Ever since news broke about George Zimmerman shooting down Trayvon Martin in that gated community outside of Orlando, I’ve had Bob Dylan’s song, The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll, going through my head. Maybe it’s just that Zimmerman’s name sounds to me like that of William Zantzinger, the privileged young tobacco farmer in Maryland who was immortalized in Dylan’s song for having beaten a 51 year old black barmaid to death at a 1963 society ball, when she didn’t deliver his bourbon fast enough for his liking. (According to those in attendance, it took her about “one minute” to get him the drink that he’d demanded of the “black bitch.”) Calling the beloved mother of eleven a “nigger,” he struck her repeatedly with a cane. Carroll collapsed moments afterward, and was hospitalized. She died eight hours later, from a brain hemorrhage. Zantzinger, claiming that he had no memory of the assault, as he was incredibly drunk at the time, mounted an inspired defense, suggesting that Carroll’s poor health was more to blame for her death than the fact that he had struck her about the neck and head with a cane. (He also argued that it was just a cheap, toy cane… not the kind of thing he’d have used if he’d really wanted to kill her.) Apparently, this logic resonated with his white peers on the jury. He was sentenced to only six months in jail… Here, for those of you who are unfamiliar with the song, and its origins, is audio of Bob Dylan performing it, after a brief interview with Steve Allen.
I know I said above that the song may have just come to mind because Zimmerman’s name was similar to that of Zantzinger’s, but clearly there’s more tying the two cases together than just that. Zimmerman, as we now know, was also a son of privilege, having grown up with a father who was a Virginia Supreme Court magistrate. It’s unclear whether his father’s experience within the criminal justice system helped his son avoid jail time after a violent 2005 altercation with police, or in relation to a recent charge of domestic violence, but I think it’s safe to say that Zimmerman, at the very least, was raised with a certain level of privilege that his victim was not. And, like Zantzinger, Zimmerman, and his supporters, are also turning things around the young, unarmed victim, who, as far as I can tell, just happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. Stories began swirling almost immediately that Trayvon Martin was not the innocent young man that he appeared to be… Sure, he’d just bought a can of iced tea and a bag of Skittles, but, as some on the right wing would claim, “skittles” is the street term for dextromethorphan. Of course, he didn’t have dextromethorphan on him at the time of his murder, but that doesn’t matter. The important thing is that a link has been made, so now people can start to wonder if maybe, just maybe, he’d gone to the 7 Eleven to score dextromethorphan, but accidentally got candy by the same name instead. Oh, and others on the right are saying that he did’t actually buy the Skittles at all. According to some, the candy was shoplifted. And, then there’s the story making the rounds about how he’d been expelled from his high school for having a small plastic baggie in his possession – like those used to hold marijuana… It’s all nonsense, of course. Even if it were all true, though, it wouldn’t mean a thing. Even if the kid were a degenerate shoplifter who cultivated fields of pot in the Florida Everglades, it wouldn’t change the fact that, on that specific night, he’d done nothing to warrant the attention of Zimmerman, a wannabe cop with a loaded guy, a history of violent outbursts, and a demonstrated problem with “coons” in his exclusive, gated community… Of course, we’re being told now, by Zimmerman’s friend Joe Oliver, that Zimmerman didn’t say “fucking coons” at all on that 911 tape, but “fucking goons.” And “goons,” we’re told, is a term of endearment… So, apparently, Zimmerman really liked this black kid that he was stalking through his neighborhood, until the point that the young man turned around and started beating the shit out of him.
That’s the prevalent narrative on the right, but the way… Zimmerman was following Martin, whom he determined to be suspicious (given the fact that he was a young black man walking slowly in the rain), when Martin attacked him for no reason. Zimmerman Sr., speaking on behalf of his son, said that Martin yelled, “you’re going to die tonight,” as though his dialogue were being written by a 70 year old, first-time screenwriter in suburban Kansas who had only experienced black people through reruns of Matlock. Of course, Martin’s girlfriend, who was talking with him at the time that he was approached by Zimmerman, says that no such thing happened. Zimmerman’s father, however, says that she’s being dishonest. (He, of course, knows the truth, having heard his son’s story.) As I understand it, he’s also said that the young man heard screaming for help on the 911 tape is his son. Two leading experts in the field of forensic voice identification, however, have come out today, saying that the voice is almost certainly that of Martin. What’s more, the Miami funeral director who prepared Trayvon Martin’s body, said he found no “cuts, scratches, or bruises – only a gunshot wound to the chest”, which seems to refute Zimmerman’s claim that Martin and he scuffled. And, then there’s the newly released police surveillance footage, that appears to show Zimmerman, less than an hour after the shooting, without a mark on him, collaborating an eyewitness account that he wasn’t at all injured, in spite of his claims to have received a broken nose, and had his head thrust repeatedly into the asphalt.
I should add that I’m all for keeping an open mind, and letting the facts come out over the course of the investigation. And, generally speaking, I’m not one to advocate on behalf of mob justice. With that said, though, I’ve been given very little reason to believe the narrative put forward by the survivor. And, given how difficult it has been to get the police to turn over the 911 calls, and the video footage of Zimmerman on the night of the killing, I’m not inclined to believe that the young black victim in this case has an advocate inside the department. So, while I’d love to sit back and wait for justice to run its course, I’m not so certain that we can afford to do that in this case. And, quite frankly, I’m pissed at the blatant lies being pushed by the friends and family of George Zimmerman.
Oh, speaking of Speaking of Zantzinger, there’s one last thing that I wanted to mention. He died in 2009, at the age of 69. And, you might be interested to know, his views on race didn’t evolve much over the course of his life. The following clip is from his New York Times obituary.
…In 1991, The Maryland Independent disclosed that Mr. Zantzinger had been collecting rent from black families living in shanties that he no longer owned; Charles County, Md., had foreclosed on them for unpaid taxes. The shanties lacked running water, toilets or outhouses. Not only had Mr. Zantzinger collected rent for properties he did not own, he also went to court to demand past-due rent, and won.
He pleaded guilty to 50 misdemeanor counts of deceptive trade practices, paid $62,000 in penalties and, under an 18-month sentence, spent only nights in jail.
Information on Mr. Zantzinger’s survivors was unavailable. Though he long refused interviews, he did speak to the author Howard Sounes for his book “Down the Highway: The Life of Bob Dylan” (2001) , telling him of his scorn for Mr. Dylan.
“I should have sued him and put him in jail,” he said…
I find it interesting that he felt as though Dylan should have been “put in jail” for having written about his coldblooded murder of another human being, but that, at the same time, also felt as though he shouldn’t have served time for having actually having done the killing. I think that sums up the concept of white privilege pretty well.
As for The Lonesome Death Song of Hattie Carroll, I’d intended, when I first set out to write this post, to suggest that we start a letter writing campaign to Dylan, urging him to employ his still considerable talents to document the story of Trayvon Martin in song, so as to ensure that his passing isn’t lost to history, in the same way that Carroll’s surely would would have been, if not for his song in 1963. Then, however, it struck me how much I disliked the fact that Elton John had taken the song, Candle in the Wind, which was originally written for Marilyn Monroe, and had it rewritten for Princess Diana, and I decided to drop the idea… I hope, instead, that lots of other songwriters, drawing inspiration from The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll, set out to share the facts of this case as best that they can, so that people never forget what happened a month ago in Florida.