"What does not change / is the will to change"
--Charles Olson, "The Kingfishers"

Monday, July 15, 2013

Racial bias and the canard of self-defense

Like many, I was saddened by the failure of a Florida jury to do justice following the murder of Trayvon Martin. But I was only nominally surprised. Florida law and the Sanford police made it nearly impossible for justice to actually be done. They jury, unfortunately, may have been following the law in this case -- which is why we need to put the law on trial.

The only thing we know for sure is that Trayvon Martin was shot to death by George Zimmerman after Zimmerman saw the hoodie-clad kid in Zimmerman's Florida neighborhood. Zimmerman called police and then proceeded to follow the teen, which led to a fight and the fatal shot. There were no witnesses and, thanks to the seeming indifference of police, no physical evidence.

The entire case depended upon the characterization of Zimmerman as a seething racist and overzealous police-wannabe. This proved too tall an order and Zimmerman was acquitted.

We can view this trial singularly -- as just an effort to determine the guilt or innocence of Zimmerman, which it of course was -- but that ignores the larger racial subtext and the larger legal structure that probably created the circumstances that led to Martin's death.

I have no idea whether Zimmerman is an overt racist -- the prosecution failed to make that case -- but he did appear to exhibit the kind of tacit and endemic racism that plagues the larger society. He sees a 17-year-old African American wearing a hoodie and he reacts -- the same way that too many react when we see a black kid on the street and assume the worst. That is what triggered the events of Feb. 26, 2012.

And this endemic racism was compounded by Florida's "stand your ground" law, which allows people in Florida to claim self defense and to use deadly force if they claim that they felt afraid -- not that they were actually under attack or that there was an imminent threat.

Zimmerman claimed self-defense, relying on both the "stand your ground" concept and allegations that Martin had attacked him and was beating his head into the sidewalk. There were no witnesses to the scuffle, though Zimmerman did sustain some injuries. If Martin and Zimmerman did fight, isn't it fair to assume that Zimmerman's actions -- his decision to ignore dispatcher warnings not to follow Martin -- left the teen fearful? That's the question that Eugene Robinson raises in his column today. The jury, he said, along with police and the initial prosecutors bought into the notion that "black boys in this country are not allowed to be children."
They are assumed to be men, and to be full of menace.

I don’t know if the jury, which included no African Americans, consciously or unconsciously bought into this racist way of thinking — there’s really no other word. But it hardly matters, because police and prosecutors initially did.

The assumption underlying their ho-hum approach to the case was that Zimmerman had the right to self-defense but Martin — young, male, black — did not. The assumption was that Zimmerman would fear for his life in a hand-to-hand struggle but Martin — young, male, black — would not.
The confluence of these -- the cultural acceptance of the notion that young black males are predators and automatically inspire fear and a law that allows a man with a gun to use it if he feels afraid -- has to be addressed. Florida's "stand your ground" law -- and the variations of it on the books in many other states -- needs to be put on trial.

***
An addendum comes from Ryan Grim on Huffington Post, who pretty well sums up the series of bad decisions in play -- and the seventh, stated ironically, which pretty much sums up how Florida law treated Zimmerman and Martin differently. Martin, Grim says, "could have chosen to not defend himself."
It's important to note that the jury's verdict sends a message to anyone confronted or pursued by another man: If you engage the confrontation, even an act of self defense could be used as justification to shoot and kill you. What led up to the confrontation in the Martin-Zimmerman case was ruled irrelevant; only Zimmerman's state of mind at the time he shot him was to be taken into account by the jury. That doesn't leave someone being followed through their neighborhood many options other than fighting back.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I have wondered if Zimmerman could have deliberately caused his own superficial "injuries" -- cuts, bruises -- to give the appearance that he was assaulted by Trayvon. He could have hit his own head on the concrete and caused that cuts/bruises without injuring himself too much. He had the training about self-defense to know that he needed to show some evidence of a need to defend himself against something.