The Trayvon Martin event between past and future

Guest Post by Neil Roberts

Not guilty.

The force of those two words, delivered on July 13, 2013, by the six-person jury in the State of Florida vs. George Zimmerman case, nationally and globally ignited already intense domestic debates about race, Stand Your Ground laws, gun control, and the strictures of federalism demarcating distinct domains between federal jurisprudence and state statutes. An irony of the ruling was that the first two issues did not receive scrutiny during the course of the trial, although they have continued arguably to serve as the principle topics perpetuating transnational discourses on the Zimmerman verdict.

The 2012 shooting of Floridian Trayvon Martin, a black seventeen-year-old, by the multiracial volunteer neighborhood watch guard George Zimmerman, was an event whose facts we shall never know completely. Nonetheless, its effects disclosed facets of race and the law, facets that long preceded Martin’s death and that we must still grapple with today. After the spectacle of the trial, the dramatic testimonies, the emotional pleas from the Martin and Zimmerman families, the technological reenactments conjecturing what might have happened that fateful night in the gated Sanford community; after the verdict; after the post-trial juror statements; after the protests; we have to ask ourselves, in the words of a great fallen leader: Where do we go from here?  I wrote previously that the future of American civilization was on trial following Martin’s shooting, not just the fate of Zimmerman or the loss of Trayvon from the world. I stand by this conviction.

Let me provide some brief context for the re-release of my guest-edited Trayvon Martin symposium, which appeared in the November 2012 issue of the journal Theory & Event. I am passionate about theory, critical philosophies of race, and the ways in which abstract ideas intersect with the phenomena of the everyday. Race talk often is marginal in the disciplines of philosophy and political theory, despite the centrality of racial politics to the American republic from its founding and the developments in race theory across a range of other fields, especially interdisciplinary ones, over the last few decades.

Theory & Event published a special supplemental issue on Occupy Wall Street at the end 2011, as that decentralized movement began to emerge. This was a valuable intervention that most of its peer periodicals ignored in real time. In the wake of the Martin shooting, discursive contestation on due process, and constant surfacing of information surrounding the event, I approached the editors of Theory & Event with the idea of assembling another bold project. For this volume, I proposed collecting commentary on what was unfolding in Florida and its ramifications for the politics of race, racism, and law. If we were truly concerned with theory’s relevance to the most pressing issues of our lived world, then this forum had to exist.

There is a fine line, of course, between observing an event and rendering judgments when its circumstances are open to verification.  As I stated in the volume’s Introduction, “Timeliness and the temporal surfacing of information can be difficult to navigate for observers of an event whose outcome is indeterminate. The constant flow of updates and the non-verifiable in data make judgment difficult. Nevertheless, the very openness of the situation means that the conversations through which it unfolds both affirm past formulations and augment dispositions towards future outlooks, consciousnesses, and worldviews.” The journal supported the proposal, and I shifted next toward contacting contributors who could best articulate through their own voices how the Martin event reiterated, rather than invented, a selection of complex dynamics in American geopolitics.

“The Trayvon Martin event,” as I refer to it, is intentional language. What we attempt to interpret in the symposium is an event, not a tragedy. Events differ from tragedies in that a tragedy entails a plot, set of actions, and conclusion, habitually foreclosed and backward-looking. An event, in contrast, is an occurrence mutually reinforced by past actions and future outlooks, conversations, and prognostications on what we must do in order to decipher its meaning in its wake. The shooting of Martin is no different.

The essays by Anna Marie Smith, Anne Norton, Michael Hanchard, Stephen H. Marshall, Ange-Marie Hancock, Mark Reinhardt, Christopher J. Lebron, and George Ciccariello-Maher represent the views of leading rising and senior scholars on the Trayvon Martin event. They are divided into three groupings. The first cluster addresses racial violence, publicity, juridical standards of reasonableness, and rationalizations of actions by private citizens and state agents under the rule of law. The second group describes the existential dimension of race and intersections among race, gender, age, and aesthetics that structure human actions. The final cluster illuminates how recognition politics, the philosophy of white supremacy, and quantitative and qualitative reasoning affect our ability to alter positively American race relations and the law.

The symposium aims to provoke your philosophical and political imaginations. It implores you to peer more deeply into race, law, federalism, political responsibility, and what we each believe remains unanswered since the jury’s not guilty verdict. The fate of the American republic and our understandings of justice, freedom, and equality between past and future demand nothing less.

Neil Roberts is Assistant Professor of Africana Studies and Faculty Affiliate in Political Science at Williams College.  He is co-editor of Creolizing Rousseau and the CAS Working Papers in Africana Studies, as well as author of several articles, book chapters, and reviews. He has written the forthcoming book, Freedom as Marronage, and is completing the volume A Political Companion to Frederick Douglass. For more information, visit his personal website and the Podcast interview with Johns Hopkins University Press on the making of the Trayvon Martin symposium.