The country is abuzz with opinions about the Zimmerman/Martin case at this moment. At the risk of igniting a flame war, I can’t help thinking it is a bit of a distraction from larger issues—the racism endemic to our system of government is far bigger than one case in Florida, and our increasingly imminent suffering and death caused by climate change seems like it should be getting at least momentary coverage in the mainstream news. For my part, I avoided watching much of the Zimmerman trial other than the verdict, which was entirely as expected.
In some ways, it pays to be a cynic. So often, you will be proven right. The jury in the Zimmerman case made exactly the right call under the law as they understood it. Stand Your Ground was controversial when it was enacted, and it being enforced exactly as described in the worst case scenario. People have no legal obligation to back down from a fight and can use proportional or even disproportional force in the defense of their selves or their property.
On its face that doesn’t sound like the world’s worst idea. As a peaceful man myself, I cannot expect others to see wisdom in backing down. But claims of morality aside, assuming we have decided it is well and good to live in a more savage society in which the lives of those who attack us have no value, the application is far from evenly enforced.
This source has a pretty good graphic showing your chances of successfully using Stand Your Ground to defend your action in court depending on the color of the shooter and of the shot. If you are cynical about race relations and bias in our legal system, you are probably dead right about how this chart looks. If you are Black and shoot anyone, your chances of success in this defense are less than a White person who shoots anyone. And if you are White and shoot a Black person, your chances are far better than if you are White and shoot another White person.
This bias is real and measurable. It is indisputable.
There can be no justice for Trayvon Martin. He is dead. Nothing that befalls his killer can be called justice. This leaves us with this question: why do we yearn for George Zimmerman to be found guilty?
We can cite cases of Black or African American people who tried this defense and failed. Then we can claim the Zimmerman verdict was an injustice in the face of this obvious, provable bias. But it isn’t. The injustice is the various guilty verdicts. The injustice is the racial bias.
We know that punishment is ineffective. We know that the legal system is biased heavily against people of color. I’ve made this case before. But even my most peaceful and existential of friends are eager to judge Zimmerman (who, bear in mind, is Hispanic) guilty, thinking this would be justice. There is no justice in our criminal justice system. For my part, I am not too surprised or terribly upset by the verdict but, rather, wish George Zimmerman well. He has an opportunity many people of color never get. He has the chance to walk away from his trial declared innocent and think deeply about his life. To ponder absent of the abuses of “criminal justice.”
Rather than wish ill on Zimmerman, perhaps an existentialist attitude would be to accept him for who he is and what he has done, regardless of whether it seems evil to us. Rather than hound him in the news or in our blogs or in our hearts, perhaps it would be more productive, lead to greater justice, to advocate and agitate for all the people denied their rights under Stand Your Ground. And then, when that work is done, seriously consider whether these laws, enacted in some 20 states across our nation, reflect who we want to be.
All of the people who kill deserve our love, not our outrage. It is easy to feel outrage when we love the victims, and sometimes that blinds us to the needs of the perpetrators. They need justice, too, and it is not available in our current system.
What would be justice for young Mr. Martin? Imprisoning Mr. Zimmerman wouldn’t do it. Something of reparative or restorative justice might do something for his parents or the outraged public. But I propose that real justice for Trayvon Martin can only be found when we work for justice for everyone. That means fixing racially biased laws. The Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 goes some way towards such a goal—addressing the disparity in drug law enforcement and sentencing. Let Stand Your Ground be next.
For advocates of Stand Your Ground, for people who advocate for a right to defend your self and property, I will leave you with this Zen koan, borrowed unapologetically from the following site: http://www.nozen.com/stolenmoon.htm.
The Moon Cannot Be Stolen
Ryokan, a Zen master, lived the simplest kind of life in a little hut at the foot of a mountain. One evening a thief visited the hut only to discover there was nothing to steal.
Ryokan returned and caught him. “You may have come a long way to visit me,” he told the prowler, “and you should not return empty-handed. Please take my clothes as a gift.”
The thief was bewildered. He took the clothes and slunk away.
Ryokan sat naked, watching the moon. “Poor fellow,” he mused, “I wish I could give him this beautiful moon.”
What you can do:
Remember that love is a verb. Be aware of implicit bias. Know that you are judging people based on their skin color, accent, or other cues to race and culture. Remember that we tend to favor those who look like us over those who do not. And if you are on a jury, remember that juries have the power of jurisprudence: they do not have to enforce or uphold laws they deem unjust. You could have been on Mr. Zimmerman’s jury and you could have found him guilty, knowing in your heart that Stand Your Ground is fundamentally immoral and unjust.
— Jason Dias