With everything happening in Ferguson, MO, I wanted to take a few minutes to write about Trayvon Martin. I know, that’s over. Everyone else is writing and talking about Ferguson. But there are two things I firmly believe. The first is that it is almost impossible to talk about current events beyond the physical facts. Who, what, where, when, and how are fine. Why, however, is problematic. The second is that lessons are only learned with time. If we fail to revisit events, we will never learn from them.
Since it has been a long time, here is a brief reminder of the who, what, where, when, and how. Trayvon Martin was a young man, I think a junior in high school, who had just purchased some candy. He was unarmed and walking through George Zimmerman’s neighborhood. Zimmerman called 9-1-1 to report Martin, even though there is no evidence that Martin was doing anything wrong. The 9-1-1 dispatcher specifically told Zimmerman not to confront Martin. Zimmerman ignored those instructions. A fight followed during which Zimmerman shot and killed Martin. The DA did not immediately press charges saying that there was not enough evidence to counter Zimmerman’s claim that he killed Martin in self defense. When the press picked up the story, more than 2 million people signed a petition to get Zimmerman charged with a crime. There were rallies, etc. The DA then changed his mind and charged Zimmerman with second degree murder. Zimmerman was acquitted.
These are the facts as I remember them. Notice I left out the main thing that dominated the media coverage from the time of the shooting all the way through the aftermath of the trial – race. Race was the primary reason why given by the commentary at the time. I am still not in a position to definitively state why Martin was killed, why his death sparked such a reaction, or why Zimmerman was acquitted. I suspect race was a strong factor in the first two, but that is just my suspicion. However, even without knowing the why, there are still some lessons that can be taken away from these events.
The first is that there is a clear difference between morally correct and legally correct. The trial verdict was a moral abomination, but from what I can tell, it was the correct legal outcome. There just wasn’t enough evidence to prove Zimmerman’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. From a moral perspective, Zimmerman was clearly responsible for everything that happened that night. From a legal perspective, there’s reasonable doubt.
The next lesson is that district attorneys, police officers, judges, etc. should never let public pressure influence the way they do their jobs. I understand the feelings people had. An innocent person was killed. That is outrageous and unacceptable. Of course people demanded justice. But, people were demanding moral justice, and the legal system is not equipped for that. The DA knew he didn’t have a solid legal case. He should have stuck to that. Having a trial that resulted in an acquittal didn’t help anyone.
The next lesson is that we can’t pick our symbols. Trayvon Martin’s killing was a tragedy. It is, however, a far too common tragedy. Most of the victims get a brief segment on the local news. They don’t inspire a social movement. If we could pick our symbols, OJ Simpson would not have been one. That case had nothing to do with race, but it became a racial issue. Martin became a symbol. I’m sure his family would rather he hadn’t.
The next lesson is that our country is faulty. I kept wanting to say broken or damaged, but that isn’t right. The flaws were built into our country. They weren’t caused by wear and tear. The obvious fault is that racism was built into our country. There’s just no way around that. It’s in the Constitution. When we fought a bloody civil war to remove it from the Constitution, we replaced those laws with Jim Crow. And now, we have the Supreme Court gutting the Voting Rights Act and it taking about five minutes for states to restrict the franchise. The other fault is that the adversarial trial system for criminal law is a bad idea. I understand that it is better than the rule by fiat that came before. I understand that a jury trial is democratic. And I understand that when the second amendment sort of made sense, before we even had police forces, let alone detectives, forensics, and the internet, it was probably the best we could do. But times have changed. There is no longer any reason why there should be adversaries in the process. If an injustice was done, everyone’s goal should be Justice. It is beyond the scope of this to talk about how to change things, but a system that works better or worse depending on the skills of your advocate (aka the size of your pocketbook) is a faulty system.
The next lesson is that at least one of the tributaries that feeds the American River is poisoned. Rather than drying or damming that tributary, we try to dilute it. But, it is too strong a poison to be diluted. Proof of this is the fact that Zimmerman actually has and had supporters. People actually believe he was the victim and was right to defend himself. To believe that goes beyond ignoring the fact that Zimmerman started it and forgetting that if Zimmerman hadn’t been carrying a concealed weapon Martin would still be alive. It goes beyond ignoring the fact that the 9-1-1 dispatcher told Zimmerman to leave Martin alone and forgetting the fact that Zimmerman was a grown man picking a fight with a high school student. In order to believe that Zimmerman was justified, a person needs to believe that every time a black person is slighted, it is the moral duty of the black person to simply take it. In order to believe that Zimmerman was justified, a person has to believe that every young black man really is a threat. In order to believe Zimmerman was justified, a person has to believe that his rights have more value than a young man’s life. It’s like all the bigots are looking for a reason to spew, and the killing of an innocent is the reason they picked. That’s some serious poison. A young man was killed for no reason, so they decide to use it as an excuse to tell the world how bad they have it. There is no acceptable way of looking at things in which Zimmerman is a victim.
The last lesson is that Zimmerman killed an innocent teenager. The bottom line is Trayvon Martin was killed for no reason.