Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Some Reflections on the Zimmerman Verdict

By now everyone in America knows that the gun-wielding neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman has been acquitted of all charges in the February 2012 fatal shooting of 17 year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida. Indeed, the hold this case had on the American public surpassed its objective stature in the grand scheme of national and international events. But, of course, this trial had prominent elements that made it more than ordinary. In particular, the shooting of a young, unarmed black teenager by a mixed-race (white, Hispanic) perpetrator served to bring into the nation's consciousness, once again, the spectre of our country's original sin, the enslavement of and, later, discrimination against, people of sub-Saharan African ancestry.

The reactions that poured forth almost immediately after the verdict was announced were in equal measures unsurprising and disappointing. Opinionators on the left, not surprisingly, saw the verdict as a miscarriage of justice. Indeed, it was hailed as evidence that New South "justice" differed no one whit from that dispensed in the Old South, that killings of African Americans are tolerated the way lawmen used to avert their gazes from lynchings and the like. On the right, an ugly smugness set in, at least as I could discern from the opinions expressed on my Facebook feed. Even the fact that the case went to a jury trial was blamed on the supposedly "liberal media," who "sensationalized" a clear-cut case of "self-defense" with their "typical" race-baiting tactics. In a particularly execrable article, Roger L. Simon blames President Obama for inserting himself into the proceedings and forcing prosecution in a case that "should never have gone to trial" because "there was, virtually, no evidence to convict George Zimmerman."

I am sympathetic to the verdict's left-leaning critics, particularly to those who, like the Washington Post's Jonathan Capehart, understand its potential social ramifications for young black American men in the Land of the Free. As Capehart says, "One of the burdens of being a black male is carrying the heavy weight of other people’s suspicions." The truth of that statement, and its relevance to the matter at hand, is obvious even to the present writer who never has had to experience such suspicions. Nevertheless, one could certainly argue in this case that the blame for the verdict, if fault is to be assessed, should be laid at the feet of an overly-zealous and inept prosecution. Second degree murder? Even to this writer, who believes Zimmerman should be incarcerated for his actions, considers such a charge to be a stretch. Manslaughter would have been an easier sell, but even then they would have had to do a better job (and it really shouldn't have been that hard) debunking the defendant's claim of acting in self-defense.

Even so, however, convictions are hard to get by design. In the best column I have read on the verdict, the Washington Post's Ruth Marcus trots out the famous quotation of Sir William Blackstone (d. 1780) from his Commentaries of the Laws of England to the effect that "It is better that ten guilty persons escape than one innocent suffer." And that is how it should be to anyone who values human life, prefers justice to revenge, and, if Christian, believe that a day of final and perfect justice is coming from the outside in the future. Objectively guilty people may escape justice in this world, but the day is coming, as I confess daily in the words of the Apostles' Creed, that Jesus Christ will return in glory at the last day from God's right hand in heaven "to judge the quick and the dead." If indeed the law is designed to make it difficult to convict people of crimes—after all, guilt beyond a reasonable doubt is a pretty stringent threshold—then, as Marcus rightly states, "In the end, society must accept that there is not always a perfect fit between a criminal justice system and justice." And so it appears likely to have been the case in this trial.

On the other hand, I have no sympathy whatsoever for the viewpoint of Zimmerman's champions on the right. While it may be true that race simpliciter wasn't the most pressing consideration in the Martin case, it doesn't take a Ph.D. in theoretical physics to discern that it was, at the least, a contributing factor both in the act itself and in the verdict reached by the jury. Would George Zimmerman have acted as he did had young Martin been an unknown white kid strolling through the neighborhood? Please. As Zimmerman himself said to the 911 dispatcher whose sound advice he ultimately failed to heed, "He has his hand in his waistband . . . He has something in his hand . . . These ***holes always get away with it." To pretend, as the Roberts Court did last month in its unconscionable evisceration of the Voting Rights Act, that racism has been largely eradicated in the South, is ideologically-based lunacy. Just read the comments to any article or column on a controversial issue in Philly.com to see that "Archie Bunker conservatives" (yes, Carroll O'Connor's Bunker was a caricature, but just barely one) run rampant even in today's supposedly tolerant Northeast, which doesn't have the legacy of Jim Crow to deal with. With regard to the jury, ask yourself one further question: Would Zimmerman have been acquitted had he been black and shot to death an unarmed white kid walking through a black neighborhood? It's unlikely. At the very least he would have had a hard time gathering such a large army of supporters among conservative white people. There may be indeed be a legitimate phenomenon of white liberal guilt, of which I can be guilty at times, moderate though I may be. White conservative guilt, not so much—white conservatives aren't disposed to feel guilty (or apologize) for much, if anything, at all.

This morning I saw a meme from a group that calls itself "Young Americans for Liberty," in which President Obama was (rightly) criticized for the deaths caused by his drone program, but which decried the "hatred" shown by Facebook posters toward Zimmerman, who was "accused and acquitted in a fair trial examining all the evidence available." That settles it then, does it? I wonder how many of that group's members reacted the same way after the infamous O. J. Simpson verdict, likewise the result of the toxic brew of race-based politics and inept prosecution. Let's examine the well-known, relevant facts of the case: (1) Zimmerman had a history of making 911 calls to voice concerns about "suspicious-looking" black people in his gated community; (2) Zimmerman was clearly instructed by the 911 dispatcher to stay in his truck and wait for law enforcement; (3) Zimmerman got out of his truck anyway and followed Martin with a gun; (4) Martin was unarmed, unless one wants to describe skittles and an iced tea as weaponry; (5) the shooting resulted after Martin, annoyed by being followed, got into a fight with Zimmerman—a fight he was clearly winning, because of which he found himself dead.

Martin was certainly no role model for teen behavior. He had had his run-ins with the law and, if the testimony of the young woman who was Martin's last conversation partner is to be believed, was deeply infected by racism himself (he allegedly referred to Zimmerman, whom he had noticed following him, as a "creepy ***-cracka"). But the point is that such character issues are irrelevant to the issue at hand. The issue is simply this: was Zimmerman justified in using lethal force in subduing the unarmed Martin in a confrontation he himself had precipitated by his foolish attempt to secure vigilante justice? Let's be entirely clear here. It is Zimmerman, not Martin, who is responsible for the latter's death. He started it and, despite Martin's fateful, macho retaliatory response, he ended it with a simple pull of the trigger. The Philadelphia Daily News' retired columnist Elmer Smith, who as a black man feels the existential impact of this verdict in a way I, as a white man, cannot, expressed the matter elegantly: "Does the law allow you to kill someone because you are losing a fight that you started?" Well, in Florida, I guess the answer is "yes."

The simple fact of the matter is that the Martin killing was entirely due to the "liberal" (not in a political sense, of course) gun laws on the books in Florida. Without "conceal carry" laws, Zimmerman would not have had the means to use lethal force against Martin. Even more importantly, Zimmerman would not have been emboldened to play the hero and enact "community justice" against the "other" with whom he felt uncomfortable walking in his neighborhood. This, at its basis, is the main reason for my opposition to such laws, as well as to such others as the "Castle Doctrine" and "Stand Your Ground" laws. Allowing people to carry and use lethal weapons emboldens them to use them even if not absolutely necessary, if only they "feel" threatened ("Shoot first and ask questions later. You can always claim self-defense.") Simply put, putting such weapons in the hands of the George Zimmermans of the world is like throwing a lit match into a parched, drought-stricken pine forest.


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