I’m writing this post several hours after George Zimmerman was acquitted of the murder of Trayvon Martin.
I started this blog as a place to post my reviews and to have fun throwing stones at bad fantasy trilogies, but I feel like I’ve got something to say about this. I’m neither the most informed or the most qualified to write about the subject, but I hope you’ll indulge me.
The reaction to this entire fiasco has been frustrating to watch. Naturally a large contingent of the right-wing political spectrum took the shooting as an opportunity to unleash their barely-latent racism and construct a horned straw-man of Martin as some sort of urban boogeyman. You may have seen images like this doing the rounds:
The point apparently (but never explicitly) being that getting high and making obscene gestures at a camera is justification for execution by vigilante. For a depressingly large number of people, the entire case begins and ends with those photos. Martin acted in a way that they view as stereo-typically black and threatening, therefore he was a violent thug who Zimmerman put down for the good of his community. No need for a trial. Give the man a medal. Anyone who puts stock in those images is saying this, even if they’ll never admit it, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
I’ll admit that until today I didn’t allow myself to completely arrive at any pre-conceived judgement of Zimmerman’s guilt because I’ve read too much about how broken and unfair the American justice system is, particularly in regards to highly publicized crimes, to place absolute trust in it. Oh, I still fully expected him to be found guilty- was looking forward to it, in fact. I just wasn’t ready to publicly condemn the man until a jury (who I assumed, naively, would make the right choice) had arrived at that conclusion first.
When I woke up this morning I was floored to see that Zimmerman had been acquitted. Then I started to read about the trial and I had to check to make sure I hadn’t stepped into some sort of surreal twilight zone-esque parallel dimension. This tweet perfectly sums up the situation:
That George Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin isn’t in question. The issue that the trial was supposed to settle was whether or not the shooting was self-defense. The position of Zimmerman’s defenders, his lawyer and, apparently, the jury was that Zimmerman was justified in killing an unarmed 17 year old unless the prosecution could prove beyond any reasonable doubt that he wasn’t. Or put another way, George Zimmerman was assumed innocent until Trayvon Martin could be proven not guilty. Apparently there wasn’t enough evidence to acquit the victim and so the killer was acquitted instead.
(By the way, here’s Zimmerman’s brother speculating, based on absolutely nothing at all, that Martin was trying to buy drugs and guns. Since turnabout is fair play here’s a woman claiming that Zimmerman molested her as a child and that him and his entire family are flaming racists)
Forgive me if this is naive on my part, put I was operating under the assumption that if you shoot an unarmed teenager the burden of evidence rests on you to prove that you were in the right, and you better have some absolutely fucking airtight proof that you were acting in self-defense. Zimmerman’s defenders would have you believe that that level of proof was offered at the trial. I disagree.
There was some sort of fight between Martin and Zimmerman just before the shooting occurred, during which Martin apparently injured his soon to be killer. When he was arrested Zimmerman had a bloodied nose, scratches on the back of his head and the back of his shirt was wet, presumably from damp grass. Many people are presenting the circumstances under which this fight started as the crux of the issue. I don’t agree with that for reasons I’ll get into, but let’s assume that’s the case.
Martin, as everyone knows, was on his way home after buying skittles and some iced tea when Zimmerman, part of a community watch program started in response to a recent crime wave in the area, spotted him and reported him to the police as suspicious. When Martin ran off Zimmerman got out of his car (against the instructions of police) and followed him. That’s all anyone knows for sure but, somehow, I have trouble believing that the blame for what happened lies with the unarmed teenager and not the armed vigilante chasing him.
Zimmerman’s version of events is bolstered by several eyewitness accounts, which immediately set alarm bells ringing in my head because eyewitness testimony is worse than useless and has been directly responsible for many miscarriages of justice over the years. The Innocence Project states that eyewitness mis-identification is the single greatest cause of wrongful convictions, and while that’s not directly applicable to this situation it should be more than enough to be wary of taking Zimmerman’s side (also, the eyewitness testimony is extremely shaky and riddled with contradictions anyway).
Martin’s death has been heavily framed as an issue of race, and that is undoubtedly the case. People of a certain nature like to point out that Zimmerman didn’t identify Martin to the police as black until they asked, which you will notice sounds like, but is not actually the same as, saying that Zimmerman didn’t peg him as suspicious in the first place due to the colour of his skin. And even if Zimmerman wasn’t a racist, a disturbingly large proportion of the sideline commentators are. To many people all over America, this is nothing more than a case of someone finally having the balls to act out their racist power fantasies, and if they have their way it won’t be the last.
If you need any more proof that there’s a racial angle to this case, consider this article about a black woman invoking the exact same stand your ground laws as Zimmerman to justify shooting at an abusive husband, with the involvement of the same district attorney, and being sentenced to 20 years in jail.
There’s more to it than just race, even if that is justifiably the over-riding topic of the post-trial conversation. America’s attitude to guns once again rears its ugly head, as we’re forced to ask why a civilian vigilante was roaming the streets with a loaded firearm. To suggest that this will trigger a public debate on the wisdom of gun ownership when an elementary school being shot up fizzled from the public consciousness in a matter of months would be optimism to the point of stupidity, but I’ll leave it out there. Zimmerman shouldn’t have been carrying a gun.
But Zimmerman didn’t go out that night just armed with a pistol. He carried with him that element of the American psyche that so often underlies situations in which the law sides with the powerful over the powerless- an unassailable moral conviction in his own right to hold judgement over another individual, especially if that individual is young, and especially if that individual is a person of colour. For a long time I’ve believed that this attitude forms a major part of the body from which springs the multi-headed hydra of hyper-authoritarian bigotry that much of right wing America has become, and it’s certainly on display in the reactions of right wing commentators, who appear to hold sacrosanct Zimmerman’s (and by extension their own) right to harass anyone they want at the slightest hint of wrong-doing. They’re the power-mad hall monitors of the country, except they have guns and the backing of a justice system that’s set up to favour them.
Back in March I reviewed West Of Memphis and mentioned that the issues the film addresses have been something of a passion of mine. Normally when the American justice system fails it results in an innocent person (the majority of whom, by the way, are black) being pulled helplessly into the system, sometimes at the cost of their life. The Trayvon Martin case is a sobering reminder that sometimes it’s the dead who are betrayed as well.
I’m not sure what the long-term impact of this will be, if anything. There’s talk of demonstrations, to which I say “absolutely”, and of course people are raising the specter of rioting and vaguely defined social unrest. I think this is important to keep in mind going forward:
More Zimmermans, indeed. We put guns in their hands and let them loose on the streets, and now we’ve given them legitimacy in the eyes of the law as well.