My son has a friend who took the class required by the state to get a concealed weapon permit. He says that the instructor started the class by saying this. ‘I’m going to tell you something, and if you don’t like it, I recommend that you leave. This is what getting a concealed carry permit means. It means that you agree to lose every argument you have, with anyone, for the rest of your life. If you’re in a bar, and people start arguing, and it gets heated, you will back down. You will apologize and you will leave. Every time, for the rest of your life. Because otherwise, you may find yourself in a situation in which you have to draw your weapon. At which point, anything might happen. And if you are forced to fire, and you take the life of another human being, that moment will haunt you forever. So if you want to stay in the class, remember what I said. You just agreed to never, ever, win an argument.’
And a third of the class walked out.
I thought about this over the weekend, when the George Zimmerman verdict came down. I didn’t watch the entire trial, but I did watch some of it, and I watched quite a bit of the legal commentary afterwards. I found the verdict infuriating, sickening, horrific. I also think it’s quite possible that the jury got it right. The legal experts seem to have thought so–so did the folks posting on the Law sub-reddit thread. The presumption of innocence is central to our legal system, and if the prosecution did not prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt, then Zimmerman should go free. That doesn’t mean we have to like it.
What I wanted was for the jury to hear the entire narrative. That’s our focus, as non-lawyers, as citizens watching the trial. And that entire narrative is one in which Zimmerman’s actions were incomprehensibly wrong. Let me break it down in a way that makes sense to me.
Zimmerman was a neighborhood watch guy, and he saw Trayvon Martin, a Black teenager, walking down the street. He called 9-1-1, and was told to back down, to not worry about it, to walk away. Instead, he followed Martin in his car. Got out of his car, confronted Martin, which led to an argument,which led to a fight, which led to a gun being fired and Martin’s death.
So step A–he ignored the instructions given him by the 9-1-1 dispatcher. Zimmerman was wrong, completely wrong to do so. He was morally wrong, tactically wrong, situationally wrong, ethically wrong.
Step B–he followed Trayvon. He was wrong.
Step C–he got out of the car. Wrong.
Step D–confronted Trayvon. Wrong.
Do you see where I’m going with this? Every single step of the way, George Zimmerman acted wrongly. Step A: wrong, Step B: wrong, Step C: wrong. It wasn’t until Step Z, in which he was losing the fight, getting his head pounded against the pavement (if that even happened), choosing to defend himself with his firearm, that he did something that might be considered even defensible. He was wrong up to that point, completely, unequivocally wrong, for steps A-Y. Step Z, there’s reasonable doubt about whether he was wrong or right.
But step Z is the only one the jurors were allowed to consider in the court of law. Steps A-Y were legally irrelevant.
I’ve heard it said that the prosecutors botched the case, in part by overcharging it, and in part by presenting it badly. I don’t see how that’s relevant. According to Florida law, the only legal issue at stake in the trial had to do with what I’m calling Step Z. The only way the prosecution could have won would have been to try for some bizarre sort of jury nullification. They would have had to have persuaded the jury to ignore the judge’s instructions, and rule, not according to the law, which limited them to Step Z, but on the whole narrative, Steps A-Z. I suppose it’s barely possible that might have worked.
In fact, I don’t think the A-Z narrative should start with Zimmerman’s response to the 9-1-1 instructions he received. My question is: ‘why call 9-1-1 at all?’ As far as I can see, here’s what he saw, here’s what prompted his 9-1-1 call. He saw a pedestrian walking down the sidewalk in his neighborhood.
That’s it. That’s all.
And that’s where race enters the equation.
I don’t have any special insight into George Zimmerman’s soul. But I can’t see what else could have prompted an emergency call. Because what George Zimmerman saw was A Threat. He saw, not just a kid, not just a pedestrian on a legitimate errand. He saw The Other. He saw something that made him think that a potentially threatening situation might develop. And there was nothing for him to see except what was there–a Black kid, wearing a hoodie. And that’s how, for many Americans, we construct race. As Other. As threatening.
I’ve heard it said that this would never have happened if Trayvon Martin had been white. I’m not sure that’s true. If this mysterious pedestrian that had Zimmerman all worked up had been a white kid with a shaved head and a swastika tattoo on his neck wearing paratrooper boots and camos, he may well have reacted the same way. Again, he would have seen someone Other, seen A Threat. What’s appalling, though, is that a teenage kid, minding his own business, on a snack run to a 7-11 could be seen as so terribly threatening that a guy like George Zimmerman would overreact so horrendously.
Even scarier was some of the local reaction. On the Deseret News website, they posted the basic AP story about the verdict. The message boards exploded. Here are some of the comments:
“There are still some jurors who won’t be bullied.” “Speaks volumes that only one group is expected to start rioting.” “The prosecutors are cowards. There was never enough evidence to convict, much less arrest him. Apparently, fear of rioting, being called “racist” by mindless lemmings, or blind hatred of gun-assisted self defense overcame their consciences. Pathetic.” ” A state has no business interfering in a persons right to defend themself for political or any other reasons.” “The prosecution should have never let racial and political influences take this to court in the first place.”
But on Facebook, in response to the well-meaning suggestion that Zimmerman ought to have just offered Trayvon a ride home, this: “Trayvon would have robbed George if he had offered, and probably car jacked George’s car. Admittedly, we are all being fed political propaganda, and George was a fool in butting in where he didn’t belong. Just because Trayvon was scouting out places to burglarize should not have been George’s concern. But since no good deed ever goes unpunished, good old George decided to tell Trayvon to get the hell out of the neighborhood, and Trayvon attacked.”
In other words, George Zimmerman was not wrong in taking steps A-Y. He was only wrong in being bad at fighting.
I am frightened for our country. I thought it was a good thing in our country when we elected a Black man as President. When I saw photos of Tea Party rallies with men wearing T shirts that read ‘Keep the White House White,’ I thought it was just a minor thing, a vestigial remnant of our bad ‘ol past. And yes, progress has been made, slowly and painfully, but progress nonetheless.
But the George Zimmerman case is so . . . elemental. Far too many Americans see threats everywhere. See their fellow citizens as threatening, see their government as threatening, see the President of the United States as sinister and scary and threatening. For many people, George Zimmerman wasn’t just a guy who flunked neighborhood safety 101. He wasn’t just a guy who overreacted horribly and tragically to a completely non-existent threat. He wasn’t just a guy who mis-read a totally innocent situation, with horrendous consequences. He wasn’t just a guy who flunked the first rule of gun ownership: meekness. He was a hero, acquitted by fellow heroes on a jury.
On one of the Sunday talk shows, various commentators suggested that it was time for ‘a national conversation about race.’ I disagree. I think it’s time for people who call themselves Christian to re-examine their souls, and their attitudes towards their brothers and sisters.