Chief Lee’s Peculiar Confidence and the Troubling Role of Race in the Story of Trayvon Martin

I have continued following the Trayvon Martin case in the news since my previous writings on it. I continue to find it very upsetting on a number of levels–especially as the reports attempt to present the racial strands of this story as if they are marginal or obstructive. Race though, is quite central to this tale. In this case, race informs how membership in a community is constructed and who gets imagined as belonging. Race informed the way that George Zimmerman described Trayvon Martin to the 911 dispatcher. And what interests me about today’s headlines is how race works in tandem with il(logic). To that end, I do not understand the temporarily sidelined Sanford police chief Bill Lee Jr.’s failure to understand the poor work that his Department performed. Here is a brief sample of his remarks as they are integrated into an article in The New York Times:

Chief Lee, whose resignation was not accepted by the City Commission last month, said in an interview that his department’s work was as fair and thorough as possible.

“I am confident about the investigation, and I was satisfied with the amount of evidence and testimony we got in the time we had the case,” he said.

“We were basing our decisions, which were made in concert with the state attorney’s office, on the findings of the investigation at the time,” he added, “and we were abiding by the Florida law that covers self-defense.”

Quoted in The New York Times, May 16, 2012 by

Maybe because I’m not an attorney or a police officer, or maybe it is simply because I have no formal training in the law that I have no idea how Chief Lee’s remarks, ostensibly in support of the Sanford Police Department, do him any good. I don’t understand where his confidence in the investigation comes from. To claim that their investigation was controlled by their efforts to prove that George Zimmerman’s claims of self-defense were true commits the fallacy of begging the question; doesn’t it? Aren’t they assuming the conclusion that they are supposed to be trying to prove? If you are truly investigating a case then that means that they should be trying to determine what actually happened. How can you be doing that if you are governed by the conclusion, which in this case would be the law that you are using to guide your search. It would have been one thing to claim that you were confident that your Department thoroughly investigated all of the possibilities related to a claim regarding self-defense but he assumes that assertion as true already.

This just doesn’t seem like a good way to pursue a solid conclusion. When I have been ill, the best doctors don’t just take my word regarding my ailments and treat that claim as the official diagnosis. The diagnosis that I might even present to the doctor upon an initial consultation spurs their inquiry. The doctor who I have come to visit first performs her own examination, then she asks to see the notes, examination records, x-rays, and other documents compiled by my other doctors. She then uses those reports to support her own observations and tests. All of the information gets used to determine an illness, but the best doctors don’t start from the diagnosis and work backwards to prove it. They go on a search for a probable cause for why I am not feeling well, and this search begins with at least a question: What is wrong with you? Or: Why are you feeling poorly? In the Trayvon Martin case, it’s as if the local investigators set out to prove the diagnosis but never considered asking any questions. It would be like the doctor saying, “let’s prove that you have cancer” instead of pursuing what might be making you feel ill. These investigators do not appear to have been led by the most basic questions. I could have imagined the following as relevant: What happened here? Is this living witness a credible one? Are there reasons he would have to lie? Are there other witnesses? How do their stories compare? Instead, if these investigators had a question, it seemed to be this one: How can we show that George Zimmerman was standing his ground? That is a biased question. Thus, the biases in this case continue to haunt me.

It concerns me that we seem to struggle with how to talk about the history of race and its status as a metalanguage to examine the way that it functions in how we continue to make sense of our world. Through such an understanding of the ever-present, thoroughly entrenched quality and character of race to help us articulate meaning and order in our lives, I am interested in Lee’s claims of confidence in the face of his Department’s many failings. How do you explain administering an alcohol and drug test on a dead seventeen-year-old boy but not on the living man who shot him? How is that unbiased police work? How is that not a macabre extension of the narratives of racial profiling that plague this case?

When I read today that George Zimmerman’s family doctor confirmed a series of injuries that may corroborate his story, I thought about how the narrative of these statements compared to discussions that I had regarding a neighbor’s screams on Mother’s Day of last year. My husband and I awoke to a woman screaming for help at about 6:45 a.m. I heard her as clearly as if she were standing in my kitchen just a floor below. My husband and I jumped out of bed and ran to our bedroom window because her voice was truly so clear that we thought she was literally screaming from beneath us. He ran outside toward where he continued to hear her and I ran to get my son. By the time the scenario was over, we learned that she awoke to her attacker standing over her telling her that he would kill her children if she screamed. As he turned his head to apparently allow her to disrobe, she hit him and screamed. He got nervous and ran.

I told everyone I could about this and to a person, they all said, “good for her for not being silent and fighting back.” I remember wondering if I would have had the courage to defend myself or if I would have been paralyzed by the horror of what was happening to me; or if I would have taken the chance on him hurting my children had I screamed. It was a moment that I vividly recall hoping to never have to test in my own life. I don’t want to know if I would have that kind of courage in the face of such an urgent danger; hypothetically, though, if I’m being honest, I’m just not sure that I would end up looking like a hero to anyone.

When I read the report regarding Zimmerman’s family doctor, I didn’t think that Zimmerman’s story was confirmed as much as I thought that Trayvon Martin thought his own life was worthy of defending. That when he was faced with the horrifying possibility that his worst fears might be realized, he decided to fight for himself. Instead of Zimmerman’s defense, I thought about Claude McKay’s poem “If We Must Die.”

If We Must Die
If we must die—let it not be like hogs
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
Making their mock at our accursed lot.
If we must die—oh, let us nobly die,
So that our precious blood may not be shed
In vain; then even the monsters we defy
Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!
Oh, Kinsmen!  We must meet the common foe;
Though far outnumbered, let us show us brave,
And for their thousand blows deal one deathblow!
What though before us lies the open grave?
Like men we'll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!

See Also: 

For more posts on Trayvon Martin, see the A Heap See Page.

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