This week we learned that George Zimmerman had threatened members of his family with a gun and, sadly, not many people were surprised. Following his not guilty verdict in the Trayvon Martin trial this summer, Zimmerman’s public profile has been bizarre. Just two weeks after the trial Zimmerman was stopped in Texas for speeding, and police found a gun in the car.
In many ways, the disturbing 911 call from his wife is all too predictable. Shellie tells the operator: “I don’t know what he’s capable of. I’m really, really scared.”
Zimmerman has a history of deflecting blame. In 2005, his then-fiancé filed a civil motion for a restraining order, citing domestic violence. Zimmerman shot back by accusing her of domestic violence, and counter-filing. Both restraining orders were granted. That same year he faced felony charges for “resisting an officer with violence,” among others, only to have these charges reduced and ultimately waived.
Zimmerman’s previous domestic violence charges did not initially receive much attention during his trial. Yet, they should have, as societal attitudes toward domestic violence and race profiling demonstrate a larger culture in which the victims of these acts become responsible for their occurrence.
In New York City, stop and frisk practices prove how this prejudice has been integrated into law enforcement. Given that police officers were legally allowed to use racial profiling, it’s not surprising that many people believe what Zimmerman did was within legal bounds. The practice may have recently been ruled unconstitutional, but the Sergeant Benevolent Association is filing a notice to appeal this decision.
Just as racial profiling assumes the worst of people of color based on nothing more than racism, the onus is usually put on the victims of domestic violence to either leave the abusive partner, or prevent a potential assault. People usually blame the person experiencing the abuse for not leaving, rather than blaming the person actually doing the abusing. This ignores all of the factors that make leaving an abusive relationship difficult.
The failure to hold Zimmerman accountable for any of his previous actions could have been what killed Trayvon Martin. Zimmerman had a proven criminal history, access to a gun, and the power of prejudices on his side. And it worked: Zimmerman, who has a history of violence, claimed he shot Martin only after the unarmed teen attacked him first; and he was acquitted.
It's hard not to think about that verdict when we hear Shellie Zimmerman tell the operator: “He punched my dad in the nose. My dad has a mark on his face. He is threatening us with his firearm.” And it's disturbing to learn that George counters, just as he did in 2005 and in the Trayvon Martin case, that Shellie attacked him and he pulled out his gun in self-defense.
In a troubling parallel, fellow Florida resident Marissa Alexander made news not long after the Martin shooting for filing a single warning shot at her husband, against whom she had a protective order. Alexander, a black woman, also claimed self-defense yet she was sentenced to 20 years in prison. In an inverse to Zimmerman, Alexander was being tried in a justice system in which black women are incarcerated at nearly three times the rate of white women, plus she was a victim of domestic violence and had her experiences questioned numerous times.
Shellie Zimmerman may not be pressing charges, but we've had the opportunity to hold Zimmerman responsible many times and we have not. Instead, we punished his victims. How many more guns do we have to give to men like Zimmerman, and how many women like Alexander do we have to put in prison, before it's too late?