Trayvon Martin And The Shot Heard ‘Round The Suburbs

Culture war escalated into a shooting war in Sanford. Florida's NRA/ALEC-written "stand your ground" law was passed as an expansion of the right of self-defense, but that's not what it does. This is no accident; it was deliberate business

Culture war escalated into a shooting war in Sanford. Florida's NRA/ALEC-written "stand your ground" law was passed as an expansion of the right of self-defense, but that's not what it does. This is no accident; it was deliberate business strategy. By empowering armed bullies to seek trouble and shoot at it, the gun lobby creates more fear to drive more gun sales and carry permit applications, both of which are at record highs in the state. Trayvon Martin is actually not the most egregious case of homicide gone unpunished in Florida because of this law.

The Tampa Bay Times has identified 140 cases across the state in which "stand your ground'' has been invoked, and many involve defendants whose lives were clearly in jeopardy. But at least a dozen share similarities with what we know about the Trayvon Martin case, and they show the law has not always worked as its sponsors say they intended.

The sponsors' intentions are separate from the intentions of the NRA, which pushed SB-436 in 2005 and has used it as their model for similar legislation around the country. The organization advertised "stand your ground" to its members as a way to "make sure people have a right to use deadly force to shoot home intruders without fear of prosecution." They said nothing about gun-wielding bullies committing murder and claiming self-defense, of course, because it is not part of the gun culture narrative.

Big Bad Gummint wants to leave us all defenseless and dependent. You shouldn't rely on anyone else. This is the only acceptable story in gun culture: self-defense is our primary means of social order. It fits squarely within the right wing kulturkampf, which seeks to atomize American society. Such efforts are more successful in the right setting. Writing on the subject of neighborhoods like the one where Trayvon Martin died, author Rich Benjamin describes "a bunker mentality":

Residents often expressed a fear of crime that was exaggerated beyond the actual criminal threat, as documented by their police department’s statistics. Since you can say “gated community” only so many times, developers hatched an array of Orwellian euphemisms to appease residents’ anxieties: “master-planned community,” “landscaped resort community,” “secluded intimate neighborhood.”

No matter the label, the product is the same: self-contained, conservative and overzealous in its demands for “safety.” Gated communities churn a vicious cycle by attracting like-minded residents who seek shelter from outsiders and whose physical seclusion then worsens paranoid groupthink against outsiders. These bunker communities remind me of those Matryoshka wooden dolls. A similar-object-within-a-similar-object serves as shelter; from community to subdivision to house, each unit relies on staggered forms of security and comfort, including town authorities, zoning practices, private security systems and personal firearms.

The US Census says that such communities saw 53 percent growth between 2001 and 2009, making this trend concurrent with the broader militarization of American police forces, the arrival of metal detectors in courthouses, concrete barriers around public buildings, and the inclusion of security in almost every type of building design. The problem is more than gate rape at the airport; the physical shape of American society has actually been changed by fear. But the Trayvon Martin case demonstrates that we are not a safer society for it.

I saw some of this recently on a trip to Montgomery. Formerly white neighborhoods saw an influx of newly-affluent black families during the 1980s, as George Wallace opened state government up to minorities at a faster rate than northern states or the federal government. Those neighborhoods are now whispered about in suburban enclaves like Prattville, where the white residents have fled to McMansions and a whiter shade of schooling for their children. Benjamin again:

Residents’ palpable satisfaction with their communities’ virtue and their evident readiness to trumpet alarm at any given “threat” create a peculiar atmosphere — an unholy alliance of smugness and insecurity. In this us-versus-them mental landscape, them refers to new immigrants, blacks, young people, renters, non-property-owners and people perceived to be poor.

In the paranoid narrative, race is sublimated into class. Skin color makes less difference than a middle class appearance: Call it "the hoodie factor." It is us versus them, and "they" are whatever frightens or discomforts us. You know — them.

Beyond Gerald Rivera's inarticulate dissonance, what does it mean for a black child to wear a hoodie? In the suburban imagination, the inner city is the jungle and the gang thugs are its lions. And why should we be responsible for their food stamps, their city services, their schools? The destruction of shared, public everything is an easier sell to people insulated by private schools, private security, and privatized government. The hoodie made Trayvon "hood."

I am not describing a straw man here, but an actual belief system. My past workplace environments have been rife with evidently sane white people who actually believe the president is not an American, who subscribe to so-called "patriot" ideas like the sovereign citizen movement, and vote for a right to life that ends at birth while posting wealth gospel fliers in their cubicles. Worse, social Darwinism — the most unscientific kind of Darwinism — has infected the pulpits of otherwise mainstream evangelicals. Megachurch pastor Rick Warren, who helped inaugurate Obama, is touting producerism:

Well certainly the Bible says we are to care about the poor ... But there's a fundamental question on the meaning of "fairness." Does fairness mean everybody makes the same amount of money? Or does fairness mean everybody gets the opportunity to make the same amount of money? I do not believe in wealth redistribution, I believe in wealth creation.

The only way to get people out of poverty is J-O-B-S. Create jobs. To create wealth, not to subsidize wealth. When you subsidize people, you create the dependency. You — you rob them of dignity.

"Dignity" is hard to have when you are hungry; Jesus had a lot to say about that, but the book of Rand can now be found between Romans and Revelation. This was a longtime project of right wing political organizers. Never mind that suburban white families need food stamps and Unemployment Insurance in record numbers — dignified hunger is better than dependency. Thus the Americans most harmed by austerity become dissonant Republican voters: I deserve this, but "they" do not.

The "Southern Strategy" exceeded its regional name a long time ago. It has worked in Orange County, California; Michigan; Idaho; and Wisconsin. It has worked because it was always aimed at the suburbs, which were hit hardest by the recession. Frightened people have withdrawn into the internal narratives "informed" by their media channels in the upstairs den. The kids are still at home and restless, they have guns, and they're ready to play cop.

Meanwhile, right wing media consistently enacts the two minutes' hate, transiting from 2008's bugaboo (gay marriage) to 2010's boogeyman (Islamophobia) to 2012's hoodie man (apparently-poor minority youth). But it isn't just FOX News: All of media has to take responsibility for the way violence has been covered for a generation. "If it bleeds, it leads" — even when crime has been steadily declining in the cities (.PDF) and nationally.

Media has reinforced the mentality of the physical divide and the insecurity state. "The wrong side of the tracks" isn't just an urban line between neighborhoods, but a suburban versus urban one. The city is where homeless people and the deserving poor live, and rather than meet such social justice challenges the scared suburban voter would prefer to ignore them.

To be sure, armed patrols are a leap: My neighborhood is cleansed of such unsightliness. Don't come around here unless you belong, or there will be trouble. But is that leap unexpected? It is not at all different from what American minorities have faced before. And like any culture war, this new American civil war is the work of volunteers. Pearland, Texas:

Jules saw two cars behind him while driving back home, so he decided to drive his go-cart completely off the road to his right onto the grassy edge of the neighborhood park to avoid being in the way of traffic.

It is then that Jules states that Johnson swung her vehicle across the south-bound lane of the road, ran over the curb onto the grass and deliberately and intentionally rammed her vehicle head-on into the go-cart.

According to Jules, Johnson got out of her vehicle and confronted the boys in a hostile and threatening manner yelling “Where do you live? Who are your parents?” while shaking her finger at the kids. Jules goes on to say, “With all due respect, Ma’am, I live down the street,” to which Johnson allegedly tells him that she didn’t care and that she was calling the police.

[...]

Jules and the other 13-year old boy in the go-cart sustained back and neck injuries as a result of the wreck. The boys had collars placed on their necks, were placed on stretchers and taken by ambulance to the emergency room of Southeast Memorial Hermann Hospital. They were treated and released, but Jules has since been diagnosed with PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) and is seeing a therapist regularly.

According to Theresa, her son has been completely traumatized and has not been the same after the ordeal. He doesn’t wish to talk about the wreck.

“My son is not the same,” says Theresa. “He doesn’t want to play outside anymore or leave the house alone. I just don’t know why she did this to my child.”

If we should be afraid of anyone, it's George Zimmerman. Not only has he been empowered and indoctrinated, but legions of American suburbanites have entered a state of full-time rationalization and readiness to act out. The public opinion divide reflects exactly what you might expect: Younger people, minorities, and Democrats — urban voting blocks — are paying close attention, while white suburban baby boomers are tuning it out.

We do not know if George Zimmerman listened to Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh, but we do know his father is a conservative former judge who takes offense that the president is black. That's exactly what the president means by saying his son would look like Trayvon: That black children have parents, and those parents love their children, too. That the elder Zimmerman finds this threatening says more about him than the president. It also tells us about the home forge where his son's attitudes were shaped.

Death threats and idiotic New Black Panther attention-whoring and neo-Nazi awfulness and hacked road signs are merely adding to the general anxiety the Trayvon Martin killing has created. We are all on edge these days, and I am not sure we have reached the bottom of the trend line yet. This is a dangerous time.

So-called "white culture" — meaning suburban culture — is steeped in a toxic mix of armed fear, politicized rationalization of physical aggression, and eliminationist rhetoric. Its armed exemplars cast themselves as a freedom movement defending the "right" to fear and loathe fellow Americans. In supporting Zimmerman, they even support the right to shoot a fellow American dead just because you don't like them. It is only removed from its origins in white supremacy theory by a single article of clothing.

This darker form of organizing consistently targets the same demographic Glenn Beck spoke to when he accused President Obama of "hating the white culture." Beck divorced Christianity from social justice in his Cleon Skousen-parable-on the National Mall. We are living in an age of dehumanized religious and political fervor. Dateline Arizona:

Two illegal immigrants were shot and killed last night near Eloy after being "ambushed" by an unknown number of people in camouflage getup, police say.

According to the Pima County Sheriff's Department, the call came into the Eloy Police Department around 10:30 p.m. yesterday about shots being fired at an "illegal alien smuggling load."

I'm sure those were very scary and dangerous poor brown people. The criminals who committed that judicial-process-free execution call themselves "patriots," but in fact their idealism extends only to personal identity. It disincludes lots of Americans, specifically and emphatically the president; an alien's life is worth even less.

Since I made the video at the top of this post in October of last year, the map on which bullet holes appear in time to Josh Freese's drum beats has already become distressingly obsolete. Things can actually get much worse.

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