There were two new developments in the Trayvon Martin shooting this week of note, only one of which rattled my view of the case. First, it was revealed that George Zimmerman sustained injuries in his confrontation with Trayvon Martin, but the second–and infinitely more disturbing–was that the lead investigator determined that the killing was avoidable and that Zimmerman should have been detained, yet he was still released. How in the fuck does that happen?
What shocks me about this is that here I’ve been, trying to figure out what it was about this story that convinced the police that this incident was a clear cut instance of self defense with enough confidence to release the shooter on his own recognizance, and it turns out they didn’t–they just let him go anyway. The lead investigator wanted to charge him with manslaughter, so they sent him on his way. Because that’s how they roll, down in Sanford. They might have a dead, unarmed kid and a guy who admits to shooting him, but he said he really had to, so they have to believe him. Maybe he pinky swore it was self defense.
The injury report doesn’t trouble me much, because it doesn’t really mean anything either way. It might help fill in some details about the events, but doesn’t change culpability or the overall story arc; in that sense, they are just so much more chaff in a story already vastly overloaded with it. Most of the story as it has been reported so far is bloated with trivia and errata that appears to shed light but in fact confuses the issue. To illustrate, here is the story as reported in the media thus far:
George Zimmerman, a white neighborhood watchmen, called 9-1-1 to report a person who “look[ed] suspicious, like he’s on drugs or something”. He told the dispatcher he was going to follow the person, but was told not to. The person he was following was 17 year old Trayvon Martin, who was black, was staying in the neighborhood visiting his father, having been suspended from school for having a baggie that contained trace amounts of marijuana. Martin also had trace amounts of marijuana in his blood, although not enough to indicate impairment or intoxication. He was unarmed at the time, carrying only a can of tea and a box of skittles, which he was bringing to his brother. Martin was on the phone with his girlfriend at the time, and told her he was being followed. Although the details are not entirely clear, a confrontation occurred and Zimmerman shot Martin once, killing him. Zimmerman suffered some bruises and a fractured nose during the confrontation.
Zimmerman has called the police on several occasions in his capacity as a neighborhood watchman, and has reported black males as “suspicious” on at least 4 other occasions. He once was arrested for interfering with a police officer and a former girlfriend once put a restraining order on him. A former coworker has reported that Zimmerman used racially derogative language toward him in the past.
Martin had, in the past, made several posts on Facebook posing in aggressive postures and using offensive language.
In the above quote, text in green is relevant. Text in yellow is informative. Text in white is filler, utterly irrelevant to the core facts of the case. While I keep hearing this whole thing described as complex, it just isn’t all that hard. The key is to strip away all the bullshit narrative that exists only because reporters have to keep digging up new information if they want to keep writing about the case, regardless of whether or not that new information has any real significance.
The only things that are of real relevance are what was known to the principals, on the day of the incident–and that rules out most of the above. George Zimmerman didn’t know anything about Trayvon or his past, and had no reason to believe the boy was armed. He didn’t know anything about school suspensions or drug usage. Trayvon Martin didn’t know George Zimmerman was on the neighborhood watch–he didn’t even know if he lived in the neighborhood. He didn’t know about past restraining orders or racial insults to coworkers. Step back from all of that and here’s what you’re left with:
Trayvon Martin was walking home from the convenience store when he observed that he was being followed by a man he didn’t know. he either confronted or was confronted by the strange man, a physical altercation occurred, and the man shot him to death.
It is simply unfathomable to me that this can be considered self defense. That Zimmerman was on the neighborhood watch doesn’t matter because he wasn’t acting in his capacity as a neighborhood watchman at the time. The neighborhood watch doesn’t follow people, they observe and report, that’s it. Anyone who has ever been to a neighborhood watch meeting with a police officer in attendance knows, the police are pretty clear on that point. They tell you do not apprehend, do not follow, do not confront, do not pursue, do not provoke, do not approach. Observe, report, you’re done. Incidents like what happened in Sanford are exactly why they are so adamant about it: anything beyond observe and report often ends up with an innocent dead victim. At the point where Zimmerman reported to the 9-1-1 dispatcher that there was a suspicious person, his role as neighborhood watchman ended. At the point where he announced he was following the person, he switched from neighborhood watch to vigilante, which is why that part is in green but the dispatcher telling him “we don’t need you to do that” isn’t relevant. Being on the neighborhood watch meant he already knew that.
It doesn’t really matter who started the confrontation, either. Zimmerman was clearly the primary aggressor, by virtue of following Martin. Following someone is inherently menacing; if you don’t think so, try this thought exercise: Your teenage child walks in the door from the convenience store and says they were followed home by a strange man. do you a) shrug, say it’s probably nothing, or b) go outside to check out what kind of creep is following your kid around? If b), if you confront the person and they say “it’s OK, I’m with the neighborhood watch” do you a) accept that at face value, thank them for their diligence, and send them on their way or b) call the police and have them come check out the person claiming to be a neighborhood watchman but acting like a kidnapper/rapist? Following strangers is not normal behavior under the best of circumstances, but this is Florida, the state of Adam Walsh, of Carlie Brucia, of Somer Thompson, of countless others. When a strange man follows a child they don’t know around in this state, it usually ends up with an amber alert and a dead child. In the Zimmerman/Martin case, the only difference was they skipped the amber alert. There is absolutely no reason whatsoever why, once he realized he was being followed, that Trayvon Martin would assume the stranger wasn’t a kidnapper or murderer, but rather merely the creepy and overly-attentive but mostly-harmless neighborhood watchman who thinks he’s Batman.
So you have a scared kid being followed by a guy he assumes has ill intent; even if he confronted Zimmerman, at that point it was up to Zimmerman to defuse the situation. He was the aggressor, intentionally or not. That Zimmerman thought he was dealing with a criminal and protecting his neighborhood is irrelevant. Try following college girls around campus after hours and explaining to the cop you were just making sure they got to their dorms safely. It’ll make for an entertaining story as he’s driving you to central booking; if you’re lucky, you won’t end up on Megan’s List.
The 9-1-1 recordings establish the timeline, clearly defining Zimmerman as the aggressor. He wasn’t initially approached by Martin; he started following him, and even if Martin approached him later, there is no evidence to suggest or support that he would have done so if some creepy guy hadn’t started following him around . On the contrary, the phone call to his girlfriend, the items he was carrying, and the lack of any kind of weapons or other equipment to be used for committing any sort of crime suggest strongly that Trayvon Martin was doing exactly what everybody says he was doing: heading home from the convenience store to watch a basketball game. (Note: I would understand if some people object to the characterization of Zimmerman as “creepy”, and even argue that it indicates I’m subjectively biased against him, but I would counter that following minors around whom you do not know is objectively creepy behavior, unless you are an accredited, active law enforcement officer and the minor in question is the target of an active investigation. Following teenage boys around is not normal behavior for a member of the neighborhood watch, the group for whom that kind of behavior is normal is called NAMBLA–and it’s still creepy. I shouldn’t have to explain that to you, unless you’re a Republican congressman)
That Zimmerman was ultimately charged is good, but it’s a shame that it took such a public outcry to make that happen, and makes me wonder how many travesties of justice slip under our radar every day. In a touch of situational irony, whoever did Zimmerman the favor of overriding the lead investigator’s recommendation of manslaughter, actually made his situation worse. Now he’s facing second degree murder, a far more serious charge, although appropriate. There has been some outrage over the choice of second degree murder, but most of it seems to revolve around the use of the word “depraved” in the wording of the statute. This is a misunderstanding, akin to that over the use of the word “theory” when describing evolution, based in the difference between the professional and colloquial use of the term. In legal terms, “depraved mind” (also known in some states as “depraved heart”) simply indicates a reckless disregard for human life. To me, strapping a pistol to your hip and following people you don’t recognize around your neighborhood fits that definition perfectly, at the point where it results in shooting an unarmed minor to death.
Which brings me, finally, to the topic of race. I’ve avoided it because it is an emotional lightning rod, not because there isn’t clearly a racial aspect to the whole incident. I do believe that race was a factor in what motivated Zimmerman to conclude Martin “look[ed] suspicious, like he’s on drugs or something”, since the available evidence now shows that Trayvon Martin was neither suspicious nor intoxicated. I still maintain that it isn’t ultimately relevant, because following a teenage boy (or girl) around is, as I said earlier, inappropriate and aggressive behavior regardless of motivation or intent. However, I think race has been a much more significant and ugly aspect of the aftermath, and has revealed much more about the country that we live in and the people that we are than it has about George Zimmerman.
The lead investigator in this case concluded that there was cause to charge Zimmerman with manslaughter, and that the killing was “ultimately avoidable” if Zimmerman had simply “remained in his car” instead of deciding he was Judge Dredd. In other words, this killing was optional. George Zimmerman didn’t have to put himself in a position to kill another human being, he chose to. He had no business following strangers around, he provoked a situation that didn’t need to occur, and he shot an unarmed teenage boy who was doing nothing but minding his business–and yet Zimmerman was released that same night. It is very hard to imagine a scenario where that would have occurred if the skin colors had been reversed. I challenge any of the Zimmerman supporters who keep dragging out cases of black-on-white crime as some sort of warped attempt at a counter-argument to present one where the black suspects were detained, considered likely culpable, and released anyway. I say there aren’t any; prove me wrong.
In the larger sense, the reaction to the incident has been even more troubling. The case has divided, illogically, along ideological grounds, for reasons that aren’t completely clear, but which sure walk, swim, and quack like a racist duck. Recently, a website was selling Trayvon Martin gun range targets, and they sold out in two days. The sellers admitted they were supporters of George Zimmerman, and believed he “shot a thug”. There is simply no reason for them to believe that except the color of the boy’s skin. John Derbyshire responded to the incident by penning a particularly vile piece outlining his views on race, following it up later with a whiny retread of “white man’s burden” as a paean to white supremacy after he was fired from the National Review. The national debate on this has, for Zimmerman’s supporters, become a narrative of white victimhood against black criminality, casting him as a martyr to leftist political correctness. The lack of a black criminal in the case hasn’t seemed particularly relevant to the pro-Zimmerman crowd, oddly enough.
In this regard, race is a huge factor in the overall metastory, but remains minor in the events of February 26th–with the exception of Zimmerman’s release. The fact remains that the lead investigator recommended forwarding the case to the State’s Attorney for charges, based on his belief that the suspect could have avoided the fatal encounter entirely by staying out of it and letting authorities do their job, or by defusing the situation verbally once the confrontation occured– and yet Zimmerman was released. He had options available to him, reasonable, logical, legal options, and he chose a path that led to him killing an unarmed boy. Apparently, someone in the legal system felt that a killing of choice was acceptable.
What sort of culture are we that condones this? How can we call ourselves a civilized people when one of the most fundamental, primal, core tenets of any societal group–do not kill each other–has exceptions like this? How many other exceptions are there? Whatever the outcome of the Zimmerman trial, Trayvon Martin is gone. He had 17 short years on the planet, those were all he got. Zimmerman’s life is irrevocably changed, but so what? He made his choices and ultimately, he is irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. The real impact of this case is what it says about who and where we are as a people, and the important question is: Is this who we want to be?
UPDATE 05/21/12: Geraldo Rivera has done some questionable things in his long and dubious career as an entertainer, but I think his latest stint as George Zimmerman apologist may be the first time he’s been a truly reprehensible human being. There is simply no excuse for arguing that a person’s clothing can constitute a reasonable justification for killing them, as he did last night on Rupert Murdochs Propagandatorium. I stumbled across this right before I posted this piece; in the end I decided that since Geraldo had been pushing this rancid argument for over a month, reiterating it wasn’t quite enough to put him in the lead for this week’s award.