Monday, July 15, 2013

from one zimmerman to another

More than quarter of a million people were massed in front of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28 1963 when Martin Luther King made his I Have A Dream speech. On the same day, less than a hundred miles away, Billy Zantzinger was in court to be sentenced.

Zantzinger was, at 24, the owner of a large tobacco farm inherited from his parents. In February he had put on his top hat, white tie and tails to attend a charity ball. Excessively drunk by 1.30am - he plausibly claimed he has no memory of it - he chided a member of the serving staff, Hattie Carroll, for not bringing his drink quickly. "I'm hurrying as fast as I can," replied Carroll. Zantzinger declared, "I don't have to take that kind of shit off a n*****," and struck Carroll with his cane on the shoulder and again on the head. She collapsed soon after and died of a brain haemorrhage.

The next morning Zantzinger, already under arrest for other assaults on staff that night, was charged with homicide. This was later reduced to manslaughter, of which he was convicted. Aware that a long sentence would send him to state prison with its large population of long-term black convicts, judges gave him just six months, to be served in the relative security of Washington County Jail.

Imagine if Carroll had killed Zantzinger on a racist whim instead. Fifty years on, give or take a month, and we have the same knowledge of how things would have been different if Trayvon Martin had chased and killed George Zimmerman.

Even in cosmopolitan 2013, it is simple to show that black men get aggressively challenged and have the police called for things that white men are permitted to do, and white women get actively helped with.

Less than two months after Zantzinger's sentence, Bob Dylan - real name Robert Zimmerman - was in the studio recording his third album The Times They Are A Changin. With just his guitar and harmonica, he simply told the story of the two individuals' lives, knowing it was a a microcosm of racial differences across America. He sang of how Carroll spent her working life cleaning up after the white folks and was never their equal, and of Zantzinger's casual violence on the night and fierce sense of entitlement even after arrest.

Each verse ends with Dylan imploring us, saying that despite the injustice he's already reported the worst part is to come.

But you who philosophize disgrace and criticize all fears
Take the rag away from your face
Now ain't the time for your tears

There will always be volatile bigots. The deeper problem is in the attitudes among the mass of people. It is in the way white society creates and reacts to the otherness of people from different backgrounds and even manages to instil those same attitudes in the people it abuses. And reflecting that, the problem extends into the way mainstream officialdom deters and punishes - or fails to - those violent bigots. That really is something that can change and yet we haven't done it.

In the final verse Dylan haltingly tells of that six month sentence.

In the courtroom of honor, the judge pounded his gavel
To show that all's equal and that the courts are on the level
And that the strings in the books ain't pulled and persuaded
And that even the nobles get properly handled
Once that the cops have chased after and caught 'em
And that ladder of law has no top and no bottom
Stared at the person who killed for no reason
Who just happened to be feelin' that way without warnin'
And he spoke through his cloak, most deep and distinguished
And handed out strongly, for penalty and repentance
William Zanzinger with a six-month sentence

But you who philosophize disgrace and criticize all fears
Bury the rag deep in your face
For now's the time for your tears

Gary Younge's anger well expresses the outrage at George Zimmerman's acquittal, but his headline says Open season on black boys after a verdict like this, implying a change. That open season was declared long before we were born.

1 comment:

Jim Bliss said...

Good post.

I love how The Onion reminds us that this wasn't the fault of a handful of jurors in Florida, but is an injustice built into the system.

In Our Defense, These Were Some Pretty Fucked-Up Laws And We Were Ordered To Deliberate In Accordance With Them.

And let's also remember the case of Marissa Alexander, who - almost simultaneously with Zimmerman's aquittal - was being sentenced to 20 years in jail for firing warning shots to protect herself from an abusive partner. In Zimmerman's case, the perpetrator was white and somebody died. In Alexander's case, she was black and nobody was hurt.