Tuesday, July 16, 2013

America killed Trayvon. Zimmerman only pulled the trigger.

George Zimmerman was today acquitted of all charges relating to the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. Did the jury make the right decision? Yes and no.

(Update: it's been revealed that one of the six jurors believed Zimmerman guilty of second-degree murder and two thought him guilty of manslaughter. For what it's worth, I think manslaughter would have been the correct verdict... but I don't live in Florida.)

With the information presented to them, within the context of the legal system of Florida, and the US more broadly, perhaps they made the only decision they could make. That is not the same, however, as justice being served. Zimmerman appears to have acted in a way that is fully in accordance with Florida law. So the real question is: What the hell is wrong with a state, or a country, that deems this to be legal?

While the exact details are disputed, here's what most of us can agree on in the case:

Zimmerman sees Martin walking through his neighbourhood, and believing his behaviour to be suspicious, follows him. Zimmerman is armed. Martin becomes aware he is being followed, quite understandably freaks out, and probably attacks him. Zimmerman shoots Martin as he feels (justifiably or otherwise) that his life is being threatened.

Of course, the same logic could be used to apply to Martin; if he attacked Zimmerman, it was because he felt threatened, as a teen, by an older man following him down the street. In other words, we have two people defending themselves against each other. I don't know if that is an actual thing.

Guilty or not, this incident could not happen without two highly problematic pre-existing conditions: the assumption that a young black man is by definition suspicious and threatening, and the right for a person to bear a deadly weapon and use it whenever they feel threatened.

It has been pushed by certain sections of conservative America that Trayvon Martin was indeed a dangerous thug, who probably was looking to rob a house in that neighbourhood, and whose attack on Zimmerman was in line with his thuggish personality. These are things we cannot know.

Likewise, some on the left have pushed the idea that Zimmerman had a racist grudge against black people. Again, I don't think that's something we can really know.

But let's ask this question: if a white male teenager was walking through that neighbourhood, stopping occasionally to look at houses, would Zimmerman have deemed it sufficiently threatening to "tool up" and pursue him?

That's debatable of course. But the big question for me is this:

If Zimmerman was not armed, or does not live in a nation under the sway of the gun lobby, does he even confront Trayvon Martin at all?

I say no. The gun George Zimmerman carried played a larger role that merely defending its holder. It defines the whole episode.

The gun gives the courage to play big-game hunter, and stalk the young man who he deemed to be threatening. The gun means that Zimmerman is more brazen about his pursuit than he would have otherwise been; he is indiscreet enough for Martin to spot him and confront him. And the gun means that when Martin confronts or attacks Zimmerman, Zimmerman does not feel the need to defuse the situation, or turn and flee.

Unfortunately, both lived in a place that gives legal justification for vigilantism, in a way that other Western nations do not. In any other Western country, someone worried that there is potentially dangerous teenager - so scary as to put you in fear of your life - roaming through the neighbourhood does not go confront that teenager, alone.

George Zimmerman instigated a situation which he had no business being in, then resorting to deadly force as soon as the situation looked bad for him.

Florida allows this kind of thing. Below is Florida's self-defence statute (emphasis mine):

A person who is not engaged in an unlawful activity and who is attacked in any other place where he or she has a right to be has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.

No duty to retreat. That passage makes it different from most other self-defence statutes around the world, which tend to treat violence as a last resort, to be used only after all other reasonable options have been exhausted or impossible.

Just say I'm in Florida, I'm armed, and I have the confidence that comes with carrying a gun, knowing that I can pull it out if I ever feel threatened. Where is the disincentive for me to avoid conflict with anyone I could potentially have a disagreement or altercation with?

This is an extremely dangerous legal precedent, especially now that this case has acquired so much publicity.

If you don't think there's something sick about the US justice system, have a look at these recent cases:

Jury acquits Texas man for murder of escort who refused sex

Florida mom gets 20 years for firing warning shots


  1. Americans (esp. white Americans) fool themselves into thinking that the justice system works properly and fair.

    It is anything but.

    The society in the USA is so violent, I had to leave. Most Americans seem blind to it. Most blacks are not blind. Sometimes I wonder why they stay there. I couldn't.

  2. Wandered over from supreme Write, and I'm excited to explore your blog some more...

  3. Good blog post, Eurasian, and I think you're absolutely right.

    The problem, as Jimmy Carter, Byron Wong :), Ta-Nehisi Coates, and others have said, the courts decide legal matters, not moral matters. That's the way it's always been, and that's the way it SHOULD be. Zimmerman should be (and probably was) tried according to the law, and according to the law, he was innocent.

    That said, the law needs to be changed. It's amazing how easy it is to obtain and carry around here, and the laws don't encourage common sense thinking.