Sunday, July 14, 2013

Making sense of the Zimmerman verdict

By Michael J.W. Stickings

Like many others, I tweeted a lot last night in response to the Zimmerman verdict. Like many others, I wanted -- and still want -- #JusticeForTrayvon. Here are a couple of them:

And yet, while I understood, and still do, the enormous outpouring of outrage, and while I abhorred, and always will, the gloating coming from the pro-Zimmerman types on the right, I must say I found much of the reaction to the verdict, from those outraged, unnecessarily weighed down with grotesque hyperbole at a time when what is needed is perspective and a sober sense of what to do now now that the trial is over.

For example, there were those attacking the jurors for supposedly being right-wing morons, as if we can possibly know what was going through their minds, consciously or not, as they reached a verdict in one of the most controversial trials in recent memory.

And there were those attacking the defense attorneys. Yes, there was some ugly gloating on their part, but they were also just doing their jobs.

And those attacking the system without really understanding how criminal justice works.

And today I saw some insanely calling for a boycott of the State of Florida, as if that somehow would solve the problem.

And so on.

This is not to say that I'm happy with the verdict or that I think justice was done. Please. This isn't an either/or thing.

I think we know pretty clearly what happened, or at least we think we do, and I think we know pretty clearly that racism was involved in what happened, and perhaps also in some rather less clear way in the trial/verdict, and I think it's understandable to be angry, disappointed, frustrated.

But while wanting justice for Trayvon Martin, and finding the whole damn thing abhorrent, let's not make the mistake of mistaking this one case for more than it was.

Even if it was a reflection of the deeper and broader problem of racism in America, as well as of the country's gun-crazed culture of violence, even if we're certain, absolutely certain, that things would have gone differently had a black man been the killer, this was one case with one set of evidence, one judge, and one jury. And unfortunately, in that context, the verdict, however disappointing, however disturbing, made some sense.

Yes, sense. I'm sorry, but it did. And if saying that loses me some twitter followers, as it appears to have done, or if some of you take that to mean I'm pro-Zimmerman, no different from the gloaters, because you can't see the nuance here, well, what can I say?

One of the best tweets I've seen came from ex-NFLer Scott Fujita:

And the smartest thing I've read on the verdict came from Slate's Emily Bazelon, in a must-read piece that includes the following:

It feels wrong, this verdict of not guilty for George Zimmerman. It feels wrong to say that Zimmerman is guilty of no crime. If he hadn't approached 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, if he hadn't pulled his gun, Martin would be alive.

But that doesn't mean Zimmerman was guilty of murder, not in the state of Florida. It doesn't even mean he was guilty of manslaughter, though that was the middle ground I hoped the jury would find its way toward... Here's the problem: To convict Zimmerman of murder, the six women of the jury had to find that he killed Martin out of ill will, hatred, or spite, or with a depraved mind. The law didn't account Zimmerman's fear or feeling of being physically threatened.

But the physical evidence suggested that in the heat of the moment, Zimmerman could have felt both of those things.

In other words, the verdict may not have been racist, and, given the laws in Florida and the high bar of "beyond a reasonable doubt" (a bar that must remain high at all times if the legal system is to be in any way just), maybe the verdict actually made... sense.

Here's The Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates, also not a right-wing pro-Zimmerman apologist, making the same case:

I think the jury basically got it right. The only real eyewitness to the death of Trayvon Martin was the man who killed him. At no point did I think that the state proved second degree murder. I also never thought they proved beyond a reasonable doubt that he acted recklessly. They had no ability to counter his basic narrative, because there were no other eye-witnesses.

And on this I am in full agreement:

[T]rials don't work as strict "moral surrogates." Everything that is immoral is not illegal -- nor should it be. I want to live in a society that presumes innocence. I want to live in that society even when I feel that a person should be punished.

Did the system work? Well, yes, in its flawed way.

It's an imperfect system, after all, that when it works as it should presumes innocence even for those who seem the most guilty and places the burden of proof on the government.

I'm not saying that racism played no part here, or that the system isn't deeply corrupt, but I think we should take a step back before hurling accusations in all directions.

And while there is undeniably a sense of gross injustice here -- Trayvon is dead, Zimmerman walks -- the point for us all should be to rally together to fight for change as the pathway to justice.

Fight to end racism, particularly as it manifests itself in institutions like the justice system. Fight for meaningful gun control legislation. Fight to put an end to America's gun-crazed culture of violence.

Fight for Trayvon, yes, but do so in the right way, and without turning on the system for doing what, at the end of the day, it was supposed to do in this case.

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