Sunday, July 28, 2013

Zimmerman's Acquittal is not Ours

On the day that George Zimmerman was acquitted of homicide in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, I wrote the following words on my facebook page:

I was not in the courtroom. I did not see and hear the evidence and the testimony. I cannot speak to this verdict based on the evidence. What I can say is that if my son were black, then tonight as I looked in on his sleeping face nestled into his beddings, I would feel an adrenal rush of fear, a heightened anxiety for his future. Because he is an unthreatening shade of pink, I feel instead the shame of my own relief.

And then I fell silent. I didn't rush to this blog, as I sometimes do, to elaborate--and not just because I've been deliberately neglecting this blog this summer to focus on other priorities.

I fell silent because I didn't know what else to say. I didn't know what my perspective could add, what I could say that wasn't already being said better by others or wasn't already expressed in my earlier post in the wake of the shooting. I didn't know how to answer the question that burns for so many in this country:

What now? What do we do to move forward, to help heal the social fault-lines highlighted by this tragedy and its aftermath (including the trial and subsequent acquittal)?

If I have nothing to say about this question, then writing at any length would amount to nothing but an indulgence in anger. As Rachel Held Evans recently noted, anger can be be a springboard that inspires us to act for justice; but if it descends into bitterness it's value is gone. And without hope that is exactly what happens.

If we speak or act out of anger without any hope for meaningful change and a vision of how to get there, our words and actions will simply play into existing prejudices and polarization, perpetuating cycles of suspicion and hostility. In short, anger without hope can't be anything but a recipe for more of the same.

So what can I say, here and now, that can help us to move forward?

Here's what we know about that fateful encounter between Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman: Trayvon Martin went on an innocent errand, unarmed, to get sweet tea and Skittles. George Zimmerman saw him, jumped to a conclusion about him, and--contrary to the advice of a police dispatcher--confronted him, perhaps lent confidence by the reassuring weight of the deadly weapon he carried with him. The confrontation escalated into physical violence. Zimmerman pulled out his gun and fatally shot Martin.

Let me put this another way. Martin was minding his own business. Zimmerman made a false assumption and accosted Martin based on this false assumption. This triggered an escalating conflict which ended when Zimmerman, the man who had started it, shot and killed Martin, who had been minding his own business.

So how in the world did Zimmerman end up with an acquittal? How is it even possible, given this framework of events, that an armed man who accosted an unarmed innocent and ultimately killed him could walk away without criminal punishment?

The answer, I think, lies in this: The defense zoomed in. The defense invited the jury to set aside this broader framework, this context, to focus instead on what was happening immediately before the fatal shot was fired. At the moment that Zimmerman pulled out his gun, was he afraid for his life? Was he facing, in that moment, an attack that could have ended him?

Again, I must stress that I wasn't in the courtroom and I'm not privy to every detail of what happened. But if Zimmerman owes his acquittal to anything, I think it has to be this zooming in, this narrow focus on what happened in the moment before the shot was fired. Because as soon as you zoom out and look at the events in terms of who started it and who ended it, who was minding his own business and who was accosting whom, Zimmerman looks very much like a murderer.

Not being a legal scholar, I can't tell you whether the relevant laws call for this narrow focus or not. I can't say, in other words, whether the Zimmerman verdict was the correct one to reach given the law and the facts on hand. What I will say, with a fair degree of confidence, is this: The verdict springs from zooming in. But we, as a society, have a responsibility to zoom out.

If we want to know what to do next, we won't answer that question by following the strategy of Zimmerman's defense, by focusing narrowly on what was happening in the seconds before Zimmerman pulled out his gun. If we want to know what to do next, we needed to broaden our perspective, to look more widely than what is in the story I sketched out above, rather than more narrowly. Even if we were to concede that a determination of Zimmerman's legal responsibility called for such a narrow focus, our collective responsibility must be determined by a much wider one.

In this sense, Zimmerman's acquittal is not ours.

When a boy is walking home from an innocent shopping trip and ends up being shot dead, and when the killer is acquitted based on self-defense--when he is acquitted based on the judgment that he was justifiably defending himself against the teenager he accosted in the first place--we know that something is amiss in our society. And to understand what has gone wrong and how we can fix it--to understand our responsibility in this whole tragic mess--we need to broaden our focus, turn our attention to the social forces, the patterns and policies and social prejudices, that helped give rise to the tragedy.

If we want some vision of what to do next, where the path of hope lies, we need to see the tragedy within the context of social forces that we can help to change. In a sense the Zimmerman acquittal can be seen as an invitation to do just that. A Zimmerman conviction might well have made it too easy for all of us to put the blame on him and go on as if everything were fine.

Trayvon Martin's death shouldn't have happened. That is clear enough. But if Zimmerman isn't to blame, then who is? Trayvon, the kid who was minding his own business until a vigilante wrongly marked him as a criminal? Does all the fault lie with him?

It's tempting to blame them both. Part of the problem with "Stand Your Ground" laws is that they assume that there is a clearly identifiable aggressor and victim. But so many of the conflicts that culminate in deadly (or potentially deadly) violence are characterized by a feedback loop of incremental escalation, where each party sees himself as "standing his ground" against the other at each escalating shout or shove or punch.

This is part of the context that gets lost with a narrow legal focus on the moment before Zimmerman fired the gun. Maybe Martin was slamming Zimmerman's head into the pavement at that moment. But what was that a reaction to? What had Zimmerman done the moment before that? What if Zimmerman had died from the head blow? Would Trayvon Martin have been able to invoke "Stand Your Ground" to secure an acquittal? Or what if Zimmerman had missed the first time he'd fired, and Martin had landed a killing blow before Zimmerman could fire again? Would Martin then have earned an acquittal based on self-defense?

Part of the broader social context that we need to think about in this case is our collective desire to parse out conflicts into good guys and bad guys, to interpret events in terms of clean categories, and to fashion laws that are premised on such sharp divisions. If both Zimmerman and Martin are to blame for what happened, then so are we.

So are we. Because we all helped to fashion the world in which both Zimmerman and Martin could so readily see themselves as the good guy standing his ground against the bad guy, and so could justify with ease the next incremental escalation in the conflict.

I've loved comic books since I was a kid, with their superheroes and supervillains clashing in epic battle. I cheer as readily as anyone else when I watch an action movie in which the good guy finally defeats the bad guy in the final climactic showdown. But fiction isn't reality, and when we fashion laws that can't map onto the more complex realities of shared responsibility for escalating violence, we are guilty as a society of treating reality as if it were a comic book.

When we zoom out, this is one of the things we need to look at.

We also need to look at race.

Of course race is a part of it. Zimmerman may not have been an overt racist. He may have had black friends. But even for those who are not overt racists, race plays into our socially-shaped and largely unconscious perceptions of the world, influencing our assumptions about strangers on the street. A blond teenager walking down the street at night doesn't arouse suspicion and fear, doesn't immediately inspire the worst assumptions--but a young black man with his hoodie pulled up against the elements?

If Zimmerman jumped to a conclusion based in part on subconscious race-based conceptions and attitudes, that isn't merely his fault. The buck doesn't stop with him. Because such subconscious race-based attitudes are shaped by a broad array of often subtle social forces.

Of course race is a part of it. If you're a young white man and you are unjustly targeted, it doesn't cost you much in terms of personal dignity to be strategically meek and unassuming in the face of false accusation, to calmly explain that it's a simple misunderstanding. After all, such unjust targeting will, for you, be an anomaly. You won't be facing in that moment the whole weight of a society's prejudice pushing you into a particular box, defining you as a danger and a delinquent. Adopting an attitude of disarming appeasement for the sake of getting home safely won't feel like crawling obediently into your "place."

And if you're white in this country and you do get mad about being unjustly accused, the act of indignantly standing up for yourself won't feed into the very fears that led to your be targeted in the first place.

We live in a society where black families need to think twice about telling their sons to stand up for themselves in the face of prejudice and unjust profiling, because doing so could mean death. That is part of the broader context we need to face. Because whatever we think of the Zimmerman verdict, his acquittal is not ours.

Among all the deaths and tragedies that happen in this country, Trayvon Martin's death captured our attention for a reason. The deadly clash between Martin and Zimmerman powerfully symbolizes the fault lines in this country that give rise to unnecessary suffering and death. We live in a world where unwarranted assumptions and indignation about being wrongly targeted can be the force and counter-force that incrementally turn an innocuous errand into brutal violence and death.

Whatever we think of the Zimmerman verdict, there is this grain of truth in it: Responsibility for what happened is not his alone. And if we want to move forward from here, we must all look at the broad social context in which the tragedy was embedded, and take responsibility for making things better. 


  1. This is such a helpful addition to the discussion. Thanks for dealing with the larger issues and looking at the whole case from a different perspective.

    It really is all about these latent tendencies that we're barely aware of, how we perceive others based on pre-formed ideas, and where the power structures lie in this country. We have to change.

  2. Thanks, Ben. When we focus on the court case, on the details of what happened in attempting to assess the merits of the self-defense claim, the debate becomes about whether Martin or Zimmerman bears the brunt of the blame for the tragedy.

    And it is comforting to keep the focus there, because then we don't need to look at our collective responsibility for changing the broader forces that influenced each move and counter-move in the escalating conflict that turned an ordinary evening into a tragic death.

    Individuals need to be held accountable for their actions. But too often, when we collectively focus on holding this individual or that individual accountable--when we say it was Trayvon's fault, or that it was Zimmerman's, or that they were both at fault--it functions as a way of not holding ourselves responsible for doing what we can to change the social realities that breed tragedy.

  3. Great post. I appreciate the call to "zoom out." That is a crucial piece that is easily missed in the discussion.