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Criminal Justice

What if Zimmerman is Telling the Truth?

A friend and I were discussing the #shitzimmermansays hashtag on Twitter (to which I admittedly contributed) today and, in the midst of chuckling at some of the tweets, he mentioned that he was concerned that focusing on the respective characters of George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin was leading the supporters of Trayvon into a dangerous space.  I actually had raised that concern myself a while back as well when the leaks, both the true and the false, began about Trayvon not being an angel.

Because, suppose that the events that occurred in Sanford, FL on that night are closer to George Zimmerman’s version than many of us would like to believe?  Suppose that he did follow and confront Trayvon Martin and that Trayvon did respond accordingly by taking a swing at him?  Suppose that, on the off chance, that Trayvon is not squeaky clean and Zimmerman is not utterly evil?

That would make a lot of those that support justice for Trayvon look slightly foolish for focusing so much on the character of the deceased and the one who pulled the trigger.  In fact, it’s part of the reason that so many have jumped to smear the kid in the worst ways and defend the shooter as not being racist.  If one focuses on character as a defense or as a motive, then the way to combat that is by proving (or even just alleging) that the character in question is in fact, in question.  That’s not an excuse for the awful things that have been leaked about Martin which end up trying to blame the victim.  However, at the same time, when supporters start by saying that Martin was middle-class, was a good kid, and then show pictures of him kissing babies and use that as justification that he should not have been shot, then it opens it up for people to try to debunk each of those justifications.

And the worst part of all of this, is that it doesn’t matter.  At all.  It doesn’t matter whether Trayvon was middle-class.  It doesn’t matter whether or not he got suspended from school.  It doesn’t matter whether he kissed babies.  It doesn’t matter if he took pictures with gold fronts in his mouth.  Because if it did, it sends a tremendously conflicted message that, while it’s not ok to profile and shoot middle class black teenage males, it’s perfectly justified to do so to lower income black teenage males.  And, I for one, am not comfortable with that logic.

But further, it doesn’t really matter what Zimmerman thought either.  It doesn’t matter whether he was overtly racist or not.  It doesn’t matter whether he’s white or his mom’s from Peru.  And it doesn’t matter how many times he called the police.  Because if it did, it sends the tremendously conflicted message that, while it’s not ok for a racist paranoid white guy to shoot black teenage males, it’s perfectly justified for someone who doesn’t fit those characteristics to do so.  And again, I’m not comfortable with that either.

So while everyone wants justice for the fact that Trayvon was killed, the focus on each individual’s character seems like it should be of tertiary importance at best, instead of primary as it is now.  Because, while on a personal level, seeing Zimmerman go to jail would present justice for Martin’s family, it actually does nothing to change the dynamic that led to the situation in the first place – the root cause as it may be.

And as my friend and I discussed, those root causes include:

  1. The fact that the NRA has such a ridiculous influence over our elected officials that laws like Stand Your Ground exist…and really that gun ownership and resulting homicides are so high in the first place
  2. The fact that racism still exists in society, and particularly in our criminal justice system, to the point that profiling Trayvon as dangerous is not considered abnormal behavior

Without the first, this unfortunate situation doesn’t come to pass since Zimmerman would have not been walking around with a gun in the first place, and if he were, wouldn’t have a law to fall back on to shield him subsequently.  And without the second, the situation largely would have not have started either since Zimmerman wouldn’t have started trailing Martin as he walked home.

Now don’t get me wrong.  I am not saying that the pressure to bring Zimmerman to justice if he is indeed guilty is wasted effort.  In fact, it is well worth the effort.  And character will probably play a major role in deciding what thruth(s) to believe and why. Unfortunately, without eyewitnesses, that’s likely to be the only thing law enforcement and the Florida state attorney’s have to go on in deciding whether to arrest Zimmerman or not. But Zimmerman’s arrest would also be symbolic, as much as the furor over OJ was symbolic.  Whatever the outcome, it won’t change any root causes by itself.  And these root causes lead to far more Trayvon’s that don’t receive justice. In many ways, it’s akin to the low level guards in Abu Ghraib being found guilty for their roles in torturing and abusing Iraqi prisoners.  Yes, it’s necessary to punish those that directly engage in the wrongdoing, but, in order to prevent it from happening again in the future (especially when the lights aren’t as bright and illuminating), the sufficient step requires a fundamental shift in how our entire society operates.

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