The Trayvon martin case

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:

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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.

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5 thoughts on “The Trayvon martin case

  1. Tim

    The point apparently (but never explicitly) being that getting high and making obscene gestures at a camera is justification for execution by vigilante.

    No, the point being (at least with ones using the more common red shirt photo of Martin) that the media chose to show the victim with a photo of an angelic-looking boy (who looked about 14) and the defendant with a police mugshot where he looks like a sweaty creep. This and such journalistic integrity as NBC editing the 911 call to make Zimmerman sound like a racist, the bizarre labeling of Zimmerman as a “white Hispanic” or entirely ignoring he wasn’t white, and similar points, are built into a larger argument that Zimmerman was the victim of a character assassination by a left-wing media obsessed with political self-mortification and eager to throw a guilty white man on the fire to prove they were the good guys. I know that because I’ve asked people who use these arguments, rather than just making up motives for them based on my own political beliefs.

    Also it’s a pretty pisspoor “execution” where the subject gets to beat the shit out of the executioner first, don’t you think?

    This tweet perfectly sums up the situation:

    Would you have called Trayvon, a 17-year-old, 6-foot, 160-pound man, a “boy” to his face? It sums up something, all right.

    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.

    Yes, it is naive on your part since the entire Western legal system is built on the principle that it is the duty of the prosecution to prove that the defendant is guilty, and that if they cannot do so beyond reasonable doubt then he is declared innocent. Otherwise you can be convicted of a crime without the prosecution presenting any evidence that you actually committed it, see?

    If you actually read the law in question, you would know it was badly flawed in that the person “standing their ground” could actually be the instigator of the altercation, since there was no provision for that as an exemption. All that was needed was to show that Zimmerman had reason to fear for his life, and his injuries (cuts on the back of his head and a broken nose, not “grazes” and a “bloody” one) are consistent with a violent attack. The decision not to prosecute was very simply because there was no way he could possibly be convicted under the law as it stood.

    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.

    Are you being deliberately stupid here? Eyewitness testimony is regarded as unreliable, which is why it is corroborated and compared to both physical evidence and the testimony of other witnesses. The whole point of a trial is that the evidence is imperfect and contradictory, if there was no contradiction you wouldn’t need a jury since one side would have no case.

    Your link says eyewitness testimony is “frequently inaccurate,” and makes recommendations designed to safeguard against systemic production of false testimony. How you parse this as “worse than useless” I’m not sure. Motorists are frequently inattentive, does that mean cars might as well have opaque windscreens?

    Your attitude is dangerously close to lynch mob logic, really. “Screw the evidence and the law, we all know what his kind are like!”

    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.

    She was the prosecutor in both those cases and the one who decided Zimmerman should be charged with murder in the first place. You could just as well incorporate her decision to prosecute a Hispanic man who was clearly innocent according to the letter of the law with murder into a pattern of issuing disportionate charges against minorities, in fact.

    The twenty years is irrelevant since due to Florida’s strange mandatory sentencing laws it was the minimum which could possibly be imposed, and you can hardly fault a judge for that.

    Never mind that her conviction has since been overturned as a mistrial (on the basis that the jury was incorrectly instructed in her case such that the burden of proof was reversed, oddly in exactly the way you argue it should have been for Zimmerman). But as with all hypocrisy arguments, what are you actually saying here? That the Hispanic man and the Black woman should have been convicted? That the US prison system favours Hispanics? (That would be a hell of an assertion) That both should have been declared innocent?

    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.

    If the individual isn’t entrusted with the ultimate duty of protecting their own life, who do you intend to entrust that right to? The police? You’d need an omnipresent police state to get there before the victim becomes a statistic. Or maybe you’d rather citizens have the obligation to defend themselves against armed or more physically able attackers without being allowed any effective means of doing so? You might say “give them what they want,” but what if they want you to bleed to death in an alley for being transsexual?

    As for school shootings, an American is three times more likely to die from being struck by lightning than from being involved in one, and spree killers don’t kill anything like as many people as standard serial killers who don’t use guns, the media just loves sensationalism. You don’t buy it when they talk about crime among immigrants, terrorist involvement among Muslims or fraud among welfare claimants, so how come you do when it’s crime among gun owners? Even the most cursory glance at ownership versus criminal use will tell you the overwhelming majority of legal American gun owners never use their weapons for any unlawful purpose.

    Self-defence and citizen armament is a complex issue with multiple sides, particularly in a country with a huge number of firearms in circulation (fifty percent of smallarms on the planet, by some estimates) which won’t magically vanish if the law changes. Perhaps Zimmerman shouldn’t have had a gun that night, or perhaps (as the Civil Rights movement argued in the 60s) Martin should have had one too. Or don’t you know that Black gun rights groups have repeatedly criticised laws restricting “criminal” (ie cheap) firearms as being aimed at disarming them?

    The bottom line is, if you want to talk about something, you need to actually study it in detail. Repeatedly showing you have no idea what your opponents think, what the law is or how the jury trial system works does not exactly show you to have a well-considered position on the subject.

    Reply
  2. braak

    Yeah, I would say that even worse than the racism and the gun fetish and the materialism, the twin driving forces of American culture are self-righteousness and resentment. Every American grows up nursed on the surety of his own moral rules, and is trained to despise anyone who violates them.

    It’s embarrassing, for one, and exhausting, for another, and for a third I just don’t know what the fuck we’re supposed to do about it.

    Reply
  3. Zenobious

    I found the picture of Martin posing with a gun (upper left in the collage you posted) and the reactions to it a fascinating display of the hypocritical attitudes towards firearms ownership prevalent in the American gun-rights movement. It’s no secret that the gun industry puts significant effort into marketing guns towards youths — whether it’s through licensing deals with blockbuster FPS titles like Modern Warfare to show off their latest whiz-bang gun types, selling “youth models” of their weapons, printing children’s versions of their gun magazines, or having youth-oriented days at gun ranges. So what’s the big deal about Martin posing with a gun? Isn’t that what they *want* — kids growing up to enjoy guns, just like good old-timey Americans who hung a rifle over the door and fought off the evil British and native Americans?

    Well no, of course not, because Martin is black and we assume a person of color with a gun possess it illegally, and with criminal intent. There’s no serious evidence that Martin acquired that gun illegally or used it for anything other than posing in bad cellphone pictures like a million other teens do, but no matter — it is still played up into absolute proof that he is a Bad Person, and thus it’s OK to shoot him in “self-defense” despite his actual armament at the time being some skittles and an iced tea.

    Meanwhile, Zimmerman actually DID possess a gun, and DID use it to kill someone in very dubious circumstances — but now all of a sudden having a fascination with killing weaponry and carrying them everywhere with you is a sign that one is a law-abiding, trust-worthy member of the community. The gun-rights community goes through such an incredible 180 to reach this conclusion that it’s a wonder their necks haven’t all snapped.

    The obvious subtext here is that they think guns aren’t just for self-defense: guns are for self-defense *against blacks.* Blacks owning a firearm themselves is an upsetting of the natural order of things, and any who so much as appear in a picture with one are assumed to be criminals. This is the exact same mentality displayed in the post Civil War efforts of the KKK to ban gun ownership by blacks (so that they couldn’t stop themselves from being lynched or otherwise abused, of course), but *clearly* using similar logic to suggest that Martin was asking for it isn’t racially motivated at all… uh huh.

    Reply
  4. Andrea Harris

    Unfortunately I can’t say I was sure Zimmerman would get convicted. I was in Miami when they had the riots after Arthur McDuffie was killed by police (he was wanted for numerous speeding tickets, truly a monster of crime!). After that, I never had faith in the US justice system, but especially Florida’s (because I lived there), ever again. I knew Zimmerman would get off, though I “hoped” maybe This Time Would Be Different. But it never is.

    Reply
    1. magpiewhotypes

      I was surprised by the number of (American) people in my acquaintance who thought Zimmerman would be convicted and seemed genuinely shocked when he wasn’t. This story has played itself out so many times, and the ending never changes.

      Reply

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