In 2005 Thomas Cholmondeley, a White Kenyan farmer, shot and killed Black game warden Samson ole Sisina. Claiming self-defense on the grounds that Sisina fired at him first, he was found not guilty and acquitted of all charges. Then a year later, Cholmondeley shot and a killed a Black poacher, Robert Njoya Mbugua. This time he was arrested and eventually sentenced to an eight-month jail term, in addition to the three years he’d spent in jail while on trial. In Kenya, when White meets Black—whether in the restaurants, the streets or in the courtroom—White wins.
I don’t think there’s another way of going around this: whether in Kenya or in the United States, a White life is worth more than a Black life. The wellbeing of a White person, in the application of the law and in our imaginations, matters more than that of a Black person. Make that Black person young, male and poor, and guilt is presumed no matter the circumstances.
In the United States, the default position is that White is innocent and Black is guilty. This is why it was crucial to the George Zimmerman defense and his supporters that Trayvon Martin remain in that default position of being guilty of something. Hence trumping up his infractions: activities such as smoking marijuana (something both Bill Clinton and President Obama have done), being suspended from school and just general teenage angst suddenly became felonies. Zimmerman did not kill a high school kid, he shot a thug in training—someone set to terrorize America in the future. The reasonable doubt was never about Zimmerman’s guilt, bur rather Trayvon’s innocence.
We can dress all Black men in the latest Brooks Brothers’ suits and the outcome would still be the same. The suits would become camouflage for concealed weapons, drugs, switchblades… wolves in sheepskin. It’s not about toning down our blackness, or our youth. It’s about blackness and the default place it occupies in American society.
At a university in Ohio where I worked as a part-time lecturer, on three separate occasions I was asked what I was doing in the copy-room—once by the director of the program! Seven years ago in San Francisco, my father, writer Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, was almost thrown out of the hotel he was staying at because the concierge did not believe Black people stayed at the there. The default position was that we were not supposed to be where we are until we proven otherwise. Trayvon did not get the chance to prove he was on his way home after a trip to the grocery store.
In these days of stop and searches, of Zimmerman killing a high school kid and being so free that he gets the murder weapon back, of police shootings of unarmed Black men for little or no cause, I personally don’t feel safe anytime I see a police officer. And much less so when on a lonely drive, in a situation where there are no witnesses. I know in case of literally anything happening, the law will default on the side of the police officer. I know that whether I get the help I need in an emergency, or hauled off to jail as a suspect, or beaten up, or shot depends on the disposition of the individual officer. On their kindness. The relationship between me and the public officials (whom I employ through my taxes) should not be one of fear, or respect for that matter, but rather one of duties governed by law.
What the Zimmerman’s acquittal does is to extend that protection to any White-looking man with a gun, for Trayvon’s life was not protected by the law. His life literally depended on Zimmerman. And on that day, Zimmerman happened to take it. In the same way, he could have walked away. It was up to him and not the law! When a citizen is able to, under the law, track another citizen through suburban streets, kill him and walk away, we should be very afraid about the direction we’re heading.
Kenya’s Thomas Cholmondeley serves as a warning. The fact that he wasn’t tried and jailed for the first killing made the second killing possible. Zimmerman has proven you can be tried and walk away under protection of the law. In Florida and other states with Stand Your Ground laws, we can expect copycat Zimmermans. And Florida has clearly shown that we should not expect the police, or the law, or the government to protect innocent Black teenagers from others like him.
Mukoma Wa Ngugi is an Assistant Professor of English at Cornell University, the author of Nairobi Heat and the forthcoming Black Star Nairobi. You can follow him on Twitter @mukomawangugi, and visit MukomaWaNgugi.com.