George and Shellie Zimmerman, appearing in court. Photo via.
In case you haven’t heard, George Zimmerman went berserk Monday, punching his father-in-law in the face and pulling a gun on his estranged wife. Shellie Zimmerman, who is filing for divorce, called 911 screaming, “I’m really, really scared.”
Zimmerman is the man acquitted of shooting Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager. When Shellie Zimmerman first began talking to the press about the divorce, she said the highly publicized trial ruined her life. But she also cited Zimmerman’s verbal abuse and self-centeredness as reasons she wants to leave the marriage. “I have a selfish husband….George is all about George,” she told the press. With this episode of domestic violence, she told authorities, “I don’t know what he’s capable of.”
But we do know what he’s capable of. He’s capable of killing an unarmed kid and thinking the action is justified. Zimmerman seems like a textbook case of Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Given his treatment of Martin, his belief that he had to single-handedly defend his neighborhood, and his expectation that he could kill a teen without legal consequences, Zimmerman clearly lacks some basic empathy and thinks the world revolves around him.
Unfortunately, our legal system has reinforced the narcissism. He killed an unarmed minor and walked free out of the courtroom. Many saw him as a heroic man justly defending his neighborhood. The courts wound up justifying his unrealistic expectations and arrogance. Is anyone surprised that he would think that a gun is the right solution to every problem?
Hearing the experiences of his wife, I am struck by three things here. One is how the intimate portrait of Zimmerman as a self-centered husband reinforces the public portrait of a man so obsessed with his own potential victimization that he can’t see that in reality he is a murderer. Secondly, I’m struck by the reality that men who promote violence in the public sphere may also use it in the domestic sphere.
Thirdly, I’m struck by this perspective on intersectionality. Most of the talk I hear about intersectionality is from the perspective of women of color, when we talk about what it’s like to be targeted by both racism and sexism. In Zimmerman’s case, we see what it’s like for someone to be the perpetrator of both racism and sexism.
The whole situation reminds me of Gwendolyn Brooks’ 1960 poem, “A Bronzeville Mother Loiters in Mississippi. Meanwhile, a Mississippi Mother Burns Bacon.” The poem is about the death of Emmett Till and still rings sadly true today, as Brooks explores the intersectionality of race and gender in the Jim Crow South. She writes from the perspective of the wife of one of the murderers of Till and, in brilliant, painful detail, paints a scene of a man who also brings the violence home to his wife and children:
“Suddenly she felt his hands upon her…/The children were whimpering now…./And she, their mother/Could not protect them.”
Many have compared the cases of Martin and Till, and I would argue that while they’re both about racism, one is about segregation-era lynching, and the other is about contemporary vigilantism, with many significant differences. But one thing they certainly have in common is the continued inability for black people to find any justice when they are murdered by white people. Data shows that juries are far more likely to deem white killings of blacks “justifiable” than when the racial roles are reversed.
In her poem, Brooks also examines the killer’s need to “protect” white women from black men’s sexual desire. Her words lay bare the reality that this so called “protection” is really about preserving white women as the property of white men and claiming white women’s sexuality for themselves to access at will, with or without consent.
“His mouth, wet and red,/So very, very, very red,/Closed over hers./Then a sickness heaved within her. ”
In this moment of horror, Brooks imagines a solidarity developing in the perspective of the white woman as she is targeted with the physical and sexual abuse of the husband, making the connection between his targeting of her, and his targeting of Till.
“She did not scream…/But a hatred for him burst into glorious flower…”
I recall, years ago, talking to a Southern woman who had very strong clarity about racism. She explained that she had been a victim of her father’s sexual abuse. She said she made a decision to fight racism because she could see that her father’s patterns of racism and abuse were connected in a society that is white supremacist and male dominated.
In her initial interviews, before the episode of domestic violence, Shellie Zimmerman was unable to display much solidarity. When asked by an interviewer whether she thought George Zimmerman could have intentionally killed Martin because Martin was black, Shellie Zimmerman said, “That’s just not his way.”
Isn’t it? Zimmerman didn’t kill Martin because he was black. He killed Martin because he was afraid of him…because he was black. In the mind of the narcissist it makes a difference. Meanwhile, the machinery of white supremacy attempts to find some objective justification for Zimmerman’s fear: Martin shouldn’t have been wearing a hoodie, because it made him look suspicious. They keep searching, desperately trying to reconcile the part of themselves that knows there’s something terribly wrong with adults shooting unarmed kids for no reason. But there was a reason. Racism. And under the grip of racism, Zimmerman lost touch with reality. This is reality: armed and irrational white people are the danger, not black teenagers, regardless of their clothing.
And now a justified Zimmerman continues to be a danger, not only to black teens, but to his wife, his father-in-law, and who knows who else. He’s been released, and is out on the Florida streets again, possibly still armed, and certainly still narcissistic. I just hope some of the women who supported Zimmerman will take a moment to rethink their allegiance. His wife certainly has.