There is growing outrage over the killing of black seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin, a legal and unarmed guest of the Florida gated community whose (perhaps unofficial) neighborhood watchman, George Zimmerman, shot Martin dead last month in an incident that raises all sorts of uncomfortable questions about racial tensions and violence in modern America. A common theme has focused on the racial element, characterizing the tragedy as a white-on-black act of violent racism. This is complicated by Zimmerman’s Hispanic heritage, for if the two racial identities were reversed, would it not also be a minority victim involved? An unassailable case can be made that blacks have historically gotten and continue to get an unfair shake in criminal justice, both as victims and as suspects, but this would surely apply to Hispanics as well.
The dead boy’s girlfriend was apparently on the phone with him during the altercation. From her words and the background info available on Martin, as well as the assurances of his character from his family, it seems hard to see him as anything but a victim in this. Witnesses have given conflicting accounts as to whether Martin was acting violently at all. The 9-11 call Zimmerman made indicates he was following the boy around the property, even after he was told by the dispatcher not to.
I wish to focus on the potential fallout this might have for the right to bear arms and private modes of community security.
1) The problem is not the right to self-defense. In particular, we hear Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” legislation, which protects the right of people attacked on the streets to fight back, is to blame. Yet the legislators who authored and sponsored the law insist that it does not shield Zimmerman, assuming the facts are as they appear to be. The Miami Herald reports:
Peaden and Baxley, R-Ocala, say their law is a self-defense act. It says law-abiding people have no duty to retreat from an attacker and can meet “force with force.” Nowhere does it say that a person has a right to confront another.
The 911 tapes strongly suggest Zimmerman overstepped his bounds, they say, when the Sanford neighborhood crime-watch captain said he was following Trayvon and appeared to ignore a police request to stay away.
“The guy lost his defense right then,” said Peaden. “When he said ‘I’m following him,’ he lost his defense.”
2) No system is perfect. Human beings are fallible creatures, to say the least. And even in the perfectly legitimate forceful defense of person and property, mistakes will be made. Even worse, malicious and recklessly criminal acts can be committed in property disputes that lead to the worst of all tragedies an individual or family can confront—the death of someone long before the prime of his life. Sometimes guilt is difficult to determine, and such injustices can never be remedied, since people can’t be brought back to life. This is a terrible reality. Perhaps here there will ultimately be enough evidence to clearly show guilt, but it is not always the case. It is also important not to assume the worst about anyone, even the seemingly guilty, until all the facts are in—aspects of Zimmerman’s racial motivation appear less plausible given more information coming out about his life, yet people jumped to conclusions. Unfortunately, sometimes the worst tragedies occur and no solution is possible.
3) Thankfully, such incidents are rare in private policing. There are far, far more private security personnel in this country than police—probably three times as many or more. Yet despite these hordes of private officers, plus all the neighborhood watch networks and the millions of times a year Americans defend their property with private gun ownership—in the overwhelming majority of cases without firing a shot—an incident like the Martin death makes news exactly because it is very rare. In private life, even putting aside official legal recourse, there are enormous incentives and community dynamics leading to peaceful solutions to property protection. It is proper that people be outraged of a seemingly innocent, or in any event essentially non-threatening, person being killed in a private altercation. And people indeed tend to do so.
4) The state makes things far worse. As Randall Holcombe suggests, the failure of the law to quickly bring about justice here is not as unusual as is often being assumed. The state is notoriously slow at bringing justice (and infamously swift at injustice). What’s more, a more robust regime of state law enforcement is not the panacea many folks think it is.
Zimmerman had a criminal record, and this did nothing to prevent this act of violence. More interesting, he had aspirations of being a police officer and even underwent training. He appears to have taken it upon himself to emulate the actions of a police officer, telling the 9/11 operator that Martin appeared “up to no good, or he’s on drugs.” And why would a private individual find it worthwhile to follow a teenager around with a weapon just because he seemed to be “on drugs”? It seems that the law enforcement mentality that has overtaken society in the last three decades of the drug war has trickled down in insidious ways.
And this raises a question. What if Zimmerman had been wearing a badge? There might be some outrage, but it is doubtful it would have gotten this far, since police killing unarmed Americans has most unfortunately become something of a commonplace. In the last decade, American police have killed about three thousand Americans—that is almost one a day—many of them unarmed. Although there are far fewer police than private security, and police have a very safe job (despite the propaganda), they much more frequently than private security find themselves in standoffs where someone is tasered, beaten, or shot to death. Hiring more police and relying less on citizen community policing, disarming regular Americans and further militarizing municipal cops, would take us down the wrong path entirely. Also we should note the police were called in this incident while Martin was still walking around healthy and failed to show up until it was too late. The police rarely do show up when they are most needed.
The state also made the racial tensions worse. As Carlos Harrison puts it:
The tension that the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin has exposed, residents and community leaders say, is not between blacks and Latinos, or blacks and whites. It’s a fresh gash in the festering rancor between the community’s blacks and its police. . . .
Police have inadvertently helped fuel the case’s racial overtones by initially describing Zimmerman simply as white. His father, however, stepped in to say that his son is, in fact, Hispanic, and not in any way a racist.
As usual, different groups have been pit against one another completely unnecessarily, due to politicization and government ineptitude. Those who wish to oversimplify America’s problems of violence in either classically racist or kneejerk politically correct terms need to identify the biggest source or this division, both historically and to this day: the coercive state.
5) It is important not to rush to dangerous assumptions. Many believe Zimmerman took Martin’s life, not necessarily out of hatred and pure malice, but because he rushed to judgment. If so, this would be a serious offense against civil society. But it is also wise not to rush to judgment in assuming the worst of someone the entire media finds guilty. A hundred times a year, the press judges someone as guilty of some scandal or crime, yet most of us who believe it don’t really know what happened. Was Zimmerman as guilty as sin as most are assuming? It appears that way, but I have always disliked the rush to mob judgment of anyone, particularly when the crime is such a ghastly one as it would be here. I must admit, when the police don’t arrest someone right away, it makes me less sympathetic to his claims of innocence, seeing as how he is facing less of an impending threat to his liberty, yet it would be unfair to let any institutional context such as that cloud one’s judgment completely.
Sanford Police Chief Bill Lee has now stepped down amidst the outrage over the decision not to arrest Zimmerman. The potentially dangerous precedent here is that it will encourage police to arrest people in more borderline cases, which will not necessarily be a good trend, including for the sake of minorities.
6) Race-based violence is horrible, but so is other violence. When a society is desensitized to racist violence, it can open the door to atrocities, lynchings, even genocide. The more socially and institutionally accepted, the greater the danger bigotry is. And there is something especially nasty about having any ethnic group being terrorized disproportionately by the threat of violence. In the United States, race-based violence does exist on the streets, although often between different racial minorities, leading many who would normally take up the issue to be afraid to talk about it openly. On the other hand, the worst racial violence comes from the state—the disproportionate oppression of blacks and Hispanics in the criminal justice system and drug war comes to mind, as well as America’s horrible immigration laws, although this is rarely what is meant when modern racism is decried.
When Zimmerman was first described as white, many jumped to conclusions that this was a so-called hate crime. Now that he is known to be Hispanic, some have continued to assume it was racially motivated, while others are suggesting it is less likely. Zimmerman’s father insists he is not a racist. Yet if the shooting was not completely one of self-defense, it should be decried no less in the event it turns out not to be racially motivated. Private and state violence, whenever they take the lives of the innocent, are evils regardless of whether it was pure, run-of-the-mill malice or race-tainted malice behind them. Racism sometimes blinds people to suffering or encourages them to accept oppression and violence, and that can exacerbate the problem by increasing its frequency and intimacy. But focusing on the individual victim, a killing is no less horrific just because race isn’t a factor.