“If you would win a man to your cause, first convince him that you are his sincere friend” – Abraham Lincoln
The George Zimmerman criminal trial is over, though any number of other legal troubles could remain, and the nation is still trying to grapple with the outcome and its implications. Folks like Al Sharpton are calling for “an honest national conversation on race and the issues brought up by this trial” – and I think this is a good thing [side note: I’m paraphrasing what I heard Sharpton say]. It’s good to talk. It’s good to pull the thread on difficult issues. Iron sharpens iron.
So, I shall attempt to pull the thread on the issues that most caught my eye during this case.
The System Ain’t Fair …
This case was not about fairness in the conviction and sentencing criteria of the criminal justice system, but the issue came up time and again as the case was discussed. Conviction rates, sentencing duration, and presumption of guilt (e.g., “stop & frisk”) – it all cuts against blacks. Same crime? More likely to be convicted. Same conviction? More likely to get a harsher sentence. Same outfit? More likely to get stopped and questioned.
I don’t think the government (federal, state, or local) should spend any time working as “thought police” to re-educate the populace. But it certainly seems that there should be the capacity for a color-blind justice system.
You Can’t Hide from Your Subconscious …
“You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles?” – Matt 7:16. People can lie to others with their words. They can even deceive themselves. But the fruit that comes out of your life, now that is something much harder to confuse.
In the same way, people can hardly get around their subconscious. We may say “I don’t have any prejudice” but we will find them trickling out when we’re least aware. ABC did a funny little bit on it recently, showing how people respond to different people stealing a bike:
The video is interesting, though I will note that it is an ABC video and I have no way of verifying just how much creative editing they did to get to the right “narrative”. That said, I find it completely believable. It’s subconscious. People have prejudices that they may not even understand.
The System Worked …
This is a tough one, I mean a real tough one for folks to grapple with sometimes. The job of the jury is to decide whether the evidence is sufficient to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant committed the crimes with which he was charged. The state and the evidence didn’t even come close.
George Zimmerman was on trial for second-degree murder (and by extension manslaughter). He wasn’t on trial for profiling, he wasn’t on trial for being wrong in his assumption about Trayvon Martin being “up to no good”, he wasn’t on trial for being an overzealous neighborhood watchman. He was on trial for second-degree murder and manslaughter.
George Zimmerman claimed he acted in self-defense after Trayvon Martin attacked him. The evidence corroborated his story. The witnesses corroborated his story. There was no proof that he didn’t act in self-defense. Thus, the system could not rightly convict him of second-degree murder (or manslaughter).
Who started the fight? We don’t know. But this was not a “stand your ground” case – Zimmerman claimed simple self-defense. It could not be proved otherwise, so he was acquitted. That’s the way the system works (and that’s the way it should work for everybody).
Till, Faulkner, Goldman, Martin …
On 28 August 1955, 14-year-old Emmett Till was brutally tortured and murdered by Ronald Bryant and J. W. Milam for the crime of, perish the thought, speaking to a white woman (Bryant’s wife) in a store. There were days between the events, but when Bryant and Milan finally found Till they dragged him to a barn in the middle of the night, beat him, gouged out an eye, shot him in the head, tied a 70-pound cotton gin fan to his neck with barbed wire, and chucked his body into the river. There were plenty of witnesses. Bryant and Milan were acquitted (and later confessed to the crime, once “double jeopardy” was in play).
On 9 December 1981, 25-year-old Philadelphia police officer Dan Faulkner was gunned down in the street during a routine traffic stop of a gentleman named William Cook. Cook didn’t do the shooting, nor did anyone in the car. No, the shooting was done by Cook’s older brother who was across the street. Upon seeing the stopped car he rushed to the scene and unloaded five shots on Faulkner (who did get off a few shots himself). The assailant? Mumia Abu-Jamal. Abu-Jamal was convicted of first degree murder. To this day Jamal, somewhat of a civil rights icon, has supporters in America and around the world, claiming he is innocent because a 1981 Philadelphia jury couldn’t possibly have been unbiased. (That’s right, the jury might, might have been biased in 1981 Philly – therefore Abu-Jamal couldn’t have committed murder in broad daylight with multiple eye witnesses and a murder weapon laying by his side with five spent shell casings.)
On 12 June 1994 25-year-old Ron Goldman was slashed to death by Orenthal James Simpson. His crime? He was apparently returning a pair of glasses left at the restaurant (Goldman was a waiter) by Nicole Brown Simpson’s mother. There have been some who claimed Goldman and Nicole Brown Simpson (OJ’s ex-wife) were lovers, but it is also plausible that he was just an acquaintance and happened late upon the murder scene, where OJ had to off him to eliminate a witness. Despite the near slam-dunk status of the evidence against OJ, and dead giveaway guilty behavior (white bronco), OJ was acquitted of the gruesome double murder.
On 26 February 2012, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was shot and killed by overzealous neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman. You know the story, Zimmerman was acquitted.
Justice ought to be color blind. It ought to treat one person the same as another, regardless of race, gender, etc. That’s the way it should be and that is the system we should all want, not a system that “settles old scores”. We can’t presume the white man is innocent, because the victims were black; nor can we presume that the black man is innocent, because the victims were white and the system has been unfair for so many years.
Honest conversation? Fine. To Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, or my many black friends: how did you react when OJ was acquitted? There was a mountain of evidence against him (vastly more than faced Zimmerman). Did you celebrate because there was finally retribution for Emmett Till? Or did you weep that a guilty man – a murderer – went free after a gruesome double homicide?
I was in college when the OJ verdict was read. There was shock in the main hall of the student union – and there was jubilation from the black cultural center (just across the hall). I’ve heard it said that this was the moment “white America” went fully into indifference. The disconnect was so wide that there was just no more point in talking. Perhaps the conversation died off a bit.
Shouting “Fire” in a Crowded Theater …
In the weeks and months after George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin, the American news media went on a search for a race-based story. They pulled audio from the 911 call and claimed Zimmerman said “f***ing coon” – a racial epithet. Upon further review it appears that he said “it’s f***ing cold” – a very different story.
Since this storyline didn’t take, NBC stepped it up a bit and edited the 911 tape and gave Zimmerman credit for saying “This guy looks like he’s up to no good … He looks black.” What they didn’t tell you is in that ellipsis Zimmerman indicated that Martin was wandering around and looked like he was on drugs – but did not offer or reference Martin’s skin color until the 911 operator specifically asked.
Out of curiosity, how much of the current rancor (protests – with some destruction of property and reports of assaults) can be attributed to NBC ginning up false statements to stoke racial tensions? I suspect that one might end up at trial too.
We’re Not Done Yet …
The legal matters will continue for both sides. The Martin family will bring a civil suit (much lower burden of proof). The Zimmerman legal team will seek sanctions against the state and the prosecution for hiding evidence. They will also seek damages from the state and a payout for NBC. The DOJ may bring civil rights charges (though, legal experts seem to think it’s a non-starter as they would have to prove the case the state just lost … badly).
Beyond legal, there are the protests and demonstrations. Folks will boycott Florida (that’s freedom of association). There will be more property damage, though it has been minor compared to what I originally feared. There will be more “retribution” attacks, though it seems difficult to quantify how many of said attacks simply use the Zimmerman acquittal as cover instead of actual motivation.
So, we’re not done yet. Not done with the legal issues, or the rancor, but we are also hopefully not done with that conversation – because it is a conversation worth having.