Monday, July 15, 2013

On Self-Defense, George Zimmerman, and Racism

I think it's pretty obvious that it was Trayvon Martin, not George Zimmerman, who acted in self-defense - but a) the burden of proof is such that you have to prove Zimmerman DIDN'T act in self-defense, and proving a negative without witnesses is virtually impossible. And even worse, b) under Florida's unjust laws, it really doesn't matter who started the fight. It could not legally end in murder no matter who died - and that's terrifying.

Ultimately, I strongly disagree with the jury's verdict but do respect it. The Southern Poverty Law Center has done the best job threading that needle. Anyway, let's take this piece by piece - first, the evidence that Martin acted in self-defense (not for the court of law, but for the court of public opinion and cultural change); second, just some of the reasons Stand Your Ground laws are so terrible; and finally, a factual, not cynical, look at Zimmerman's racism.

Why do I think Trayvon Martin likely acted in self-defense? First, Martin had no violent history, but Zimmerman does. Zimmerman has previously been arrested for domestic assault and for "battery of law enforcement officer", but Martin had only been suspended from school for theft and pot, nothing violent and no arrests. And of course, Zimmerman wasn't just escalating the situation by getting out of his car; he was escalating a situation he had created. Martin had done absolutely nothing wrong up to this point; why would he suddenly snap and go berserk on this guy who pulled up? Zimmerman, on the other hand, told officers that when he saw Martin, he assumed he was a "fucking punk" (some heard "coon," not "punk) and one of “These assholes, they always get away... These people who victimize the neighborhood." 

So this generally paranoid and violent man already hates the guy he just saw in the hoodie and approaches him, armed. It also stands to reason that he wouldn't get out of the car (against police orders) and walk up to Martin silently - he would have said something menacing. Even if Martin did approach first, as Zimmerman claims, can you blame him? He's being sketchily followed when all he's doing is walking home! If I haven't done anything wrong and you're tailing me, I'm not going to think you're a good guy with the wrong impression about me. I'm going to think you're a bad guy out to get me. Zimmerman's the stalker here, not Martin.

Does that prove, beyond a reasonable doubt that Zimmerman attacked first? No.
Belief isn't the same as court-worthy evidence, but it is not enough to give me a heavy heart and believe Martin was acting in self-defense, and it is enough for millions to be very upset that a murderer in a racially-charged case is walking free. 

The way forward is not to focus on the trial - an unjust, evil action is legal under unjust, evil laws. The way forward is to fix those laws. I'm talking, of course, about "Stand Your Ground."

SYG laws basically say that if you feel threatened, you can kill - even if the reason you feel threatened is that the person you attacked first is fighting back. Thus "self-defense" AGAINST SELF-DEFENSE can legally be deadly. A guest on the Diane Rehm Show this morning said that under "Stand Your Ground" self-defense laws, had Martin killed Zimmerman, he would have had to be acquitted too - under Florida law, that fight could not technically end in murder. Want to kill someone? Just make sure they fight back, and suddenly it's legal. In other states, murderers have even been acquitted under SYG laws when they shot at people *who were running away* - that's not self-defense at all! And a co-worker told me today that he heard one lawyer say that had there indeed been a witness to the Zimmerman-Martin fight, Zimmerman could have legally shot that witness, too, as long as he then said he'd felt the witness was a threat to his well-being. That's utterly chilling.

These laws aren't laws at all. They don't enhance true self-defense. Instead, they're terrifying justifications for murder that have devastating consequences for anyone we see as "the other" - usually minorities.

What's race got to do with it?  

 One reason this law is so unjust is that it is, in practice if not intent, may be a racist law. Per PBS, a Texas A&M study found that homocide increased by 8% in states that passed these laws, and that "whites who kill blacks in Stand Your Ground states are far more likely to be found justified in their killings. In non-Stand Your Ground states, whites are 250% more likely to be found justified in killing a black person than a white person who kills another white person; in Stand Your Ground states, that number jumps to 354%." (Granted, the number of cases with a racial disparity is low.)

And that brings me to the second disturbing thing I heard on Diane Rehm this morning - not about the law's systematic racism, but about George Zimmerman's racism. Many reporters and lawyers who listened to the original interrogation tape (which was later cleaned up and was apparently not played in court) did not hear Zimmerman say "f'ing punk" - they were sure they heard him say "f'ing coon," a racial slur - though apparently the prosecutor disagreed.

Something else I learned: Zimmerman said on TV that he'd never heard of "Stand Your Ground" laws, but it came out in trial that he'd attended a self-defense class where those laws were mentioned and promoted frequently and often. So the guy was probably lying through his teeth about that. And I had forgotten, every single time Zimmerman had previously called 911 in the past (which was frequent, he is a paranoid individual), it was always against black men. That led the guest to say, "If you look at the totality of the circumstances, George Zimmerman was stoked by the sense of vigilante justice... [he] looks like a person who was just looking for the right person to shoot and kill and he finally did it."

Racism lives, and not all gunowners are responsible hunters or family defenders like you.

We've got work to do.