When I learned yesterday that George Zimmerman was innocent of all charges in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, I was surprised – I thought for sure he would be found guilty. After all, a young unarmed man was shot dead. Had Zimmerman listened to the police and let Trayvon Martin walk away this would not have happened. Of course, he was guilty.
But the jury thought otherwise.
I am on vacation so I didn’t have to preach yesterday morning, which was a good thing because I probably would have raised this in some way during the service. A little time helps to ease my immediate anger at the verdict. A bit of distance makes me less inclined to don a hoodie and to think what’s really needed here.
Of course I wanted peace to prevail, even if it was a slightly uneasy peace. Violence would have been a disservice to everyone and would have played into what I see as the underlying emotions and issues in all of this.
Ultimately, this was a case of “your word against mine.” Except in this case one of the speakers is dead, slain by the other speaker. So, all we have is George Zimmerman’s account of the incident. He felt physically threatened by Trayvon Martin and thus, used deadly force to defend himself.
Although Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law was not invoked by the defense attorney’s nor was it raised by the prosecution team, ignoring its influence on this case is myopic. Zimmerman claimed self-defense, which might very well be the case, even if his initial action, to pursue Trayvon Martin against the advice of the police, brought about this tragedy.
Trayvon Martin is dead because Florida passed a law that allows people to use deadly force in case they feel threatened, even if the threat is in retreat. Add to this the state’s fairly loose regulation of guns, and this was a tragedy waiting to happen. There will be others.
Apparently forensic evidence found that Zimmerman shot Martin while the latter was standing over the former. Zimmerman could claim that he felt threatened and there is no way to contradict that feeling.
There was a fight between Zimmerman and Martin (I say that because this is what Zimmerman said – no one really was clear). Apparently, the latter was pounding on Zimmerman. Wasn’t Martin feeling under threat, too? As he didn’t have a gun, he could only use what he had, his fists. But they’re no match for a gun. So, reflecting upon this, the verdict was not surprising as awful and horrible this tragedy was. Sadly, the outcome was predictable. (And just suppose Martin beat Zimmerman unconscious, do we really think the Sanford police would have allowed Martin to walk free for days?)
I hope that Zimmerman will face a civil trial and that any income he earns off of this incident, whether it is from writing a book or selling film rights or any other revenue this could generate, will be garnished forever. He should not profit from this tragedy.
Trayvon Martin should not have been shot dead. The reaction to his death, however, exposes racism’s chasm across this nation. Only a horribly callous and heartless person would say that Martin deserved to get shot dead. Most would find it terribly tragic whether they are angry at the verdict or are relieved that Zimmerman was found not guilty. However, that we have these two perspectives on what many on either side of the outcome believe was an unnecessary death only underscores how much race still divides this nation.
The Stand Your Ground law is one of the ways we manifest this chasm. Self-defense has always been a legitimate line of defense, but the “Stand Your Ground” law shifts the burden of proof to the victim because the perpetrator only has to claim s/he felt threatened. Thus the victim has to prove that s/he was not a threat, which is really hard when the victim is dead.
The law is in place to protect the powerful as it makes using deadly force much easier. Whereas in the past you had to show how you defended yourself because you were the victim, you don’t have to be a victim anymore. It means that when a stranger who sort of makes you uneasy walks through your neighborhood, you have a right to defend yourself with deadly force. Let’s be honest. A black man walking on the streets of a gated, predominately white community at night will probably make a lot of people uneasy whereas a white man walking on the streets of a predominately black neighborhood at night would probably be seen as lost.
That’s why not rioting was good. That’s why peaceful demonstrations, despite the verdict, had to be. A violent reaction would have fed into the fear that prompted this really awful law. Not rioting undercuts the rationale underlying Stand Your Ground.
We have a long way to go on race relations in this nation. The reaction to the George Zimmerman case is just one example. That the Supreme Court voted to gut the essence of the Voting Rights Act because its measures were out of date is another example.
If people think that racism in the United States is dead because we have people of color on our school committees, our city councils, in our state legislatures, in Congress, on the Supreme Court, and in the White House, they really are clueless. When people can get angry over gutting the Voting Rights Act or get angry over George Zimmerman’s acquittal, it’s a different manifestation of racism’s reality in this nation. When we have laws that protect the powerful from anxiety-based fears, that’s another sign of racism. When we have a justice system that heavily burdens the black community, especially its men, that’s another sign of racism. When we have political leaders personally undermining the President of the United States by questioning his citizenship or patriotism (and if not actively undermining it, then condoning it through their silence as others do it for them), that’s another sign of racism.
We can wear hoodies (although honestly, it’s too hot), but that can’t be all we do. We’ve got to engage a conversation about race to move it from the old measures so we can dig deeper into the racial reality in our communities today.