Consistency is the Hobgoblin, or Stand Your Ground

16 07 2013

I’ve been struggling with my reaction to George Zimmerman being found not guilty of the murder of Trayvon Martin. I try really hard to keep myself honest, to remember when I felt differently about an arguably similar situation – especially when I made public or semi-public statements of opinion. When I hear people talking about Barack Obama being the antichrist, or Hitler, or some other hyperbolic evil, I remember statements I entertained, and statements I personally made, about George W. Bush. I can tell myself  that the people making the statements about President Obama have less evidence to support their claims, but I realize that they’d likely disagree and can probably cite their evidence as well as I can. The Zimmerman case has left me in a similar rhetorical sand trap. There was another murder case in Florida not too long ago, similarly lost by the prosecution, with similar levels of public interest. When that trial ended, when Casey Anthony was found not guilty of the murder of her daughter, I thought the public outrage was misplaced. The system functioned as the system was meant to function. There was no evidence of chicanery, no bribes, no shady back room deals. The prosecution failed to make its case, and that was that.

When I found myself feeling such disappointment and sadness over the Zimmerman verdict, I felt hypocritical. Hadn’t the system worked? Was there clear malfeasance that changed the verdict? Why should I be bothered by this outcome when I was so dismissive of people’s rage at Casey Anthony’s acquittal? I’ve thought about writing this post several times over the last few days, but that sense of imbalance held me back. Finally, though, reading David Simon’s reaction made it click, and I’m ready to say my piece with less fear of seeming like a hypocrite.

Here’s why.

The Casey Anthony case didn’t matter. It wasn’t a deep, troubling, and fundamental question about the American reality given human form. The death of a child is a tragedy, certainly, and it is worthwhile to determine the causes and mete out punishment where appropriate. It’s entirely reasonable to feel that Casey Anthony caused the death of her daughter, whether by direct action with intent or by lethally awful parenting, and it’s entirely reasonable to want her to pay for that. Still, you’re unlikely to find many who would argue that Casey Anthony was in the right, and that her actions or inactions were somehow laudable. The case wasn’t about deeper issues than whether a young, seemingly irresponsible woman caused the death of her child. The country’s interest was salacious. The central figures were an attractive-by-reality-TV-standards party girl and her murdered/martyred very young daughter. There were strong notes of drunkenness and sex, with hints of child abuse and even incest thrown in for good measure. It was a powerfully melodramatic soap opera.

Not so the death of Trayvon Martin.

There some uncertainties surrounding Martin’s death, but there are also some absolute facts. First, there is no dispute whatsoever that George Zimmerman fired the gunshot that took Trayvon Martin’s life. Second, we know with complete certainty that Zimmerman was told not to pursue Martin by a 911 operator but chose to do so. We know that Zimmerman’s actions as a neighborhood watch captain go directly against what neighborhood watch organizations and police volunteer support groups tell watch members to do, and that the 911 operator was not the first person to tell him to “observe from a safe distance.” We know that Martin was doing nothing illegal, simply returning from the store to his father’s girlfriend’s house, where he was staying at the time.

All of these are known facts. No ambiguity. The ambiguity comes from how they combine. Was Zimmerman “standing his ground,” despite the fact that he deliberately followed Martin instead of waiting for police to arrive? What of Martin’s right to stand his ground? Zimmerman believed that Martin was in his neighborhood for nefarious reasons. Based on the testimony of Rachel Jenteal, Martin expressed concern about a man he perceived to be following him. Did he have a right to confront someone pursuing him for no good reason? Did race play a role? The Miami Herald article linked above mentions black residents (especially young black residents) treated as suspects, either in thefts with which they had nothing to do or simply for seeming out of place. What role did Zimmerman’s gun play in the way things played out? These questions touch on thorny, divisive, highly charged issues. Even if Zimmerman acted without an ounce of racial animus, the progress of the case, from the initial choice by police not to arrest Zimmerman, to public commentary and characterization of Martin as a “thug,” to the final verdict, has become a racial barometer to many observers. Media narratives following the verdict bear this out, with commentators breathlessly awaiting Rodney King-style riots that never came. One of the commenters on Simon’s blog post took the absence of riots as a sign that the black community realizes that Martin was somehow in the wrong. I wonder what the same commenter would have said had there been riots. Perhaps something about the “violent natures” of “those people.” I’m jumping to conclusions, which isn’t fair, but it’s just as unfair that George Zimmerman jumped to conclusions about why a young man was in “his” neighborhood, and that ended up with that young man dead. “These assholes always get away,” he said to the 911 operator. His mind was made up.

All of this is a kind of window dressing, an effort to make me feel better about feeling worse, a way to tell myself it’s not hypocritical that I’m furious at this jury verdict when I thought the fury over the Anthony verdict was asinine. In both cases, a young person died needlessly. In both cases, the likely killer was acquitted (though again, we know beyond any doubt who killed Trayvon Martin). Only one of those verdicts served to confirm to a huge portion of the population that their rights and their lives are trumped by someone else’s paranoia, that they should never stand their ground against someone following them, because the person following them might stand his or her ground with a gun. It confirms to them that there are certain places where their very presence is cause for alarm. It confirms that the color of their skin and the style of their clothes are probable cause. They are reminded of Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell, Patrick Dorismond, Ousmane Zongo, and many others. Once again, they get the message – you shouldn’t be here. We don’t trust you. Your life isn’t worth anywhere near as much as mine. A lot of people have said that the election of a black president is proof that racism is over in America. I wonder what Trayvon Martin thought about that?

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