“Be sure you put your feet in the right place, then stand firm” – Abraham Lincoln
Sanford Florida, and much of the country, is in an uproar of late after the killing of a Trayvon Martin, an unarmed teenager, at the hands of a community watch volunteer George Zimmerman. It’s a mess, to be sure.
The story goes something like this. Zimmerman saw Martin walking in the neighborhood and thought him suspicious. He called 911 to report it and then, against the direction of the dispatcher, followed Martin (apparently on foot, even though he had a car). At some point there was an altercation, and Zimmerman shot Martin, killing him.
We don’t know exactly what happened in the scuffle, and we likely never will. Zimmerman suffered an “injury to the back of the head” and a bloodied nose. Several witnesses reported hearing the scuffle and calls for help. There is 911 tape from Zimmerman’s call. It also appears that Martin was on the phone with his girlfriend when the altercation happened, giving us a witness from Martin’s side of the case.
The outcry over the killing, and the police handling of it has been quite vociferous. I don’t have any problem with that – if my son were shot for walking innocently through a neighborhood carrying a bag of skittles I would want someone to push the investigation. (It’s not clear that anybody was moving the investigation anywhere until public pressure mounted. Zimmerman had been released … his story checked out, which is to say there was not evidence to contradict his account of the events.)
Before getting to Zimmerman, I just want to cast the story from Martin’s side for a moment. He walked to the store, bought candy, and began walking back to the house where he was staying. He is then followed on foot by an unidentified individual (and certainly not a police officer). He is frightened. He tries to get away but is unable, and ultimately confronts his follower, leading to an altercation and ultimately Martin’s death. Let that sink in for just a bit. It was a candy run.
Now, on to some things we don’t know, but feel confident in regarding Zimmerman …
Zimmerman should have followed the 911 dispatcher’s directions. There is nothing in any of the accounts or stories to suggest Martin was any type of threat to the neighborhood at all (he was legitimately staying there with friends). Of course Zimmerman couldn’t have known this, but had he stayed in the car nothing bad would have happened. It seems, at the very, very least, to be a case where over-zealous community watch participation went horribly wrong.
Zimmerman’s behavior was not that of a man intent on mischief. People out to cause harm don’t call 911 ahead of time, and they don’t stay on the line with the 911 dispatcher. They don’t “cry for days” after the incident. Whatever this was, it was not “cold blood.” (Now, having said that, it is also the case that sometimes people who are guilty of something they never intended to happen will cry for days afterwards.)
And then there’s the Sanford Police Department …
This thing appears to have been handled poorly. I understand the problem that can arise when there is just no evidence to charge somebody, but this is a mess. No, Zimmerman is not out there on the run; I’m sure the police know exactly where he is (though nobody else seems too, since he’s in hiding). It just seems that when there has been a killing, particularly of an unarmed person, that perhaps there is more work to do.
Then there are the three days that Trayvon Martin spent in the morgue as “John Doe” before somebody finally sorted it out. Three days!
Why is it always racism? …
There is a great wail and cry out there about this being a racially motivated killing. Honestly this seems to me like the media hyping their favorite story-line. But the race aspect here is not completely without merit.
Martin’s father has stated that he doesn’t believe Trayvon would have been followed by Zimmerman had he been white. I don’t think there’s any way of knowing this, but it perhaps feels right. We can all sit back and say (embellishing a bit) that a frat boy in a khakis and a polo would not have risen to the level of “suspicious” the same way that a black teenager in a hoodie did. Even if Zimmerman wasn’t motivated by race (hey, it could happen) the fact that a huge portion of the population believes they are targeted because of their skin color is a huge problem.
There is great concern out there that the system doesn’t work the same for everybody. Had Zimmerman been black and the “suspicious” person white, would the police have let him go for lack of evidence? If your gut reaction is “no” then you probably believe the system isn’t fair. You may well be right. I’m merely trying to note that many of us, perhaps even in our subconscious don’t think the system is non-prejudicial. And we might be right. (Side note: prejudice is not racism, as we’ve noted in the past. They mean very different things. In this case, prejudice would mean an inclination to disbelieve the black person and believe the white person – not because of genetic composition but because of historical evidence and stereotyping.)
Then there are the New Black Panthers …
There is apparently a $10,000 reward out for the capture of Zimmerman, and even a “wanted dead or alive” poster. Look, if we do not condone Zimmerman’s actions of “vigilantism” then we obviously can’t condone this.
And Obama too …
This is one of those many instances where, politically speaking, anyone who wades in loses. Obama can’t gain anything by inserting himself into the case, and Newt Gingrich can’t gain anything by commenting on Obama’s comments.
In 2009 president Obama waded into the Henry Louis Gates controversy by declaring that Cambridge police “acted stupidly” in arresting the professor after he broke into his own home. It was a dumb thing to do, politically speaking, and it was the first collapse of Obama’s poll numbers (not the last).
This time, Obama appears to have stayed clear of attacking the PD. Instead, he noted that if he had a son “he’d look like Trayvon.” Let me go out on a limb here and say that the comment is divisive and even racially motivated.
It Rolls Downhill …
For those who are demanding justice, let me say I’m fairly confident we’ll get there. The public outcry has been massive. The Florida AG is involved and the DOJ. If there were ever to be a full vetting of the evidence in a case, with the full resources of the state and federal government behind it, it will be now. If Zimmerman stepped out of line even just a bit, if he strayed from the letter of the law just a smidgen, then he’s going to get rung up. (And if all they find is unpaid parking tickets and jay-walking he’ll get the fullest penalty possible.)
There is the problem of evidence though. As I said, it seems that Zimmerman’s account checks out somewhat. There is apparently even a witness who saw the altercation and described it consistent with Zimmerman’s description. Time will tell. We’ll see just how far Florida’s “stand your ground” law goes. That is, can a situation that was instigated by you, result in your feeling threatened enough to use deadly force? (Obviously if you started the fight, then you probably have little recourse. But what if you just started the pursuit and a fight resulted? We shall see. I suspect Zimmerman’s actions will be pressed up against the limits here, and he may well come out the loser.)
In the end, everybody has to count the costs. Zimmerman should have had an inkling that getting out of the car and pursuing Martin was a bad idea. He had called the police – that’s all that needed to happen. (Heck, even if you’re going to follow somebody, stay in the car!) Vanity pushes us beyond this though. I can only imagine that Zimmerman found himself on a grand adventure protecting his neighborhood.
Also, in the end, we would hope for healing and reconciliation out of this whole mess. That will be up to the people though. The leaders (whether politicians or professional race-baiters like Al Sharpton) don’t appear to have any such motivation.