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Why Treyvon Martin is Not Rodney King: On Race, the Legal System, and National Dialogues

President Obama must have staged the killing of Treyvon Martin, as he’s had a chance to finally appear Presidential in his second term by discussing race head on, instead of being a total pussy about it according to his historical comfort zone. He’s asked for not a national discussion (because this would be stilted and partisan), but a national…something else, so that we can somehow get to the bottom of…well, stuff.

The thing I don’t get is all these folks acting like this case is further proof that you can’t be Black and Safe in America, and that “justice” will forever be an elusive concept according to the Black frame of reference. I just heard someone on NPR saying that now, Black people had to add to their list of injustices not being able to have justice for their killers if they leave their home and get murdered. That idea is total bullshit for a couple of reasons. First, even though retribution and schadenfreude fuel the American legal system, you shouldn’t give a shit about whether your murderer will be jailed, because you’ll be dead (regardless of the color of your skin) and therefore should categorically not care. Second, anyone can leave the house and be killed and the cops might never catch or prosecute or sentence their murderer, regardless of the color of their skin.

I don’t think I’ve heard much of anyone saying anything clear or sober publicly about this “debate,” because every wonk I’ve heard interviewed is treating it as such. There is no debate about Treyvon Martin, because no one can argue that his death was not an unnecessary tragedy. Likewise, no one who has ever read a book could state with a straight face that Black America has ever gotten anything more than a smaller piece of the American Pie, or that being Black in America is easy, or that a Black American can expect a life without prejudices that sometimes have deadly consequences. All of these egregious but true figments of the American landscape need to change, have been changing too slowly, and…can be expected in a geography with a 400-year history of enslaving the African diaspora. This doesn’t make them right, just, or ok…they just are.

Maybe one could debate about if the Zimmerman verdict shows whether or not our legal system is broken, but it IS broken, and no one who’s ever taken a course in law school or read a book about the American legal system should seriously debate that. It was the very adversarial nature of our system that led Zimmerman to be charged with 2nd degree murder in the first place, a charge that was far too lofty for the events that transpired on that fateful night. 2nd degree murder implied that Zimmerman had some level of forethought, precisely the same kind of judgment and understanding of cause and effect that would have led him to leave his gun at home in the first place if he saw a suspicious person in his neighborhood. This leads us to our other non-debate about the Zimmerman case: no one is arguing about whether Zimmerman’s judgment sucked, as no one thinks he made good decisions.

But bad decisions are not illegal in this country, nor is taking your gun to town if you’re a lawful gun owner. We also probably don’t want to live in a nation in which it is illegal to fire a gun on the person who is bashing your head into the concrete. Zimmerman didn’t even have to invoke Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law in his defense, because this was a regular case of old-fashioned self-defense: you get to whack people in this country when you think they’re about to kill you. Asking someone not to use lethal force on another who is bashing their head into the ground is akin to asking someone to turn off their 4 million year-old (plus) survival gene.

So now we have people taking to the streets and acting like this is Rodney King Lite, which is good for them to exercise their protest muscles, but the only protest muscles that REALLY need to be exercised in the U.S. are the Rodney King Riots protest muscles, the ones we hardly know we have anymore that make our government truly afraid (and we MUST subjugate our government…or it will ultimately subjugate us). These protest muscles of Hellfire and Damnation would be poorly served here, because it is quite possible that the American Legal System did what it was supposed to do in this case. There: I said it–justice is likely to have actually prevailed here.

Here’s why I know justice prevailed in the Zimmerman case (and it, not surprisingly, has nothing to do with the intensity of the emotions being displayed by supporters of the Martin family): because there is only one thing we need to know about to determine whether Zimmerman was justified, and since we were not in the courtroom, we were not privy to this information, so we have to trust the jurors per the rules of our court system. We’ve all seen the evidence that Zimmerman had his ass kicked; more than enough to establish the reality that this small man was doubtless terrified out of his mind, and definitely afraid for his life. What we don’t know is exactly how Zimmerman goes from reporting Treyvon to the police to the altercation in which he ends up on the ground getting his head bashed. Unfortunately, there were no eyewitnesses to this sequence of events, only the girl who indirectly heard it through the phone and the other 2 witnesses who heard parts of the scuffle and screams. This is the “black box” in the Zimmerman case, the place where it would be George’s word against Treyvon’s–but Treyvon wasn’t talking. It was the D.A.’s job to root out what happened between the 9-1-1 call and the bashing and the jury’s job to use their knowledge of human nature to make the determination of what probably transpired. That no one really knows except Zimmerman has nothing to do with the shortcomings of our legal system, unless you propose putting an end to private thoughts by inserting a wireless microchip into everyone’s brains. That we had to trust 6 jurors to figure this out is again not a failure of our legal system, because letting democratic rule decide court cases would be silly, impossible, and even more unjust than the system we already deal with.

The sticky wicket in this case is that if you put anyone else in Treyvon’s shoes or reverse the roles of Treyvon and George, the basher gets shot and the shooter gets acquitted, regardless of the color of their skin. If Treyvon were white, then white people could have to worry about leaving the house and not having their murders avenged (which…if they’re that freaked out, they probably already do, and should for aforementioned reasons–Black murders are not the only unsolved or unresolved murders).

And if everyone in Treyvon’s position gets killed and the shooter gets acquitted, regardless of the color of their skin, who is being racist here? Is it not just as racist to blame outcomes that have nothing to do with race on race as it is to use race as a unit of analysis to explain other social phenomena?

Yes, you can easily argue that if Treyvon hadn’t been black, he would not have attracted Zimmerman’s undesirable attention and Treyvon wouldn’t have had to pummel him. But vigilantes with superhero complexes are like Rudy Giulani: they think where there’s smoke, there’s fire, and a lot more (or less) than Blackness is going to cause their radar screens to ping for people from all walks of life. This was probably not the first person that Zimmerman accosted while carrying a gun.

The only real bogeymen here are the nation’s history of slavery and the gate-guarded community in Sanford, Florida in which this all went down. People move to gate-guarded communities because they are xenophobic and are firm believers that giving extra money to a private security firm to control access to your neighborhood will keep crime rates down. They move to such communities because they are terrified of people who are not like them. On that night in Sanford, two men crossed paths who were quite unlike each other in an environment that has a selection bias for people that are afraid of others who are not like them. This sounds like a recipe for disaster anywhere, and is the most obvious, looming detail surrounding why someone was killed that night at all. This was manslaughter driven by fear, and every institution that has tried to make us afraid (insurance companies, the media, the Government, etc.) has blood on their hands. Of course, no journalist will take responsibility for this, because if you ask one, they’re Holier than the Papacy due to their “mission to the public.” If it wasn’t for mass media, how would Zimmerman learn that Black people were inherently suspicious?

So Treyvon Martin happened to be Black, and George Zimmerman happened to be not black and one killed the other. It doesn’t really matter who killed whom, because the real context that matters in this case is the gate-guarded community, not 400 years of slavery. No one wants an America where you go to jail for protecting yourself, or for having bad judgment or prejudices that others don’t agree with. Moreover, it’s not as if Zimmerman got away with anything–he had to bankrupt his finances on a lawyer, gained 20 or more pounds, and had to face 2nd degree murder charges in a court of law–hardly a walk in the park. That only one life was ruined that night instead of two (although Zimmerman still has killing a kid on his conscience) is possibly the only silver lining in this long slog of abuse, hurt feelings, and historical consequences.

So, if you want to take to the streets to wreak chaos and destruction to shake the corrupt temple down, this is not actually the time. This isn’t the time to rekindle the gun control debate, either, as we should be allowed to defend ourselves with guns. This is not the time to investigate “Stand Your Ground” laws, because the Zimmerman case had nothing to do with them. All we can really say about Treyvon Martin is what has been said: his parents are remarkable models of humanity and restraint, the history of race in America is fraught and riddled with old and new wounds, and that freak accidents and senseless tragedies suck but may well be artifacts of free will more often than we care to admit.









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