Rachel Jeantel: When Keeping It Real, Goes Wrong.

2/26/13: 1 year.

It could’ve been my baby…” Hardly a day has passed since Feb. 26, 2012 that I have not looked at my only child and ached to imagine Sybrina Fulton’s pain. I have a 16-year-old son1. I am not here for the senseless slaughter of innocent black teenage boys by armed vigilantes. Period. Full Stop. I can not defend Trayvon’s death; I do not defend George Zimmerman2; and unlike many educated, intelligent, sensitive souls who watched the first week of FLvsGZ3, I will NOT defend Rachel Jeantel. STOP DEFENDING RACHEL JEANTEL.

On Wed. June 26, 2013, the world was introduced to 19-year-old Rachel Jeantel, prosecution’s lead witness in State of Florida vs. George Zimmerman4. Florida charged Zimmerman with second-degree murder for the shooting death of unarmed 17-year-old Trayvon Benjamin Martin in Sanford, Florida on Feb. 26, 2012. Exactly one year and four months after George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin, the prosecution opened their case in chief by calling Ms. Jeantel to the stand as their first witness.

While Zimmerman is the only defendant in FLvsGZ, many observers contend that Trayvon seems to be the one on trial. Though he was armed only with Arizona tea, Skittles, a cellphone, and a hooded sweatshirt- many people feel Trayvon- his character, his potential culpability, even his attire- is as much on trial as Zimmerman.5

Similarly, after her two days of testimony, it appears by those rushing to defend Ms. Jeantel that she too, though charged with no crime, has like her slain friend’s memory somehow found herself on trial. But despite zealous advocacy by defense counsel representing their client by asserting self-defense, Trayvon is not on trial. And no matter how many people critique her, Ms. Jeantel is not on trial. Her not being charged with a crime does not make her immune from public scrutiny, though- nor should it.

Ms. Jeantel did not see the shooting death of her friend Trayvon, but she was with him via phone just before his death, when Trayvon encountered6 the man at whose hands he would die. Ms. Jeantel was thrust abruptly into the international spotlight for the worst imaginable reason and instantly became a polarizing figure; her testimony on days 3 and 4 of FLvGZ set off a firestorm of controversy both online and off.

Within moments of taking the stand, every superficial aspect of Ms. Jeantel: physical appearance, mannerisms, testimony itself, word choice, manner of speaking, and general disposition were the subject of critical commentary by professional pundits and lay court watchers alike. Unwittingly Ms. Jeantel triggered a debate that brought out the vilest of the vile critiquing every possible aspect of her appearance, style, disposition- calling her “Precious“, deriding her skin color, body type, etc.

In addition to Ms. Jeantel’s physical attributes, commentators weighed in about her substantive testimony, its presentation as much as its content. I enjoyed the honest glimpses into Ms. Jeantel’s personality shared in such exchanges as the infamous “don’t you watch First 48?” barb she shot at Don West. Conversely, the nuances of her diction, difficulties with literacy- specifically cursive, etc. are not my concern; nor are they an appropriate focus of public attention for a young woman in the spotlight for no reason other than having witnessed a tragedy.

I remain uninterested7 in discussing Ms. Jeantel’s appearance beyond saying that she looked quite lady-like on the first day of her testimony, and (more conservative shoes, new watch, more professional suit) looked even nicer on her second day. Her hair and makeup were tasteful; her attire and styling were perfectly appropriate for court.8 Ms. Jeantel looked every bit a proper young adult witness should look. She looked the part, but did not act accordingly. If only Ms. Jeantel’s behavior matched her appearance… Alas. Unfortunately- for her, and for Trayvon- Ms. Jeantel’s demeanor was anything like the gentle pseudo-cognate of her surname.

Not until the prosecution ended direct questioning and Ms. Jeantel was under cross-examination by Zimmerman attorney Don West, did the already viral discussion take a dramatic and disappointing turn. As Ms. Jeantel’s behavior deteriorated on the stand, so too did the (already inappropriate) commentary about her. Ms. Jeantel’s voice, words, and body language evinced a hostile, disrespectful demeanor to both the attorney questioning her, and- by extension- the court and very proceeding itself.

As Ms. Jeantel answered defense counsel’s questions on cross-examination, she was flippant at best, reprehensible at worst. The world watched Ms. Jeantel sigh even louder than she would speak, roll her eyes, and pout childishly as she (occasionally, begrudgingly) ‘answered’ questions posed to her. She was consistently sullen, insolent, and rude throughout her testimony. Still Ms. Jeantel’s emotionality and deportment pale, at times, in comparison to the- permissible, but- loathsome behavior of those who viciously attacked her, as well as some who rallied to her defense.

Cruel attention seekers spewed hate at Ms. Jeantel, trying to outdo each other for retweet/ likes/ favorites and other superficial displays of anonymous approval. But the ignorance wasn’t limited to anonymous trolls hiding behind pixelated anonymity. Even celebrities chimed in with criticism of Ms. Jeantel in what I suppose were misguided attempts at humor, i.e.: “Rachel Jeantel looked so irritated during the cross-examination that I burned it on DVD and I’m going to sell it as Madea goes to court.” —Lolo Jones / June 27, 2013, via Twitter” [See @lolojones' tweet.]9

Sadly, Lolo’s misguided and IMHO unfunny criticism was far on the mild end of the “insensitive jackass” to “hate-filled sadist” spectrum.10 The comments about Ms. Jeantel got worse- much worse. On both social and traditional media outlets the hate poured in from every corner of the globe. It is a sad testament to the true depths of human depravity that even I, as callous and jaded as they come11 – even I was sickened and saddened by the sexist, racist, utterly nastiness spewed at a young woman undeserving of such filthy attacks.

But just as swiftly as the hate poured in, love rained back, as countless souls rallied to Ms. Jeantel’s rescue. Our collective maternal/paternal protective instinct went into overdrive as we circled around our sister, our daughter, a young woman in whom many of us saw glimpses of ourselves:

Tracy Clayton (@brokeymcpoverty) compiled some of the most impassioned defenses of Ms. Jeantel in response to mocking criticism, for @TheRoot247. On @TheGrio, Demetria Lucas (@abelleinbk) penned a gentle, loving piece that well echoed my own sentiments in empathizing with Ms. Jeantel. Meanwhile Crissle (@crissles) took to Twitter with her typical timely, biting commentary; hers is an impressive ability to condense into 140 the shared sentiments of we the less succinct- and less clever- masses.

I don’t know @crissles, but from her work product I know her writing to be witty, insightful, often scathing. Though I can’t speculate with certainty as to what she would or would not do should she actually find herself in Ms. Jeantel’s unenviable predicament, I am confident that most of us who empathize with Ms. Jeantel and who would feel similarly grief-stricken, frustrated, overwhelmed; still we would not, in fact, “cuss [an attorney] smooth the fuck out [in open court].” Maybe I’m wrong, but I doubt it.12

Whether Crissle intended her hyperbolic defense literally or figuratively13 her quip is perfect because it expresses a sentiment that so many of us share: Rachel, we love you. We ache for you. That said, we would not, in fact, show out to the extent that a contempt citation was a reasonable consequence.14 No, we would NOT actually cuss Mr. West out (in open court), but saying that we would do so is cathartic; the hyperbole highlights our empathy. But we must not let proud posturing nor empathy obscure the fact that Ms. Jeantel’s courtroom behavior was not acceptable, and should be neither excused nor defended.

What pained me, and what pains me even greater to see so many of my peers excusing, is Ms. Jeantel’s absolutely embarrassing conduct during large portions of her first day of testimony and again, though thankfully to a somewhat lesser degree, on her second day. Yes, her discomfort was palpable, frustration- understandable, disgust- justified, her grief evident. Of course a young woman from a marginalized community, would feel hostile. Of course anyone facing the man who killed her friend would be nervous. Of course we understand, but we should not defend.

Of the many overlapping themes in “defense” of Ms. Jeantel, two trouble me most: first the idea that she is “just a child“, and second the notion that “white people just don’t understand.” Much has been made of Ms. Jeantel’s age and relative immaturity. Ms. Jeantel is not a child, and was not a child in February 2012. She is a young adult, and should behave accordingly.

Even if we disagree about when adulthood begins, we should all agree that certain behavior is expected of competent adults. And if being 18/19yo does not indicate adulthood, when can we consider Rachel Jeantel an adult, not “just a child“? I’m not being rhetorical, but neither do I desire to quibble over semantics about legal age of majority versus functional maturity of adulthood.

Well-meaning people should consider as they insist that she is “just a child“, that age alone does not excuse- even if it does (help) explain Ms. Jeantel’s unfortunate conduct. She is 19 now, was 18 then, and she’s grown enough to have consciously told a savvy lie about her age. In early 2012, not long after her final phonecall with Trayvon Martin, then-18yo Rachel Jeantel lied that she was only 16; she lied precisely because she was aware that adult actions trigger adult consequences.

Under cross-examination Ms. Jeantel explained that she lied- saying she was not yet 18 although indeed she already was over 18- for one reason: she thought doing so would inoculate her from adult attention and scrutiny. Her deception was reasonable; her reasoning sounds like a sensible adult decision.

While there is something tender about her instinctive self-protection, her lie was an adult one- one that showed her cognizant of appreciating the gravity of adulthood. With adulthood comes responsibility, including a responsibility to conduct one’s self with proper decorum in a courtroom- no matter how understandably hurt or justifiably angry one is.

In addition to the resounding “she’s just a child“, there was a second contingency racing to Ms. Jeantel’s defense, apologists lamenting: “white people just don’t understand [her/us].”

[Let's] be honest. Rachel Jeantel’s attitude is exactly what I would expect from someone from the hood who has no media training and who is fully entrenched in a hostile environment. There’s nothing wrong with it. -Rachel Samara

Yes, let’s be honest. Samara says there is “nothing wrong with [Ms. Jeantel's attitude].” But there is something wrong, so very much wrong. Question: Since when do black people unite to excuse piss-poor inappropriate shameful public behavior? Answer: Maybe always, but definitely since Wed. June 26, 2013.

Apologists would have us believe: due to the unfathomable tragedy Ms. Jeantel suffered and has been forced to relive… because she’s understandably hurt and justifiably angry and appropriately overwhelmed… because she’s from the hood… we should excuse, accept, and defend her behaving like a petulant headstrong child in open court? Oh.

There is merit to the contention that larges swaths of outsiders will not get where Ms. Jeantel is coming from. But whether or not white people “get” her[/us] is not reason enough for us to excuse inexcusable behavior. Cultural incompatibility- whether real or perceived- does not warrant defending indefensible conduct.

The older-sibling-like protectiveness expressed by Clayton, Lucas, Samara and others was in part refreshing. Taking care of our own is what we do: we accept, we rally, we protect. I embrace this sentiment to a point; I confess to feeling a strong us/then sentiment when it comes to the cultural fault lines of family business. I can talk all the shit in the world about my sister- especially behind closed doors; yet let an outsider say disparaging word the first, and fists will fly.

Just as family protects our own, so too must we hold each other accountable. It’s been said that Ms. Jeantel has obvious street smarts; I’m inclined to agree. But urban intelligence does not excuse showing one’s “true colors” in court- to the contrary. An essential element of hood smart is code-switching. While Ms. Jeantel isn’t in corporate America, the basic tenets of code-switching as applicable to street smarts still apply: there is a time, and there is a place.

I understand Ms. Jeantel’s visceral distaste for people in power, particularly men in power. When Ms. Jeantel dismissively referred to the district attorney as the “bald headed one” I cringed. The apt descriptor “bald-headed one” is appropriate phrasing for Twitter- or at home, in barbershops, nail salons, or frankly almost anywhere except open court. And Ms. Jeantel knows better than to act so rudely, speak so crassly. You know how we know Ms. Jeantel knew better? Because on her second day of testimony- she did better.

On Wed. June 26, 2013 court recessed for the day during defense cross-examination of Ms. Jeantel. When Judge Debra Nelson advised Ms. Jeantel that she was to return the next day, Ms. Jeantel replied nastily that she had no intention of coming back. She did return, however, and not long after cross-examination resumed on Thurs. June 27, defense attorney Don West remarked to Ms. Jeantel that she seemed to be behaving differently; he asked Ms. Jeantel directly if anyone had spoken with her in the intervening evening about her demeanor. Fooling no one, Ms. Jeantel ably lied that no, she hadn’t. Obviously, she had been spoken to; thankfully.

Though it’s not the sort of lie likely to inspire a perjury charge, Ms. Jeantel told a whopper on the witness stand Thursday morning. It was a good lie, because her dishonesty revealed a level of self-awareness that was almost entirely absent the day before. What she said was: “No [no one talked to me about how I behaved in court yesterday].” What she meant was: “Of course someone- lots of someones- told me to get my act together, and I’m embarrassed to admit that I needed that swift kick in the ass.” And good for her.

Good for her, good for us, good for whomever told her to say “Sir, Ma’am”, to speak up, to calm TF down. Sadly, it wasn’t good enough. Ms. Jeantel’s second day enduring cross-examination was less hostile than the first, and while I applaud her ability to reign it in a bit, I implore her- if, as may well happen, she is recalled by either the prosecution or defense- to reign it in infinitely more. If not for me, if not for her, than for God’s sake for her friend Trayvon Martin.

More than a year passed between Trayvon Martin’s death and the trial of George Zimmerman. The state of Florida, Benjamin Crump and co. have all had some 14 months to provide whatever mentoring Ms. Jeantel needed to be prepared for court. The marked improvement in her behavior between just day one and two tells us that in nearly a year and a half, she could have- and should have- been properly prepped.

Much has been made of the fact that in addition to her youth Ms. Jeantel has no formal media training. Well why not? Unless Ms. Jeantel has literally been AWAL for the past year, refused all offers of preparation, or otherwise made herself entirely unavailable pre-trial, heads should roll in the district attorney’s office. Don’t tell me that she wasn’t prepared- tell me why she wasn’t prepared. Witness preparation is not about teaching a testifier to parrot rehearsed answers; that sort of contrived mimicry is as offensive to juries’ sensibilities as its alternative.

The witness preparation Ms. Jeantel needed- that she deserved, that we owed her- is about preparing her emotionally and mentally for the trauma of cross-examination. Testifying in court is nearly universally frightening, especially for younger or first time witnesses. The insane attention given this case amplifies that fear exponentially, which- correspondingly- amplifies the need to prep her. But while attorneys for Florida and/or Trayvon Martin should have better prepared her, Ms. Jeantel- ultimately- deserves to be called out on her abysmal behavior. The very essence of a court of law is the idea of holding people accountable for their actions- not just those standing trial.

Ms. Jeantel tugs at my heartstrings because she comes from a marginalized community and through none of her own doing, was yanked from anonymity and thrust into a cruel and unforgiving public spotlight. We must recognize where she came from but not allow that to excuse her conduct. Those who laugh at Ms. Jeantel and tease about her appearance or manner of speaking should be ashamed, but those who defend her courtroom conduct as not just understandable, but- indeed- permissible, ought be equally ashamed.

In life, Trayvon Martin deserved better than being stalked and shot by a vigilante; in death, he deserves better than those who purport to love him being rude, insolent, lacking self-restraint, and being generally disrespectful in court.

Trayvon deserves better than his friend Rachel potentially endangering the possibility of an arguably justifiable second-degree murder conviction because she comes from a marginalized community, or because she’s young, or because she’s grieving… Rachel Jeantel does not deserve cruelty, but her behavior does warrant criticism- not defense.

Not only does it do Ms. Jeantel a disservice to say there is “nothing wrong” with her behavior in court, more importantly- it dishonors Trayvon Martin, his memory, his family, and their chance for justice. So please- by all means love her, embrace her, mentor her, understand her. But more importantly: STOP DEFENDING RACHEL JEANTEL.

Hoodies Up.

______

  1. …that’s my son and I in the green/black photo; #HoodiesUp for Trayvon, exactly one year after Trayvon Martin’s death []
  2. … Although (having earned a law degree, trained as a defense attorney, and worked for/with three of the finest public defender offices in the country) I would zealously defend George Zimmerman in a court of law given the chance, I am not- here, in the present piece- defending him at all. []
  3. State of Florida vs. George Zimmerman: SA No. 1712F04573 18th Judicial Circuit In and For Seminole County, Florida. []
  4. Id. hereafter: FLvGZ []
  5. …re: “potential culpability,” I do not- here- claim that Trayvon is necessarily in any way responsible for his death. But given that via counsel Zimmerman is asserting self-defense, there are those who do [question Trayvon's culpability]. []
  6. …alternately “confronted” vs “was stalked and hunted down by”, depending on the vantage. []
  7. …the word here is indeed “unintereseted”, not “disinterested”, but don’t try to tell redacted a certain professional journalist that “disinterested” and “uninterested” are not synonymous or she’ll probably block you like she blocked me on Twitter for politely correcting her elementary mistake. #SadFace []
  8. …Ms. Jeantel was dressed more properly than prosecution’s witness Jonathan Manalo who- although well spoken and better educated, arrived in court Fri. June 28, 2013 wearing jeans and an untucked shirt. []
  9. …As of this writing, some 18 hours after Lolo Jones’ asinine tweet- it still appears on her Twitter page. Yes we all already screen-shotted it, but I mean really. []
  10. …UPDATE: As of Mon. 7/1/13 [the tweet] no longer appears on @lolojones’ twitter page; glad someone loved her enough to help her delete it. []
  11. …I didn’t even mind people calling a baby girl a cunt, remember? See: “Why I laughed when The Onion called Quvenzhane a Cunt“ []
  12. …”I could be wrong, but I doubt it.” -[Sir] Charles Barkley []
  13. …or, more likely: large bits of both. []
  14. …Florida courtrooms are, after all, a no BS zone. Chad Johnson just served a weekend in jail for patting his own [male] attorney’s rear end in an ill-advised but innocuous congratulatory gesture. []

11 thoughts on “Rachel Jeantel: When Keeping It Real, Goes Wrong.

  1. This is a very intelligent and scholarly perspective on Rachel Jeantel. I agree with many of your points. Her behavior was indefensible.
    As I read different points of views, I loosely think back to 9/11. All of the “if I was on that plane” bravado. How many people quickly retorted you don’t know until you’re in that situation. I can understand Rachel Jeantel a tiny bit. I come from beginnings far worse than humble. Being homeless for a long stint, going days with out food. Times were so hard, there was so much to worry about that we couldn’t/didn’t realize we were marginalized. Those obstacles didn’t stop me from going to college and graduating, and also grad school. I also played college football. I have a great career. All the wonderful things I learned and all of the life coaching I received from mentors, coaches, relatives, professors couldn’t prepare me for what happened April 12th 2005. I was with my best friend at his girlfriends house. He and her father got into an argument, it turned physical. I broke it up and was walking Donovan to his car and he shot him…I was covered in my best friend’s blood. Fast forward a year till the trial. Of course I have to testify. I was there…I saw it all. And I was prepped. I was told my character would be attacked. So would Donovan’s, so would my father’s (he was a known drug dealer, and thug from the past). I was also prepped to see that the defense even convinced his gf/child’s mother to testify for her father. None of that can actually prepare you for the moment. Seeing the person who killed your best friend, alive. People DEFENDING this person, this murderer. Rage is strong, and was hard for me to contain. However, I did. I was professional and articulate. It was not easy. I was 24 at the time. So while I can’t defend Rachel Jeantel I can relate, I can understand. It’s easy to say what we will do until we live that moment. Just like we judge athletes who blow layups in the clutch. It’s not as easy as it seems. There are so many factors at play and everyone doesn’t have the mental capacity to “DELIVER” when called upon.

    What I hope happens from this is that Ms. Jeantel can actually learn and grow from this. What’s disheartening is that I believe it is unlikely that she will.

    • Elisabeth says:

      Wow. That’s powerful. I’ve read it several times and still can’t quite find words to reply. Thank you for taking the time to read my thoughts, but more so- thank you for sharing something so poignant and personal. It is indeed so hard to know what we would do…

  2. [...] the judgment6, and speculating as to the proper rearing7 of prosecution witness Rachel Jeantel [Rachel Jeantel: When Keeping It Real, Goes Wrong]. Enter Molly West: a young woman not from a marginalized community, not lacking in education, who [...]

  3. Victoria says:

    Amen. While I don’t agree with the demonizing of RJ, I cannot join those who attempt to canonize her, either. You said it perfectly.

    • Elisabeth says:

      Thx for the feedback Victoria; it’s good to know I’m not entirely alone here… and “canonize”- perfect! Wish I’d thought of that word when I was writing- that’s precisely what many ppl are doing that I find objectionable.

  4. [...] to be projected onto others who are “too black,” “too ghetto,” or even an example of “when keeping it real goes wrong.” As with Bill Cosby’s increasingly angry outbursts, there is no shortage of those who seek to [...]

    • Elisabeth says:

      Dear Prof. Ciccariello-Maher,

      I enjoyed your essay “The Racial Politics of Guilt: Black Skin, White Justice“, which I was introduced to because you linked to my piece “Rachel Jeantel: When Keeping it Real Goes Wrong.” The paragraph in which you referenced my piece read:

      That [Rachel Jeantel] should be mocked by other black people in a string of embarrassed Twitter tirades would hardly surprise Fanon either, since imposed guilt is so often folded backward into the self as a guilt complex, only to be projected onto others who are “too black,” “too ghetto,” or even an example of “when keeping it real goes wrong.” As with Bill Cosby’s increasingly angry outbursts, there is no shortage of those who seek to blame structural racism on the behavior of its victims.

      I agree with your contentions (and Fanon’s), but I disagree with your suggestion that I am amongst those who “blame[s] structural racism on the behavior of its victims.” Though you did not cite me by name and attribute that particular sentiment directly to me, the inclusion of a link to my piece more than implies that my work is an example of the behavior you describe; it is not.

      To the contrary, I do not blame Ms. Jeantel for structural racism. I took great care to clarify that my issue was not with her linguistic style; her grammar and diction were both understandable and reasonable. I do, however, think as a young adult she should behave with appropriate comportment when in a courtroom. Blaming Ms. Jeantel for structural racism and expecting her to exercise a modicum of decorum when she’s testifying against her friend’s killer are not synonymous contentions.

      -Elisabeth Epps

  5. [...] to be projected onto others who are “too black,” “too ghetto,” or even an example of “when keeping it real goes wrong.” As with Bill Cosby’s increasingly angry outbursts, there is no shortage of those who seek to [...]

  6. [...] to be projected onto others who are “too black,” “too ghetto,” or even an example of “when keeping it real goes wrong.” As with Bill Cosby’s increasingly angry outbursts, there is no shortage of those who seek to [...]

  7. [...] to be projected onto others who are “too black,” “too ghetto,” or even an example of “when keeping it real goes wrong.” As with Bill Cosby’s increasingly angry outbursts, there is no shortage of those who seek to [...]

  8. […] Of the more than three dozen men and women called to the stand by the state, the most startling testimony came from Trayvon’s friend Rachel Jeantel, who was on the phone with Trayvon just moments before his death. Inexcusably, Corey and her prosecutors failed to properly prepare Ms. Jeantel for the emotional trauma and mental exhaustion of testifying and being cross-examined in court. Over the course of two days of cross examination Ms. Jeantel was hostile, recalcitrant, and outright rude. But her hostility was not reserved for defense counsel. Even during direct and re-direct examination by prosecutor de la Rionda, Ms. Jeantel was sullen, abrupt, and uncooperative. [Read: Rachel Jeantel: When Keeping It Real, Goes Wrong.] […]

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