Watching the Zimmermann/Martin Case Through a Window

There have been countless excellent essays written about Trayvon Martin’s death and George Zimmermann trial, but this New Yorker piece captures something I had been trying to grasp. What it says about race, and the stories that it has brought out about the experiences of young black men and the way that they fear for their lives has been a necessary conversation and one that I think a lot of white people, myself included, have benefited from hearing (President Obama’s recent statement was an excellent example of this, and a few weeks ago the comments by LeVar Burton about the ritual he goes through whenever he is stopped by police in order to ensure that he will not set off any alarms of suspicion was a smaller, yet also very powerful contribution to these conversations). Those are experiences that I would not know about without being told, because that’s what white privilege does, and while I can never say I understand them, by listening to those voices, the emotions and activities that they produce, the lives that build up around them come into sharper focus. 

This has not been how I have read and reacted to the rest of the case. Leaving aside Zimmermann’s individual personal fear and entitlement, the fundamental principles of the law that led to his acquittal is something completely foreign to me. The Stand Your Ground law is, to me, so obviously a recipe for violence of exactly this kind that I cannot fathom the series of decisions that went into it. This is where the article is useful:

This violence-encouraging doctrine has persisted, and so, too, has the reasoning of the judicial decisions that established it. There is no invocation of natural law; the argument isn’t that all men have an inherent right to kill when threatened. The appeal is, rather, to a kind of implicit cultural law: it is not in the American character to retreat.

It’s not in the American character. These colours don’t run. Stand Your Ground. I need the historical context offered in that article and others like it to understand not just the racial component of this story, but the violent one. I think it’s harder to find personal stories that reflect the ways in which this concept has structured lives, has led to changes in behaviour or emotional perspectives, because it’s a somewhat subtler, but equally pervasive, frame.

Advertisements

5 thoughts on “Watching the Zimmermann/Martin Case Through a Window”

  1. My problems with the Martin verdict are thus:

    1.) While George Zimmerman did not have a “duty to retreat” he did have an obligation not to go looking for trouble, especially when law-enforcement advise against it. He was doing the opposite of retreating; he was acting as an aggressor. When you are pursuing someone you think is a “bad guy” when armed with a lethal weapon, you should be considered nothing else. Lack of a duty to retreat does not equal a right to pursue.

    Hence, if Zimmerman was the aggressor, his actions cannot be considered self-defense, regardless of the threat to his life. He brought his injuries on himself, and should have accepted them; if he had surrendered (even ‘played dead’), I think no one would have been killed. If he had not pursued Martin in the first place, no one would even be hurt. The weight of this tragedy should fall squarely on his shoulders.

    2.) Martin, feeling pursued by someone unreasonably, had every right (just as much right as Zimmerman) to defend himself from a perceived threat. Did he overreact? Possibly…I don’t know, and I CAN’T know, because Martin is not alive to give his side of the story.

    This is one of my biggest problems…since when do we take the word of the survivor of a deadly combat about what happened? How can his word be trusted? He has every incentive to lie.

    3.) I believe the jury applied the wrong standard of evidence…I think they acquitted because they did not feel that the state made its case beyond a reasonable doubt. But they applied that burden of proof to the wrong party.

    Self-defense is an affirmative defense; essentially, Zimmerman was forced to admit “yes, I killed him”…he committed a homicide. The state’s case is already made; they don’t NEED to prove the Zimmerman killed Martin, because he admitted it. It is then up to HIM to prove that what he did was justifiable homicide, and I feel the burden is on him to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he was telling the truth, and that the circumstances required the use of deadly force. And when most of his evidence is his own self-serving statements, I do not believe he met that standard.

    Now…none of what I stated above has anything to do with race, or “stand your ground” laws.

    Re: race…I do think Martin was racially profiled. However, while that is horrible and wrong, and I believe led to this tragedy, it is not against the law for a private citizen. This is why I don’t feel this was a hate crime.

    Re: stand your ground…despite much being made of the ‘stand your ground’ statute, I do not believe Zimmerman invoked it. He invoked the more basic self-defense clause, with the argument that once he was down and trapped, he had no ability (not duty) to retreat, and was thus justified in using deadly force. As I said above, though…I feel he brought that situation on himself as an aggressor, and should have thus been disbarred from using that defense.

    As far as the article itself…I have mixed feelings.

    I think it makes a good solid point about the American culture of violence, particularly that Americans feel the need to be violent over principles (things other than mere defense of life). I cannot deny that America is a horribly violent nation, and that it need not be. Stand your ground laws may contribute to this; I’d be interested to see a study.

    But I disagree with the authors question “Why does Florida allow men to carry guns so casually?”. I feel the answer is, because we should not punish citizens pre-emptively. It should not be illegal to carry a gun, if you do not misuse it. It should be illegal to misuse a gun…which is part of why the Martin case bothers me so much, because I think Zimmerman got away with abusing his right to carry arms.

    I also feel that the author is misportraying the duty to retreat in American jurisprudence, though I have no immediate evidence (I may research the matter, if I have time). I have not read Brown’s book, but I do not believe that American statutory law or precedent says that citizens are “more or less required to blast away at anyone who approached you with, as you saw it, ill will”. I know of several cases where this situation happened, and the person who “blasted away” was quite rightly charged with some degree of homicide, and convicted (as I feel they should have been).
    In short, I think Gopnik is exaggerating the situation to the detriment of his opponents…which I find is a common thing, on both sides of the gun debate.

    Finally, I am troubled by the author’s words: “Beneath the surface of the liberal state and the legal rules designed to limit violence and to grant a monopoly on its use to a freely elected government…”

    I do not believe the state should have a monopoly on violence. As I believe the state should always be distrusted by the citizenry, granting it such a monopoly is (and always has been) very dangerous. This is why I support the 2nd amendment so strongly.

    Think about this: which is a greater threat to the lives of poor African-Americans…private armed citizens like Zimmerman? Or law-enforcement officers? I firmly believe it is the latter, as they shoot a great many more people, and get away with it much more often.

    I think this is a bad situation, where failed to hold a private citizen accountable for his wrongful use of violence. But until we start holding officers of the state more accountable for their misuses of violence, I am not ready to trust them with a monopoly on its use.

    1. Dammit with the making me think, here! Seriously, thanks for showing up to comment on what I’m writing, it will definitely help put me in focus.

      On topic – my understanding is that the “Stand Your Ground” law was part of the jury instructions, and some more clarification on why it matters (a lot) is here: http://www.motherjones.com/kevin-drum/2013/07/stand-your-ground-did-indeed-play-role-zimmerman-trial. This plays in to exactly what you say about self-defense – based on the understanding of self-defense as an affirmative position, it is indeed a completely incorrect verdict (from the jury), but the instructions from the judge, based on the current law in the state of Florida, indicated that regardless of the degree to which Zimmermann incited the violence or could have gotten out of the situation long prior to the point at which lethal force became necessary, that doesn’t matter. If at any point he came to experience reasonable fear for his safety, he was entitled to act in the moment to protect himself by any means necessary. The jury’s question of “reasonable doubt” had to be applied in considering whether he ever felt that fear, and if they believed that it was reasonably possible, then he had to be acquitted.

      I agree with you overall that the case is fucked up, but I think the issue is with the law itself, not with the jury. I started seeing it that way when, prior to the verdict actually coming down, I read a couple of articles by bloggers that I generally respect saying that based on the case as presented and the instructions as given, they would themselves have trouble convicting. That made me go “Wait, wtf?”. And to me, that’s so, so much worse than what happened, say, back in the Rodney King case. It’s one thing to imagine a group of 12 citizens who have been raised in a toxic, racist culture coming to an unjust conclusion – and it’s a very, very sucky thing to be sure – but it’s another thing when the laws themselves are unjust. And not laws that were written at a time when we weren’t so much thinking about this stuff, back when women couldn’t even vote and non-whites were barely legally recognized as human, but laws that are being put on paper now. That is broken on a level that makes me want to crawl under a rock and fall asleep for at least a century or so.

      Now, as to some of your other points – first, I should clarify that the state monopoly on violence thing is not something that the author is inventing, but one of the premises about what the functions of the state that is generally used in social scientific thinking. And I (and this author, I would assume) certainly agree with you that it is not the way that it should be, but it is, 2nd amendment or no, the way that it is in actual fact. The state is, by definition, the entity that gets to decide when violence is justifiable or not, and it is therefore the arbiter of how violence happens. Distrust of the state by its citizenry is all fine and good, but acts of violence against the state apparatus result in one of two things – a new state infrastructure that becomes the arbiter of violence, or a decision by the state that no, not acceptable, you are quashed (through imprisonment, decided by a jury or simply enacted, or by responsive force, depending the the level of corruption in the state in question). I don’t really want to make this a second amendment debate – because again, Canadian, so the framing of that whole thing is quite foreign to me as a whole – but I would say that I find it a bit confusing to suggest that distrust of the state is a good reason for citizens to be able to carry guns. That may have been appropriate when the state’s military apparatus was mainly guns, but they now control more than enough weaponry to relocate the entire planet somewhere out past Pluto, so wtf good does it do to have a militia armed with semi-automatics? And second, the idea that only an individual “misuse” of a gun should preclude gun ownership is, indeed, a recipe for violence, since the act that would preclude this person would inherently have to be a violent act (and one that the state, as the one with the monopoly on the processs, would therefore have to decide was sufficiently “misusing” the weapon as to shut that option down).

      I think what I’m trying to say with a lot of it is that I find it useful to recognize that some of these principles – including the 2nd amendment and the distrust of government and everything that that means – are very much grounded in US culture and history. We are all sometimes inclined to miss the ways our cultural surroundings make certain things seem like the only possible universe, and part of my point is that the things about cases like this that make me, as an outsider, go “where the hell did that come from?” are worth examining.

      I don’t know if I’ve adequately responded to much of what you’ve said – I read your comment earlier, mulled it over and have come back with a somewhat limited time frame in which to actually write a response (and, I hope, another blog post), so forgive me if I have misrepresented something.

  2. First, let me say I don’t feel you’ve misrepresented anything, though I think we have a difference in understanding/opinion on the use of some terms (one in particular).

    Thank you for the article (or rather, the series of articles, because each one had links to several others, in a sort of rabbit-warren of information). In light of this, I can accept that the “stand your ground” law was indeed a factor in the case (and a problematic one, at that). I still think this is a problem with how such laws are written and enforced, though, not with the overall principle behind stand-your-ground (that the “duty to retreat” favors criminals and harms the law-abiding).

    After reading that, I recall reading at the time that Zimmerman was released after the shooting, and I remember thinking “what the hell is that?”. If someone shoots someone, they get arrested; no ifs, ands, or buts. If it was a legitimate self-defense case, they can get released on bail, and this will get sorted out through the judicial process. But to be able to shoot someone and walk away…no, I don’t feel that’s okay. Not even for cops, IMO; if a cop shoots someone, I feel they should have to be taken into custody until they are cleared that the shooting was “righteous”.

    The quotes for the jury are also telling, and I feel the judge’s instructions to the jury were incredibly off-base and prejudicial as to their verdict; they seemed designed to give all benefit of the doubt to the shooter, and none to the victim. But then…I feel juries should be instructed on the principle of jury nullification.

    I guess part of this problem is that all too often, self-defense cases are judged based on subjective criteria…did the shooter feel threatened. I feel this is a mistake; at a bare minimum, the law should consider whether the shooter was reasonable in feeling threatened, and if the evidence is clear that they were justified. I honestly don’t mind putting people in prison if they use violence “by mistake”, even if they felt threatened…it is the obligation of the person with a deadly weapon to make certain their use is justified before using it.

    A valid argument can be made that stand-your-ground laws make people feel they are more legally defensible in shooting, which will result in more shooting. I’ll admit this is a troubling implication, if true (I have seen studies that claim that it both increases and reduces shootings, and whether or not those shootings are justifiable is often murky…this is another related problem). But that just means we need better written laws.

    tl;dr…I accept that stand-your-ground laws contributed to this being a fiasco, and I think Florida needs to deal with that, even if it means removing the SYG statutes. They can have them back when they can make them sensible.

    I think what I’m trying to say with a lot of it is that I find it useful to recognize that some of these principles – including the 2nd amendment and the distrust of government and everything that that means – are very much grounded in US culture and history. We are all sometimes inclined to miss the ways our cultural surroundings make certain things seem like the only possible universe, and part of my point is that the things about cases like this that make me, as an outsider, go “where the hell did that come from?” are worth examining.

    I really cannot deny this, and that to some extent your view as an outsider is valuable in assessing the underpinnings of some principles and beliefs. I admit it is often hard to see how culture affects one’s own viewpoint. But ultimately, American beliefs on both the 2nd amendment and distrust of government run a very wide gamut, so I honestly think that there is a lot of solid argument on both sides, and one can make a reasoned decision as to which side one comes down on. The key is to actually make that reasoned decision, and not make a knee-jerk one based on pre-existing beliefs or broad groups. 🙂

    That said…I find it highly interesting how I am in favor of both the 2nd amendment (usually a right wing stance in America) and distrust of government (normally a left-wing stance). I’ve always found it slightly amusing how many far-leftists think the government is utterly untrustworthy…but when it comes to use of deadly force, they trust their fellow citizens even less.

    That brings me to our biggest disagreement, which ultimately comes down to differences in definitions/understanding.

    We appear to be defining “monopoly on violence” differently. I understand that ultimately, the state is the arbiter of whether violence is justifiable or not. We live under rule of law, so we understand that justification of violence is a societal, not personal, decision.

    But when I say “monopoly on violence”, I mean monopoly on use…a situation wherein not only are people subject to government review of their use of violence, but such review always comes down against the citizen; ultimately, that only the state has the authority to use violence, and all citizen use is automatically deemed illegal. Further, many states proceed from this to disallowing even the capacity for use of violence (disarming the populace), so that they can in no way challenge the state’s monopoly.

    This strikes me (with some historical justification, I think) as a very troubling attitude.

    Distrust of the state by its citizenry is all fine and good, but acts of violence against the state apparatus result in one of two things – a new state infrastructure that becomes the arbiter of violence, or a decision by the state that no, not acceptable, you are quashed (through imprisonment, decided by a jury or simply enacted, or by responsive force, depending the the level of corruption in the state in question).

    I don’t feel this is true at all, or certainly that it should not be so; at least, I believe that violence against state agents (for example, law-enforcement officers) can be justified, when said officers are acting unlawfully. And that if this occurs, the citizen should be (rightfully, in my mind) vindicated of wrongdoing.

    This is a problem that I have with police abuse of authority; quite often, the state comes down extremely hard on anyone using violence against a police officer, regardless of justification. This encourages abuse of authority, particularly when the state is reluctant to review and discipline its own agents (as is the case in many agencies). Citizen oversight and transparency of government are essential, but all too often lacking.

    I am not referring to overall revolution; merely that just because someone is acting under ‘color of law’ (state authority), that does not make their actions de facto lawful or right.

    I would say that I find it a bit confusing to suggest that distrust of the state is a good reason for citizens to be able to carry guns. That may have been appropriate when the state’s military apparatus was mainly guns, but they now control more than enough weaponry to relocate the entire planet somewhere out past Pluto, so wtf good does it do to have a militia armed with semi-automatics?

    I didn’t mean to imply that, so I apologize. I really don’t want to get into “citizen militia vs. organized military”, as I feel that’s a huge other ball of wax that doesn’t need to impact our current discussion.

    What I meant was that one cannot trust or rely on the state to always act in the best interests of the citizenry, and certainly not to provide constant protection…so the state should not be the only ones allowed to use violence. If one grants that:

    a.) there are times when it is appropriate to use violence in defense (which I believe).
    b.) the state is incapable of always being on hand to use violence on the citizen’s behalf (which is a reality).
    c.) the state has no legal obligation to provide protection to any individual citizen, and cannot be held accountable for its failure to provide said protection (which is a legal precedent, in the USA).

    then I believe it follows that

    d.) citizens should have the right to use violence on their own behalf, in lawful of defense of life (and perhaps even property).

    And if one is willing to grant that citizens have the right to use violence, it follows that:

    1.) State does not have a monopoly on violence, as they are not the sole recognized users of violent force.
    2.) as a corollary, citizens should have the right to effective tools to exercise their right to self-defense. For example, the right to free speech/expression is pretty meaningless if people are not allowed to own/use radios, computers, telephones, and other means of communication.

    I find the right of self-preservation pretty basic…if you don’t have a right to defend your life (up to and including use of deadly force), as far as I’m concerned, you have no rights at all.

    The idea that only an individual “misuse” of a gun should preclude gun ownership is, indeed, a recipe for violence, since the act that would preclude this person would inherently have to be a violent act (and one that the state, as the one with the monopoly on the processs, would therefore have to decide was sufficiently “misusing” the weapon as to shut that option down).

    Not at all, unless you believe that possession of the means of deadly force automatically leads to use of deadly force. There are thousands or millions of people who own deadly weapons who DON’T ever misuse them…I’m among them. There are many reasons not to misuse guns other than simply “you get them taken away”, or even “you go to prison”. There is the fact that many (I would say most) gun owners really don’t have any desire to hurt people.

    This is exactly what I mean about “punishment before the crime”. Yes, we should not (IMO) debar the use of arms until someone has already misused them (i.e. committed a violent crime). How is this controversial? I feel that depriving them of a basic right when there is no basis to believe they are a threat is punishing them without evidence of a crime even being committed, simply on the grounds that they might, at some future point, commit a crime. Should we prevent free speech because someone might, at some later date, yell “fire” in a crowded theater?

    1. OK, I feel like I should apologize because I find that while I am carving out some blogging time, I have yet to find the time and mental energy to reply in a remotely timely manner to well-thought-out comments. I’m also well aware that I owe you an email, and it will come, I swear.

      There is a lot to reply to here, but for time’s sake, I want to make two main points. The first is that, both from my own perspective and from, I believe, that of the New Yorker author, the claim about state monopoly on violence is not a description of how things should be, it’s an explanation about how things are. It’s essentially part of what it means to be the state, and recognizing that helps to explain a wide range of social phenomena relating to power, control, oppression, and of course violence itself.

      The second is the last point about the ‘recipe for violence’ – I don’t mean to suggest that every individual who owns a gun will misuse it, but I do mean to say that if the only reason to deny someone access to a deadly weapon is past misuse of that weapon, than you are guaranteeing that we will have at least as much violence as to allow each person who would misuse it one act of violence. As to whether the current proposals for gun control and regulating access to such weapons are ultimately effective means of determining, in advance, some degree of prevention of any of those initial acts of misuse, I’m not sure, but I am operating from the premise that it is worth it to make some attempt to prevent those acts as well, rather than just accepting them as a necessary component of “freedom” or whatever. I would also contest your characterization of that as “punishment before the crime”, because I don’t consider it “punishment” to not have access to a weapon until a certain set of positive tests can be passed (rather than waiting for a negative exclusion to be met). But it relates to your overall position about the necessity of weapons to any idea of an ability to exercise deadly force for self-protection or you will never be free, and that’s where I’m just going to have to go back to the cultural difference well, because I just don’t get it. I don’t equate gun ownership with self-protection, and partially in relation to that perspective, I don’t see it as a right but as a privilege (at best). It’s built into both the legal and cultural structures in which you were raised that it’s a right, but again, as an outsider, I see fundamental problems in that framing that may, in fact, breed violence.

  3. No apologies necessary! I have more on this subject, when you have time, but I’m not going to add anything at this point. 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s