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Friday, July 26, 2013

So Far Still To Go

Here we stand, weeks after the verdict that exonerated George Zimmerman of killing Trayvon Martin, and the case still dominates the news, the blogosphere and most of our Facebook feeds (especially those of us who live in Florida). In today's rapid world of electronic news, that in itself is pretty astounding. But if there is an explanation how a single trial, a single tragedy, can grip our collective attention so long, it is probably the way this case has revealed so much about our collective selves, much of that remarkably unflattering.

I have been terribly discouraged just today as several friends from high school posted the same lengthy questionnaire supposedly intended to inform us of details that obviously would convince of Zimmerman's innocence but which in fact only depress about the mindset not only of George Zimmerman that night but of the people who watched this case play out through such jaded and prejudiced eyes.

If that language sounds harsh, I apologize, but I can only be so sensitive to those who suggest I should feel a murder is justified if you find the victim once flicked the bird in a cell phone picture. If you feel so hurt people would call you racist for judging the victim in this case, how can you truly balk that so many black Americans feel persecuted in a system that let's someone free after they kill a child and confess to the crime to police?

Back to that survey. It's question 11 that keeps putting a twist in my stomach. This compelling question asks simply if we have seen a collection of mobile phone pictures which include Trayvon Martin flicking two birds at the camera, showing off his gold teeth and blowing a puff of smoke out of his mouth. What does this prove about this 17-year-old? To some, apparently, it shows that Martin deserved to die.

Why do these pictures bother me? Several reasons. First off, of course, George Zimmerman never saw these photographs before he killed Martin, so I don't see what relevance they have in this case. Second, these pictures in no way prove Martin would pose a dangerous threat to somebody. The pictures contain a link to a story on Martin's suspensions from school for smoking marijuana, so it is at least implied that is the smoke being blown into the lens. Did marijuana start making people violent sometime since my college days?

But of course the real reason these photos are included, and the most important reasons these pictures bother me so much, is that these show Martin being a typical—indeed stereotypical—black teenaged male. And that alone, to those circulating this survey, is evidence that Zimmerman had no choice but to kill this child dead.

I wonder how many people beating the "Trayvon used drugs" drum smoked marijuana when they were 17? Not to get overly personal, but in the case of one my friends circulating this survey, I know the answer is in the affirmative.

So many people defending Zimmerman right now say the media and crazed liberals are insisting on injecting race into this verdict. I said the day the ruling came down that I don't believe Zimmerman is a racist, at least not in the traditional and dangerous sense, but when people circulate these photos, or photos of The Game, they are injecting race into this case in the ugliest way possible.

In my opinion, the only reason a self-defense strategy holds any water with people on this case is that Trayvon Martin was a young black man, and people instinctively feel that if they get in an altercation with a black man, their life is in danger. Zimmerman's head was hit against the concrete one time and he decided it was time to pull out a gun and shoot at point blank range. We have argued too often in recent weeks about who threw the first punch; what matters is whether Zimmerman was in reasonable fear for his life and I personally doubt people would accept that if he'd been shoved to the ground by Justin Bieber. 

The fact so many have argued that fear is valid because Martin had gold teeth, or because he wore a hoodie, or because he smoked pot, this is all racism people refuse to identify by that name when it comes from their own heart.

That's why this verdict still hurts. Zimmerman got away with murder (at least that's the way one of the jurors who came up with the verdict put it today), but that's how American justice works sometimes. What's so sad to me is that so many people in this country, including people I grew up with and continue to know, love and respect, think the verdict makes sense because Trayvon looked a little too black to allow him to walk free in a neighborhood and a little too dangerous to battle with anything besides bullets.


  1. Zimmerman was tried in the court of public opinion, with the national media playing the role of prosecutor. From NBC's editing of the 911 call, to the technically accurate but deliberately misleading characterization of Martin as a "child", to saying that Zimmerman called 911 to report the suspicious activities of a 7 year old black child (when the 911 record notes that Zimmerman said he was concerned for the well-being of a kid walking alone along a busy street, with no mention of suspicion), Zimmerman was unfairly painted as a racist eager to shoot a kid who couldn't fight back. So it's not surprising that people would rise to his defense in the court of public opinion.

    Whether Zimmerman could have known the contents of Martin's cell phone that night is irrelevant. The point of the questionnaire (which is a strange format) is to ask whether there is reasonable doubt that Zimmerman was within his rights to use deadly force. And to that end, it's entirely fair to present evidence which portrays Martin as quick to fight, experienced, capable, and willing to do significant harm. It's entirely fair to show photos of Martin as a fit, tall person physically capable of winning a fight against Zimmerman when people were claiming that it was inconceivable that a "boy" could make Zimmerman fear for his life.

    That's not to say that the questionnaire is flawless. The photo of him giving the camera the finger is pretty clearly inflammatory. It's certainly reasonable to say that the "thug" photos of Martin were chosen to fit a stereotype more than merely showing his stature. The photo of him blowing smoke and the discussion of his past with drugs, suspensions, and stolen jewelery show a disregard for the rules, but they're also pretty prejudicial, and if your goal is an objective presentation of the facts, you leave them out. But that's not the intent - this is a "defense", and in that context, it's no more egregious than the other side. We're talking about the person who died, which makes it a bit unsavory, but that's the nature of a self defense claim. Which, for the record, I believe holds enough water for reasonable doubt of Zimmerman's guilt of 2nd degree murder and manslaughter, which is all that's required (and all that should be required).

    And, for what it's worth, posting an article on Facebook, much like voting for a politician or being a member of Boy Scouts, does not mean that you endorse every position that article/politician/organization takes.


  2. There is a yard sign a block from the house where Jake grew up saying, "OJ killed 2 white people and was never convicted". Race seems to be the subject on everyone's minds, rather than guns, neighborhood watches gone bad, etc. Saying both parties had the right to 'stand their ground' doesn't make me more comfortable w/ the verdict or the law.


  3. I'm going to go a little further into the way your language is biased, Jake. You mention that Zimmerman "decided to pull out a gun and shoot at point blank range", which certainly sounds scary. It's the stuff of TV, CSI-style drama. But away from the inflammatory language, it lends credence to Zimmerman's self defense. If Martin had been 10 feet away when Zimmerman shot him, it's tougher to buy that Zimmerman was in reasonable fear for his life.

    You refer to it as a "murder" being justified, when murder implies that a crime was committed. Homicide can be justified, and thus not a crime. Zimmerman certainly committed homicide. You do it again when you say Zimmerman "confess[ed] to the crime". He didn't confess to a crime. He stated that he committed homicide, and that he had a justification. In that same sentence, you also characterize Martin as a child, which I noted before is technically accurate, but is deliberately contributing to the portrayal of him as unable to pose a threat to Zimmerman.

    As for the bit in your last post about Zimmerman not being arrested that night because the person he shot was a black man, in your initial post on SYG last year, you mentioned Michael Frazzini being shot by Todd Rasmussen when Frazzini was fighting with Rasmussen's son. Nobody was arrested then ( ), and all parties were white. Come on, Jake. You wrote the blog! You wrote the article! You don't have to set up thought experiments; you can scroll through and find a number of other instances where charges were not filed (although they don't mention whether an arrest was made, immediately or otherwise, in each case), many of which involve a non-black being killed.


  4. Tom,

    You logic is confounding, offensive, and exactly the sort of thing that has left me rattled about this whole case. Frankly, I find most of it confusing as well. The fact I know you, consider you intelligent and presumed you to be compassionate makes it hurt all the more.

    Thank you, by the way, for informing me about the details of a case I covered first-hand for a publication you didn't bother linking to. Since I never suggested the Rasmussen-Frazzini case had anything to do with race, I really appreciate you setting me straight on the fact it did not. Yes, the parties there were white. Yes, the Stand Your Ground law got the shooter off. Had you read anything beside this blog entry, such as the entries I posted just this month on just this matter, you would know I don't believe race is very relevant to facts of this case. I have said in two entries that I don't consider Zimmerman a racist, a pretty bold statement in many circles, but that the startling defense of this killer shows the existence of racism in our society.

    SYG is honestly a very different debate than the issues of race surrounding this case. I consider both very significant matters. SYG is a law that has let numerous killers off the hook. And no, I don't think the race of shooters of victims matters. The fact you even suggest otherwise shows a startling amount of weakness in your argument. We have a law in Florida that says you can start an altercation with someone, then shoot them if you find them threatening. That doesn't make us safer as a people. It puts every one of us at risk.

    What I have said about the involvement of race, and which I do not believe you incapable of understanding if you read what I had already written, is that the suggestion Martin posed a legitimate threat to Zimmerman's life is founded almost entirely on the fact he is black. The fact you say the defense is more relevant because Martin didn't look young, or wasn't short, frankly backs that argument up. Does this mean we are allowed to shoot people if we feel they could physically overpower us in an altercation? That's foolish. Do you think the outcome of this case would be the same if a white person of similar height and build was the victim? I personally disagree. The greater point to me, though, is that so many people have rushed to the defense of a man who killed somebody unnecessarily. I do not believe that would have happened if the victim was white. I feel certain it wouldn't have happened if the victim was female.

    I don't doubt, though, that Zimmerman would have shot the person anyhow, regardless of race or gender. I think he was trigger-happy and cowardly. It's the defense of Zimmerman by so many people more interested in talking about the NBC edit than the facts of the case as they classify the murder of a 17-year-old child as a victimless crime, or more accurate, as no crime at all.

  5. Ok, that was a bit knee jerk. But I don't appreciate complaints about me using biased language or suggesting I am editing facts to fit a narrative. First, this is a blog with my opinions. Complaints of bias in opinion pieces are and have always been laughable. Second, I am very aware of the details of this case and am not forming opinions based on some single cable news report.

    To directly answer your question of the word murder. To murder somebody is to intentionally kill them. Are you questioning whether George Zmmerman intentionally killed Trayvon Martin? It appears to me he at least knew that was a possible outcome when he grabbed for his gun and fired it into another human being.

  6. "What if it had been a white teenager, even one build like a fullback? I realize some may argue, but many people, including myself, can only guess Zimmerman would have gone to jail that night...."

    That's what you said in your previous blog, Jake. That if Zimmerman had shot a white guy instead of a black guy, he would have been arrested. And that's incorrect, as the Rasmussen-Frazzini case demonstrates. I'm aware that you've stated you don't believe Zimmerman is a racist; I take that at face value, and that's not what I'm addressing with that point. *And you say it again*, right here in your comment! "Do you think the outcome of this case would be the same if a white person of similar height and build was the victim? I personally disagree." Well, you might personally disagree, but right there is a case where the outcome was the same.

    Murder has a very specific legal definition, and when you're accusing Zimmerman of a crime and saying he should be arrested, that very specific legal definition is what is at issue. Homicide is not necessarily a crime, and criminal homicide is not necessarily murder. I don't doubt that Zimmerman intended to kill Martin when he shot him. But homicide is not murder. Murder cannot be justified, legally. If it is justified, it is not murder. Every definition of murder in the Florida statutes (782.04) starts off with "the *unlawful* killing".*

    I'm not sure what you find confounding or offensive, beyond me disagreeing with you and criticizing some of your positions. I'm not sure what is controversial about claiming that the media's coverage on the case, particularly early on, when the public was forming their opinions, was very biased in favor of Martin. Do you disagree? Why is it uncompassionate to point that out, and to present facts which balance the picture?

    You say that pointing out that Martin did not look young and was not short in support of Zimmerman's version of events backs up your argument doesn't make a lot of sense. If you followed the discussion, and I'm sure you did, you heard people claiming it was inconceivable that Zimmerman could have reasonably feared for his life because he was a full grown man, and Martin a child. Pointing out that the child was 17, tall, apparently fit, and apparently experienced in fights seems entirely reasonable to me, and has nothing to do with his race.

    I'm aware that your blog is your opinion. But I want you to do a responsible job in describing your opinion, to make good, consistent arguments, and to acknowledge that there are other valid points of view. You pay more attention to what goes on in local politics than anyone I know, and I want to trust you as a source of information and analysis. You discredit yourself when you present such a one-sided view. You contribute to the polarization of media, and of media consumption. You have an opportunity to do better, but here you're choosing to be part of the problem.


    *Except paragraph 3, which deals with blaming the death of a person killed during the perpetration of another crime by someone other than the perpetrator, on the perpetrator. So, for example, if Joe is attempting to escape from prison, and a guard shoots at Joe, misses, and kills someone else, Joe gets a 2nd degree murder charge. But that's clearly not applicable to Zimmerman.

  7. And as for people rushing to the defense of Zimmerman, or (in my case and, I hope, many more) to the dispassionate appraisal of the events of that night, it wouldn't have happened if he had been treated fairly by the media.