, in and out of court? It may be an exercise of First Amendment rights to be a bigot, but it’s definitely not healthy for a society when language like the above goes unchallenged. Part of the First Amendment is its capacity for reflexivity: we need to criticize those who criticize without reason. We need to tear down injustices where and when we see them, whether or not their victims can read cursive.
In fact, fuck cursive. No more whining about cursive—no more politely sticking to whether “the Law” has been “adhered to”—no more limiting ourselves to discussions of the initiation of force, as if culture cannot influence and create the prerequisites for coercion. Rachel Jeantel’s “aggressiveness” and refusal to assimilate are assets, and nothing to be ashamed of. If anything, her attitude gives me hope that people outside the white, male, middle-class standard of libertarianism continue to develop their own strategies of resistance to power. The lesson of this case is not that black people are collectivists, or that the current administration has a grudge against George Zimmerman, or even that Zimmerman’s acquittal was a miscarriage of justice. More reflectively, it shows us that libertarians need to return to our roots: fighting classism and prejudice in every institution, public and private, working to create a culture more inclined to accept and even demand liberty.
Brendan Moore is a current undergraduate at Coe College, studying feminism, zen deconstructionism, poetry, Amanda Palmer, and Tori Amos. He currently lives in Las Vegas, and would like to help you smash the patriarchy.