The Zimmerman Trial and Les Misérables

by Nicole Plyler Fisk

I’m always reading. If I don’t have a book in hand, I’m listening to one downloaded to my ipod while I clean the house, or drive the hour commute to work. Before, during, and since the Zimmerman trial, I’ve been reading Victor Hugo’s massive Les Misérables in preparation for a themed class I’m teaching in the Fall. Although the novel was penned in 1862, Hugo alludes to its enduring relevance in the forward:

“As long as social damnation exists through laws and customs artificially creating hell at the heart of civilization and muddying a destiny that is divine with human calamity; as long as the three problems of the century — man’s debasement through the proletariat, woman’s demoralization through hunger, the wasting of the child through darkness — are not resolved; as long as social suffocation is possible in certain areas; in other words, and to take an even broader view: as long as ignorance and misery exist in this world, books like the one you are about to read are perhaps not entirely useless.”

The death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin is an example of how the working of law enables social condemnation, thereby creating a human hell. Trayvon is the child, wasted by darkness.

I’ve been collecting articles about the trial for a potential unit in the current issues class I teach in the Spring, and I’ve read the sometimes heated debate on social media sites with interest. My observations are as follows:

1. Where you stand on the issue has much to do with your ability or inability to empathize with young Trayvon. I’ve read comments all too eager to label Trayvon a “thug,” because he was willing (perhaps even inclined) to fight Zimmerman, because he had smoked marijuana before, etc. — all of this ignoring the fact, of course, that he was a 17-year-old boy and that neither fighting nor smoking a joint should equal a death sentence.

I’m especially sympathetic, because I have a firecracker of a child myself, and, as I pointed out in a Facebook discussion: If Arina were a strong,  17-year-old boy, she would totally be the type to throw a punch at the “creepy” person who was stalking her. Zimmerman should have lost a fight, learned his lesson, and changed his behavior. Instead, Trayvon is dead and Zimmerman is back patrolling the neighborhood with a gun like some bad Western movie. (Although, thankfully, in his latest “patrol,” he was able to help victims of a car crash; here’s to hoping that all his future “good” deeds will be similarly gentle and helpful.)

2. You can follow the Zimmerman case and still care about homicides in Chicago. Another response to the coverage of the Zimmerman trial is that we shouldn’t care about the case so much, because 17-year-old boys are dying of gun violence in Chicago. Or, some people flashed photos of white children who have been killed, as if to say: “look! White kids get killed too!” Of course, we care when any kid is killed. Of course we do. But, here’s the thing, as Charles Blow explains in his New York Times article, “The Whole System Failed Trayvon”:

“This case is not about an extraordinary death of an extraordinary person. Unfortunately, in America, people are lost to gun violence every day. Many of them look like Martin and have parents who presumably grieve for them. This case is about extraordinary inequality in the presumption of innocence and the application of justice: why was Martin deemed suspicious and why was his killer allowed to go home?”

Or, to put it another way, courtesy of my friend, Kayla: “for those of you asking why the stories of other murdered children didn’t make national news, go back and check if the police knew who was responsible but waited a month and a half (and only after cries of national outrage) to arrest him anyway. Had the police arrested Zimmerman that first night, he may have still been acquitted but none of us would know his name.”

3. The lack of sensible gun regulation must be addressed. In his response to the verdict on The Daily Show, John Oliver discusses the inevitability of Zimmerman’s acquittal due to Florida’s lax state gun laws and argues “That’s what makes this so much worse: that we can get a verdict like this not because the system is broken down, but because it works exactly as it’s designed.” He concludes the bit by asking, “How does 2013 Florida have a law that seems cut and pasted from 1881 Tombstone?”

Zimmerman had already been charged with resisting arrest with a police officer for violence, had been issued a restraining order for domestic violence, and had been fired as a security guard for being “too aggressive.” He defied the police dispatcher’s instructions and stalked Trayvon anyway.

The very idea that he could legally own a gun, carry it while patrolling the neighborhood, and use it to kill a 17-year-old with skittles and sweet tea is baffling to me. I mean: it was 7:00 at night (my kids are often outside playing at that time, during the summer) and Trayvon was close to the house where he was staying with his father.

To those who suggest that George Zimmerman *had* to shoot and kill Trayvon, lest he be killed himself: I call bullshit. There are nonlethal ways to extricate yourself from a fist fight other than using a firearm. Sadly, thanks to the NRA, people like Zimmerman are more likely to buy a lethal firearm than pepper spray or even a taser. Had Zimmerman been armed with pepper spray rather than a firearm, he would have extricated himself from the fight (which, again, he was at least partly responsible for initiating) and Trayvon would still be alive. Period.

4. The African-American community is particularly vulnerable to acts of violence rooted in racism. I mentioned above that Arina would be the type to throw a punch at her stalker (according to Rachel Jeantel, who was on the telephone with Trayvon as he walked home, Trayvon had tried to elude Zimmerman and thought he was successful before Zimmerman found him again and jumped out of his car to confront him).

Here’s the difference, though. My blond-haired, blue-eyed Barbie Doll of a child wouldn’t have been accused of suspicious activity in the first place; I’m pretty sure, in fact, that in a few more years she could play the blond at the end of this five-minute video:

Young black men must, as Charles Blow describes, “constantly fight” against “universal suspicion without individual evidence.” And the fight continues, as evinced by recent Fox News segments that justify this fear of black men, despite the fact, as Stephen Colbert points out, the statistics used to support the claim — when carried to the logical conclusion — indicate that “we can reasonably be scared of .009% of 1% of African Americans.”—color-bind

Even more frustrating is the unwillingness to recognize, as my friend Dr. Ray argues in a recent sermon, that “poverty causes crime regardless of race . . . crime is not a race issue.” Too many African-American communities are poor. Why? Because while white men were able to become doctors, lawyers and politicians — while they were building fortunes for their children and grandchildren to inherit — black men were denied access both to equal education and also to a fair wage that would enable them to afford such an education in the first place. For God’s sake, schools weren’t even desegregated until the 50s, my mother’s generation, only one removed from my own.

So, the fight against universal suspicion of being both dangerous (because black) and lazy (if poor) continues, but it should not be a fight that young black men fight on their own. White people of conscience should say “no” to the Bill O’Reillys and Bernie Goldbergs of the world. 

The beginning of Les Misérables focuses not on Jean Valjean, but on Monseigneur Myriel, the Bishop of Digne, in chapters with such titles as “A Just Man.” Hugo cites one example after another of why the Bishop is just: he exchanges the large Bishop’s palace for a small, run down hospital, much to the hospital director’s delight and surprise; he spends nearly all of his salary in charitable donations; he’s likely to sprain an ankle to avoid killing an insect; etc.

To summarize: “There are men who dig for gold; he dug for compassion. Poverty was his goldmine; the the universality of suffering a reason for the universality of charity.’Love one another.’ To him everything was contained in those words,  his whole doctrine, and he asked no more . . . ‘if [Love one another’] is folly,’ said Monseigneur without disputing the matter, ‘then the soul must enclose itself within it like the pearl in the oyster.’ Which is what he did.”

In the fourteen chapters describing the worthy Bishop before Jean Valjean is introduced, there are two incidents that have a profound affect on Monseigneur Myriel: in the first, he witnesses an execution and is “overwhelmed” afterward, concluding “it is wrong to become so absorbed in Divine Law that one is no longer aware of human law. Death belongs only to God. What right have men to lay hands on a thing so unknown?”; in the second, he visits the deathbed of someone against whom he has nursed a lifelong prejudice: a former member of the Revolutionary Convention , responsible in the Bishop’s mind for ushering in such events as the execution of Louis XVI and the Reign of Terror. He accuses him of such; the old man replies:

“In the case of Louis XVI, I voted against his death. I do not think I have the right to kill a man, but I believe it is my duty to abolish evil. I voted for the overthrow of the tyrant — that is to say, for an end to the prostitution of women, the enslavement of men, the dark night of the child.Those are the things I voted for in voting for the Republic. I voted for fraternity, for harmony, for a new dawn. I helped to bring about the downfall of prejudice and error, that their crumbling might let in light.”

By the end of the meeting, the old man has convinced the Bishop of the fact that he has always “striven for the advance of mankind towards the light,” and when he says to his visitor, “Now at the age of eighty-six I am on the point of death. What do you ask of me?”, the Bishop responds “your blessing,” and falls to his knees.

These experiences set the stage for Jean Valjean’s entrance as a poor and starving ex-convict; and the kind, compassionate treatment he receives at the Bishop’s hand — a transformative encounter that inspires much, if not all, of Valjean’s subsequent good deeds (which include rescuing the prostitute, Fantine; adopting the child, Cosette; and saving Marius from the barricades).

In short, Les Misérables asks us to consider what could happen if we let go of prejudice and fear; if we embody a Christianity that asks us not to fear but to love. Perhaps George Zimmerman would have found his prejudice as easily dispelled as the Bishop’s had he been less likely to suspect, to accuse, and to shoot first and question later.