Feedback from Jefe Ocho on Zimmerman, Martin, and America

“As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy.” – Abraham Lincoln

Yesterday we wrote “The George Zimmerman Trial Begins … I Suspect It Will End Poorly“. After posting, I contacted my old friend Jefe Ocho to get his thoughts.

By way of backstory, Jefe is black (I am white … feel free to break into a few bars of Ebony and Ivory). We went to college together and were roommates for several years after graduation (with a few others). We were in each others weddings. We are old friends. The most honest, open, free (and politically incorrect) conversations I’ve ever had on race relations have been with Jefe.

I repost Jefe’s comment here, followed by my own thoughts …

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“This case is so interesting. Looking suspicious is not a crime. Zimmerman is not law enforcement. Zimmerman was told to stop pursuing Trayvon Martin…Martin had every right to stand his ground being approached by a man who wasn’t a police officer. Plus Zimmerman had one weapon, Martin had candy. I had the misfortune of listening to a conversation between two guys (one that used to live in the area). They both agreed that it was BS that Zimmerman was charged. The Sanford native proceeded to describe the blacks in that section of town as “thugs” and “up to no good”. The conversation got better. The native began to tell of a time when he got to brutally beat up a black of the area…the conversation ended with a “we have to meet their violence with violence brother” and a handshake. This was the most unsettling thing I’ve ever personally heard. Keep it classy Fairfax.

Not sure of the botched arrest will meet the 2nd degree murder requirements because I’m not a lawyer. I do know if this trial slides through loopholes ignoring the elephant in the room it will be a sad day for America, riots or not. I propose something more dramatic than riots. I say that every black in America declare that the country has failed, has never cared about us and never will, curse it to Hell and leave the country. Blacks are the essence of America from music to religion to pop culture to sports, black folks have been here helping to shape this country from the first drop of blood given in the revolutionary war til now. For Zimmerman to walk after killing a person when lots of men are in prison for minor drug offenses?!? I’m just at a loss..not even anger, just exhaustion.”

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Jefe makes some excellent points here, points that I neglected or otherwise missed in my original post. At the outset, I want to make a clarification on legal versus moral in human justice systems.

If Righteousness Could Come By The Law …

I’ve noted at times in the past that there is a difference between legality and morality, and there should be a difference. God, omniscient, all-knowing, all-wise can know the inward heart of a man (in all its brokenness). He can judge the intents of our meager thoughts, and much more our actions.

We however, cannot. We cannot know the “goodness” or “badness” of a person, the wickedness or righteousness in his inward man. As such, we have rightly limited our scope of judgment. Or, I should say, in times past human governments have rightly limited the scope of our judgment – though we are experiencing “judgment creep” of late. We limit  (or should limit) our legal judgments on two fronts: (i) what can be proven demonstrably (beyond a reasonable doubt) and (ii) what expressly violates the rights of another.

We try very hard not to convict a man of a crime because we think he’s a bad person, but only when there is evidence that he has violated the rights of another. Further, we try (or we should try) not to convict a man of “victimless” crimes. When he has committed “immorality” but not directly wronged another person, we leave him be (or we should).

The second part of this speaks to Jefe’s comment about all the black men in prison for non-violent drug offenses, but in the Martin case I’m more interested in the crime versus morality issue.

I noted yesterday that I don’t think Zimmerman will be convicted, and I still don’t. This doesn’t mean that he is moral, just that I don’t think the evidence will amount to a conviction beyond a reasonable doubt. The evidence tends to corroborate Zimmerman’s telling of events, and without a witness to contradict the “who started the fight” story it will be tough to prove 2nd degree murder. But this doesn’t mean he’s a “good guy”.

But, I think for a moment we should turn this around (as Jefe does). If Zimmerman is unlikely to be convicted of a crime in the altercation, what pray-tell could Martin possibly have been convicted of? I offer that the evidence of crime is utterly nonexistent with respect to Martin. He walked through a neighborhood. Perhaps he started the fight – but even if he did it’s assault at the worst, and I doubt there is any evidence that such a charge could possibly stand. This doesn’t mean Martin was a “good guy” or an “angel” – but that the evidence of a crime on his part is all but nonexistent.

Both sides of the trial, the prosecution and defense, will attempt to play the good-guy-versus-bad-guy card here. The prosecution will portray Zimmerman as a hothead and prejudiced (and maybe he was/is), and the defense will portray Martin as a thug and trouble maker (and maybe he was). These aren’t crimes of course, but juries often confuse the moral with the criminal, and lawyers have a responsibility to try their best to win the case.

The gap between legal and moral leads one to the conclusion that, in a court of law anyway, there must be “guilt free consequences”. That is, there must be times when bad things happen, but the courts are not empowered to exact judgement.

This is a tough one for most folks to come to grips with. We see it quite often in medical malpractice suits. The jurors will see quite clearly that the doctor in question did everything by the book, but things still went wrong. Unable to deal with the fact that bad things happened and nobody did anything wrong, they find for the plaintiff anyway and ruin the not-guilty doctor’s career. When something bad happens, we feel a need to exact judgment, to set it right.

C. S. Lewis deal with the topic in much deeper ways that I ever could/will in The Problem of Pain. In a fallen world, ugly happens. If we rightly limit the scope of the courts to deal with limited defense of human rights then there will be times when we cannot make things right. I suspect this is one of those times.

Stand Your Ground …

Florida’s “stand your ground” law appears to be the lynchpin of Zimmerman’s defense. If you are attacked and feel your life is in danger, you do not have to attempt to flee before using deadly force in defense.

I’m no lawyer, but I’ve discussed in times past that the notion of “stand your ground” cannot be infinitely reflexive. That is, if you pick a fight, start to lose, and then fear for your life, you cannot possibly cling to “stand your ground”. Such a law would be self-contradictory. That is, if I fight back when attacked (standing my ground) I run the risk that I will successfully defend myself, giving you the right to use deadly force out of fear for your own life – in a fight you started.

This is the point where I think Zimmerman’s defense will have some trouble. I still think he’ll be acquitted, but it’s a tough point to make. It’s clear that Zimmerman was the pursuer, indicating that Martin was attempting to flee any confrontation. At what point (in the Zimmerman story) did Martin become the aggressor, and what were Zimmerman’s actions leading up to then? I suspect that if Zimmerman in any way initiated “contact” with Martin, then he probably lost the “stand your ground” defense and would subsequently need to show that he indeed tried to make a run for it before being caught and defending himself. It’s a technical point, and there are lawyers out there who understand it far better than I (obviously), but this seems to be the one major vulnerability for the defense.

To Jefe’s point though, if Zimmerman initiated the contact, then Martin obviously had the same right to self-defense. How both people can be acting in self-defense is a bit tough to come to grips with, but it would seem that both will claim just that.

The Race War That Ain’t Coming …

I agree with Jefe that the conversation he overheard is indeed disconcerting. I think it represents a rather small fringe element of white America that would even think to utter “we have to meet their violence with violence”. White America in 2013 tends to be much more apathetic about race issues (indifferent, if you will) rather than aggressive. Indifference here is not a “rising above” mind you, it’s a higher form of hatred. Anger implies you care. Indifference implies you don’t.

I point this out to say that I really don’t think there is a simmering “race war” in America writ large. White America is busy with other things.

I remember after the Rodney King incident that there were several beatings in my small North Carolina town as “retribution” for the acquittal of the white officers. I’d think that Conover, NC would be pretty far away from the travails of the LAPD, but apparently not. A similar thing happened after the 9/11 attacks, when a Sikh man (Balbir Sodhi) was shot to death in Texas in “retaliation”. It happens. People get so angry, so outraged, that they find somebody, anybody to take it out on. Somebody who bears a slight resemblance to the offenders.

Would the same type of thing happen in a Zimmerman acquittal? I don’t know for sure, but I can only suspect it would. The nation has the feel of a tinderbox. Economy, politics, world events (Obamacare) – folks are on edge. Does indifference turn into something more if violence breaks out? Possibly. It’s definitely a concern.

The Country that Never Cared …

While Jefe and I may disagree on the “heart and soul” of American music (for the record, the answer is George Strait, and I’ll fight any man who says otherwise), his point about America the “failed nation” has a depth and a gravitas to it.

Christians sometimes have a way of finding the devil under every rock, and I think perhaps black America can find racism behind every ill of the community. Yet and still, there is something there. Martin looked suspicious to Zimmerman because he was black. We’re all thinking it, regardless of what Zimmerman said in the interviews. (Side note: I still maintain that NBC flat-out dropped the ball when they tried to push that narrative beyond what the audio supported, and hurt us all in the process – see my comments here.) At what point in our nation’s history will a black kid be able to walk down the street without being seen as suspicious?

Are race relations in this country better than they were 150 years ago? You bet. Better than 50 years ago? Yep. Better than 20 years ago? I’m not so sure. It feels like we’ve hit stall speed. Whatever victories the civil rights movement won in the 60s, they don’t seem to be able to help move the needle any more.

Some of this is structural of course. The civil rights movement was never designed to drive societal integration, only to shine a bright light on glaring inequity and oppression. It’s hard for Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton to view the world outside of the “us-versus-them, let-my-people-go” framework. Yet that is exactly what is needed to fix the problem.

Not to worry though. I actually do suspect that a few generations from now things will have moderated somewhat. The next generation is the one to solve that problem.

To Jefe’s larger point about the nation that doesn’t care, it’s hard to argue with. The history of this nation is hardly a history of equality and fairness. Slavery, Jim Crowe, Trail of Tears, Smallpox blankets – there’s a lot of ugly in our history books, red in the ledger.

My personal belief is that the only place for these issues to be truly addressed, truly healed, truly run to ground is the Church. The whys and wherefores are probably more than I can put down in this “short” bit, and may deserve a post of their own.

Readiness …

When I posted about the trial possibly ending poorly, I honestly did so as a head-nod to readiness. I hold that (a) the church is the place for reconciliation and (b) we will be in great need of reconciliation if things blow sky high after a Zimmerman acquittal. (Of course, he could be convicted … but I doubt it.) Are “we” ready for that day? Am I ready for that day?

It’s easy enough for me to reach out to old friends like Jefe, friends of 20 years. But what do we, the church, do when a full 1/8 of the country (many of them “us”) are “just at a loss..not even anger, just exhaustion”? I don’t think I know the answer, but something will be needed.

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One Response to Feedback from Jefe Ocho on Zimmerman, Martin, and America

  1. Brad, I will agree with your friend Jefe in his views. I will take it a step deeper. God’s willing and the creek doesn’t rise, I will be a grandfather in November. In the raising of my grandson, it is my job, like it was my dad and granddad with me and so on, to help equip him to not only be the best God fearing man that he can be but to survive as a man of color in this country. No matter what anyone says, the rules of survival for a man of color have an extra chapter or two. This is the nature of the beast and knowing how to act will improve your chances of survival. Which brings me to this point….Trayvon’s family was living in a nice neighborhood in Sanford. This family is living the middle America life doing the best that they can, doing it right. This family is punished because 1 man figured that this kid did not belong here. That could have easily been one of my girls, walking home from the store. As parents, we want to give our kids a good and safe childhood. But because some jabroni doesn’t think I belong, he takes it upon himself to kill my child. This thought chills me to the bone.

    The one thing that is clear. I was Trayvon, I am Trayvon and I always will be Trayvon. It is painful for any child to die, especially in a senseless way. But until people are truly perceived to be equal, we have what we have….

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