Death and the Private Public

The Trayvon Martin shooting has provoked a number of reactions throughout the internet and beyond, from the predictable (but reasonable) “If Trayvon had been white, Zimmerman would have been arrested” to the predictable (but pants-on-head retarded) “Well, he musta done sumthin.”  We were even treated to the Geraldo Rivera “hoodie as universal gang uniform” thesis (Uh oh – I’m pretty sure I own a couple of those.  I’d better check myself for gang tattoos and concealed weapons).  The prez went so far as to point out that if he had a son, he would have looked like Trayvon.  Sweet, I guess, although it does sound exactly like the sort of fundamentally noncommittal comment one might make in an election year to give Trayvon supporters the impression that one is on their side without giving that same impression to their (presumably white) detractors.  I’m going to focus on something else: gated communities.

Given the flood of coverage on the shooting, I initially thought one professional or another would comment on this at some point, but then I remembered that metastasized capitalism and private property worship are invisible to the mainstream media in the same way that water is invisible to fish.  That being the case, I’ll take a shot myself.  The gated community always struck me as suspiciously neo feudal: a quasi-public space arbitrarily cordoned off at the whim of some bearer(s) of accumulated capital for the alleged benefit of its wealthy and/or indebted inhabitants.  This is exactly the sort of ill defined space one might expect to see in a nation where a rigid and impractical conception of private property is asserting itself.  You know, like the US.  It is also the sort of space that appeals immediately to the aspiring and/or failed law enforcers among us (like George Zimmerman).  The private property designation carries a sort of “keep off my lawn” mentality right along with it that gives delusional fans of the “Law and Order” family of police procedural dramas an excuse to play cop (minus the actual training, knowledge of the law, etc. – but racial stereotypes, of course, remain constant).  Outside of a gated community, a “self-appointed neighborhood watchman” as Zimmerman has been called, is known as a nosy neighbor.  People don’t like nosy neighbors.  Cops tend to become frustrated with nuisance calls from nosy neighbors.  Add a gated community, however, and you get a “self appointed neighborhood watchman.”  Add a gun, and you get a vigilante with a sense of power and entitlement.  I can’t help but think that even a nut like Zimmerman would think twice before following an innocent teen down a public street.  Gated communities introduce the logic of private property to areas that should be public.  Lords of the manor (like Zimmerman) or private security guards who would otherwise not perform such functions are suddenly endowed with (or believe they are endowed with) police powers.  Public space becomes an extension of the private home.  Not cool, America.  The whole mess reeks of the misapplication of the classical Lockean conception of private property in which a titular owner has absolute control of his/her/their property, as though only they had a stake in its use.  Zimmerman’s apparent attitude – that Trayvon Martin had no interest in (or indeed right to) the streets of the Retreat at Twin Lakes gated community is a symptom of this absurd conceit.  Trayvon had a clear interest in the streets: he was walking home on them.  Even if we ignore the obvious problems with Florida’s “Stand your ground” law, even if we ignore the role of racism, there is one thing we cannot ignore: we are a society that has apparently decided that a young man’s right to life doesn’t stack up to a suburbanite’s right to a private neighborhood.  Not cool, America.

One Response to “Death and the Private Public”

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