Friday, April 13th, 2012
It is hard to imagine how George Zimmerman could get a fair trial. Where do you find a juror who has not heard of this case, and would you really want someone like that on a jury anyway?
For weeks, most of Trayvon Martin’s champions have called for the arrest and trial of Zimmerman. Although I sympathized with some of their grievances, I did not add my voice to that chorus. Indeed, while some folks were neutral on the whole matter, and said that a trial would finally determine guilt, I was not so optimistic about that point either.
I should explain the extent of my sympathies with the pro-Trayvon side of this controversy. It seemed to me that his shooting was probably disproportionate, at best, for any threat he was likely to be posing; that Zimmerman, a man who had wanted to be a police officer and was known for calling 9/11 in the midst of dubious threats, had acted in an overzealous manner; that the police had unfairly favored Zimmerman and not bothered to even find out who Martin was before letting Zimmerman go. There seemed to be truth to the accusation of a double standard, since the police are often very willing to arrest and jail people even in cases that appear to be clearer cut acts of self-defense than what happened here. A black man shooting and killing an unarmed white or Mestizo man would have likely been jailed.
But should a black man in such a situation be jailed? That’s the question that alluded most of Zimmerman’s detractors, particularly to ones more bent on seeing charges pressed than in finding answers. So loudly were many people identifying this double standard that they did not always think about which side of the double standard was most unfair—the non-arrest of Zimmerman or the allegedly likely arrest of blacks in similar circumstances. Can we expect truth or justice to be served by the criminal justice process when the facts are ambiguous, the police reports’ veracity is questioned, and the evidence is scarce?
Many assumed the worst about Zimmerman while others assumed the worst about Martin. The country became polarized over a violent incident that involved two people with a couple of witnesses at most. I took a more nuanced view. At the time, the most pro-Trayvon narrative seemed a little unbelievable to me—that Zimmerman was a racist who hunted Martin down and murdered him because he was black. But the most pro-Zimmerman defense also seemed absurd—that Trayvon Martin was a drug-addled gangster who jumped on Zimmerman and threatened to beat him to death until Zimmerman barely escaped with his life by shooting Martin.
Yet something approaching either of these extremes could have been true, for all I knew. Millions of Americans, however, chimed in with opinions that seemed to serve a proxy battle for their own political alliances rather than an attempt to find the truth about this case. Many said that the problem was Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, when presumably the act was either self-defense, criminal homicide, or perhaps some terrible tragedy that could be characterized another way, but in any event had nothing to do with that law. People on both sides played the race card. Some said teenagers should stop wearing hoodies, which seemed completely bizarre to me. I wore a hoodie for many years as a teenager, and it forced me to wonder if I was not profiled so much due to this attire because of my race.
In any event, I still don’t think anyone truly knows what happened between Zimmerman and Martin. Moreover, I have my doubts that the calls for arresting and trying Zimmerman, now that they have been heard and answered, will solve anything. Instead of a deep reflection on the racial politics of policing and its possible double standards, which I think is a perfectly legitimate exercise, the upshot is now the precedent that the police will be even more likely to arrest people. They will be terrified not to arrest someone in the killing of a black person, even when there might be some doubt as to the malicious nature of the act or who did it, meaning far more arrests, probably mostly of minorities. One more Latino behind bars who cannot possibly get a fair hearing—and this is supposed to be a victory against institutional bigotry?
I was sympathetic to those outraged at the police handling of the Martin killing, but what I found most frustrating was this idea that the police and prosecutors are insufficiently vigilant. The attempt to repeal Stand Your Ground is just another attempt to empower the police state, which is not nearly as reluctant to arrest and jail people as many well-meaning Americans concerned about racist police practices think.
To make our neighborhoods safer and Americans less suspicious of one another, the government has plenty of options, almost all of them involving pulling back from the virtual warzone it has created with its drug and victim disarmament laws, stopping its erosion of public morality though the school system and welfare state, ending the massive wealth destruction it unleashes upon the poor through regulations and labor restrictions, and refraining from being such a terrible bad example morally in its foreign and domestic policies.
What is the solution for the tragedy at hand? That’s a tough question with no perfect answers, but a highly charged trial is likely to fail as well as any other remedy. It is just as likely that a guilty Zimmerman will be let go or a largely innocent Martin will be disproportionately punished as it is for justice of any kind to win out.