The verdict was predictable. Under Florida law, a person doesn’t have to be threatened, in order to use deadly force, he or she just has to feel threatened.
The fear need not be rational. Indeed, someone claiming to be frightened can chase another person, shoot him in the back, and claim the protection of the state’s “Stand Your Ground” statute.
We will never know who started the fight between George Zimmerman, the cop-wannabe who took it upon himself to patrol his gated community with a gun, and Trayvon Martin, the kid who was visiting his father in that gated community in Sanford.
News sites say Trayvon was killed, armed only with candy and a mobile phone. We do know Zimmerman ended up bloodied; and Martin ended up dead. And now, a Florida jury has acquitted Zimmerman on all charges. He’s a free man. Soon they’ll give him back his gun.
Reaction to the verdict was also predictable. Conservatives rejoiced. To them, George Zimmerman is some kind of hero, the guy who took down a “thug.” His characterisation of Trayvon Martin, quoted in the courtroom, “Fucking punks. These assholes, they always get away,” gave voice to an anger that’s only grown since Barack Obama was elected president.
Fox News pundit Ann Coulter tweeted “Hallelujah!” whilst Iowa Republican congressman Steve King accused the president of making the case a political issue, presumably because Obama once remarked that if he’d had a son, the child might look like Trayvon Martin.
The gun lobby was relieved: their big worry was that a conviction would “discourage” citizens from using guns to defend themselves. Reactionary radio host Rush Limbaugh not only predicted widespread rioting, he accused the left and “the media” of encouraging violence.
The rioting didn’t happen. Los Angeles and Oakland, California saw some vandalism and street-blocking, but no serious injuries. Everywhere else–Manhattan, Washington, D.C, San Francisco, Miami, indeed, outside the court house in Sanford–the protests were angry, impassioned, but peaceful.
In Tallahassee, a group of ministers, students, and activists black, white, and Latino, gathered on the steps of the Capitol to pray for both the Zimmerman and Martin families. So much for the “thugs” who threaten the American way of life.
The Zimmerman trial illustrates why African Americans wonder–as they have wondered ever since Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation–when they will be accorded equal justice.
Earlier this year, the United States Sentencing Commission found that a black person convicted of a crime will, on average, be imprisoned for far longer than a white person convicted of the same crime. At the same time, whites accused of violence against blacks are much more likely than blacks to be acquitted. We may have just re-elected our first black president, but it still seems that, in America, a white life matters more than a black life.
Last month, John Roberts, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, blithely explained away the gutting of the Voting Rights Act, saying that the country “has changed.”
Never mind that in the 2012 presidential election, the Voting Rights Act was used to stop more than a dozen states which tried to make it harder for certain groups to exercise that right, including Florida. What with the beaches and the theme parks and the retirees from the North, people don’t think of Florida as one of those bad Old South states like Alabama or Mississippi.
But like those two, Florida was a slave state. Florida had Jim Crow laws and lynchings and now has an over-broad self-defence law which can make it lethal to be caught breathing while black. Last year in Jacksonville, Florida, a 45-year-old white guy pulled up to a convenience store and parked next to an SUV with four African American teenagers in it.
He complained to them that their music was too loud. They said something snarky back to him. The white man, whose name is Michael Dunn, pulled out his gun and fired eight or nine shots into the SUV, killing 17-year-old Jordan Davis. According to numerous reports, Dunn claims he saw a shotgun in the teenagers’ car and feared for his life. The police found no shotgun. Dunn’s lawyer says he acted “responsibly and in self-defense.”
Dunn has now been charged with first-degree murder. And while it is not known whether he’ll formally invoke “Stand Your Ground,” Florida’s self-defense law is so broad, the controversial statute may come into play anyway–as it almost certainly did in the George Zimmerman case. According to the Miami Herald, the judge’s instructions implied that Zimmerman had no “duty to retreat,” which is not in the old self-defense statute.
George Zimmerman’s legal troubles may not be over. The US Department of Justice could charge him with violating Trayvon Martin’s civil rights, but that’s unlikely. They’d have to prove Zimmerman acted out of racist motives: something the prosecution in the Sanford case could not do.
It’s more likely Trayvon Martin’s parents will sue George Zimmerman in civil court. Instead of having to prove “guilt beyond a reasonable doubt,” they will only have to show that Zimmerman’s negligence led to their son’s death. Legal experts say it could help George Zimmerman if he expressed genuine remorse for killing an unarmed teenager. He apologised woodenly during an appearance on Fox’s Sean Hannity show, then said he wouldn’t second-guess “God’s plan.” But after the verdict, his brother appeared on CNN and accused Trayvon Martin of being “angry” and suggested “[he] was looking to procure firearms” or perhaps growing “marijuana plants.”
Meanwhile, more than a million Floridians have permits to carry a concealed weapon–the most of any state in the nation. How long will it be before there’s another dead black kid to account for, here in the Sunshine State?