The Circular Logic of a Puerto Rican Juror [Opinion]

Maddy's GMA interview showed ambiguous nature of Latinos' racial identity.

July 27, 2013, 10:26 AM
PHOTO: Juror B29 from George Zimmerman trial
On Thursday, July 25, 2013, Juror B29 (Maddy), the only minority juror from the George Zimmerman trial, and her lawyer David Chico sat down for an exclusive interview with ABC's Robin Roberts.
Donna Svennevik/ABC

July 27, 2013— -- The Good Morning America interview of juror B-29, a/k/a Maddy, has revealed an even more tangled web that symbolizes America's complex racial landscape. While Maddy's stunning assertion that George Zimmerman "got away" with murder in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, ambiguous nature of Latino's racial identity was thrust into the spotlight.

At various points during the media coverage of the trial, the jury was described "all-woman" (correct), "all-white" (incorrect), and "five women, one minority" (correct but vague). Since the jurors were sequestered and could not be photographed, the reader was forced to rely on the interpretation of the media observer for a description of the jury's racial composition. Reports alluded to a mysterious Latina who was sometimes made into a person of color, while other commentators decided that since she was Latina, she was not "black." Guess what? One of the biggest debates going on in the US Latino an Latin American communities right now is just how "black" Latinos are, or choose to be.

While many Latin American countries struggle with their own African identity, at times being in open denial of negritude, there is a growing movement of Afro-Latinos involved in struggles of recognition and claiming rights. In the US, many migrants from Caribbean island nations and Caribbean-influenced countries like Colombia and Venezuela are black enough to either acculturate as African-American or become segregated from "white Hispanics." That's why it was so weird to hear Amy Goodman, host of Democracy Now, one of the most solidly progressive independent media news shows available in this county, characterize the jury as a "six-woman, non-black jury" as if Maddy's life experience as a Puerto Rican living in the US disassociated her from blackness. Whether or not it's not accurate in Maddy's case, Puerto Ricans have had a long history of living with, emulating and making political alliances with African-Americans. The current state of spoken-word poetry, hip hop, breakdancing, graffiti, jazz, and urban literature would be very different without that intersection between Puerto Ricans and African-Americans.

While it's unclear how black-identified Maddy is, (she does talk about being followed in retail stores, a symptom of blackness cited in President Obama's discourse on race earlier  this week), she does state that she "doesn't see color," and thought race had nothing to do with the case. This may reflect the peculiar perspective many "biracial" or "dark-skinned" Latinos may take, that is, understanding how it feels to be profiled while at the same time abstracting themselves from the essential conflict between white and African Americans in the US. Or it may be a moral position she has taken about not judging people she encounters by race, and not a neoconservative "post-racial" fallacy.

My overall impression of Maddy's interview is sympathy with what seems to be the turmoil she feels for having been part of delivering the verdict and her invocation of a spiritual power ultimately determining the moral judgement on the case. Seema Iyer, the attorney appearing as a guest in the Democracy Now segment comes close to ridiculing her for a) claiming to have fought the verdict to the end when in effect Maddy could have insisted on a hung jury and b) not understanding the legal precepts for finding Zimmerman guilty of manslaughter. She may have a point in her first complaint but the second may be more of an indication of how poorly the jury was instructed by the prosecution.

I was intrigued by Iyer's fascinating point that in her feeling the prosecution's biggest mistake was introducing "exculpatory evidence," that is allowing Zimmerman to state he was not guilty as well as offering his detailed explanations why he was not guilty by playing his  appearances on Fox News, including the infamous "It Was God's Plan" interview with Sean Hannity, as well as  his walkthrough of the events for the police. Iyer's point was that if they hadn't played those videos, Zimmerman would have been forced to testify in order to build his case for self-defense and then be more blatantly caught in contradictions of what he'd said in those same Fox appearances. I'm admittedly not an expert on this kind of jury trial strategy, but to a layperson's ear this could be the best evidence of a rigged or "thrown" case by the prosecution, if not just plain incompetence.

Still we're left with the haunting testimony of Maddy, the visceral visual evidence that she African-descended, despite not being "African American," and her concluding words. "George Zimmerman got away with murder, but you can't get away from God. And, at the end of the day, he's going to have a lot of questions and answers he has to deal with. The law couldn't prove it but, you know, you know, the world goes in circles." Some might read that as "what goes around comes around," but I'm feeling it more as a critique of Western linear thinking, something, it seems, that most "people of color" share. We learn and make culture in circles, in cyphers, in areítos, avoiding straight-line hierarchies.

While Maddy's interview displayed a frank, natural tone, this may have been the most natural thing she said. Despite our flawed criminal justice system, eventually, she thinks, the circles will close in on George Zimmerman.

Originally published in the author's personal site on Friday July 26, 2013.

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