The reaction to the George Zimmerman verdict has been frustrating. Zimmerman’s supporters sound as though their team just won the Super Bowl. His opponents sound as though the verdict means it’s now legal to shoot black teens. The truth is far more complex, but the truth doesn’t make either side especially happy.
Some people have lost sight of what a criminal trial is. It has nothing to do with broad social problems or “sending a message” or even what the law should be. A trial is about whether a specific defendant did a specific thing and whether his actions violated the law in specific ways.
In Zimmerman’s case, there wasn’t any disagreement about the basic facts. Zimmerman admits he shot Trayvon Martin, but he laid out a credible case for why he believed he was in danger. He said Martin attacked him and he fired to defend himself. The prosecution didn’t come up with any credible evidence to contradict that story. Honestly, it seemed as though the prosecution had no case. It seemed as though it was a political prosecution.
As I wrote Friday, I don’t think Zimmerman is a murderer, but I also don’t think he’s a hero. He and Martin each had chances to back away from this confrontation and they each made unwise decisions that left Martin dead. The only question is whether Zimmerman’s firing of the gun when he did was legal as self-defense. There was no other real issue in the case. It didn’t matter whether he should have ever been suspicious of Martin. It didn’t matter whether he should have followed Martin. It didn’t matter whether he should have been out of his car.
The only issue is whether it was legal for Zimmerman to use his gun for self-defense after the physical altercation started. If the prosecution had been able to prove that Zimmerman initiated the physical confrontation, the question would have been different. But there was no way to contradict Zimmerman’s story. So if Zimmerman’s story was true — and Martin started the physical confrontation — did he have the legal right to shoot? The law says he has that right. The jury agreed. The evidence and the law were clear. (And, contrary to what a lot of people keep telling you, this case had nothing to do with Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law.)
But some other people have lost sight of the fact that a “not guilty” verdict doesn’t declare a person innocent. All it does is say that a suspect hasn’t been proven to be guilty of the thing he was charged with. The jury couldn’t declare Zimmerman innocent, because that’s not the question they were asked to decide. What’s more, the jury didn’t pass judgement about whether he should have done the things that led to the shooting — because those things were irrelevant to the murder charge. And everything he did before that was legal, even if many of us would have advised him to do something else.
So if a criminal trial is about something so simple, why are so many people reacting emotionally?
American society is screwed up in many ways. Race relations is one of those ways. Blacks and whites have very different narratives about race. Many blacks believe they’re always mistreated by the system and treated as guilty (of something) before there’s any reason to see them as guilty. Whites believe that blacks commit a disproportionate number of crimes and that much of black culture is vile and dangerous. Both sides are right to an extent. It’s not racist (on either side) to point to the facts. What becomes racist is to see the facts from your point of view and fail to acknowledge the other side of the coin — and that’s what both sides tend to do.
Many of the reactions I see sicken me. Some who hate Zimmerman are willing to ignore the law and ignore the civil rights of the accused, simply because they want someone punished for a tragic death, regardless of what the law says. Some who support Zimmerman are gleefully seeing the outcome as a vindication of his actions in the incident and some are also seeing it as vindication for the view that a 17-year-old thuggish teen deserved to die, simply because they’re scared by the actions of many blacks who they see as similar to Martin.
Both views are out of touch with reality. Those who want Zimmerman convicted — despite the evidence and the law — would be the first people to be arguing for the civil rights of a defendant when someone they care about is charged with a crime. Those who see the case as a vindication for shooting suspicious characters in neighborhoods would be the first to be crying about the injustice if it happened to some innocent person they loved.
This verdict isn’t cause for celebration, but it also isn’t cause for protesting an alleged legal injustice. Instead, it’s an opportunity to reflect on the limits of the criminal justice system and its many flaws. It’s also an opportunity to think about the real grievances of people who see race in this country in very different ways. One group feels victimized. Another group feels threatened by a scary and violent subculture. It’s fair to look at both sides of that.
There’s nothing to celebrate here. Two people made very lousy decisions and someone ended up dead as a result. This could have just as easily happened if both had been black or both white or some other combination. It shouldn’t have ever been about race. But if it hadn’t been about race, we never would have heard of the case — and that’s the way it should have been.
I hope this is the last time I’ll write about this case, because the only lesson of the case is how mundane and unfortunate it ultimately was that two people made a series of mistakes that led to a death. But that’s not the lesson that’s being drawn by the people who are yelling at each other over the outcome.
Sunday afternoon, I came across another story that could be seen through a racial lens if you’d like to. In Pennsylvania, a black 15-year-old boy on a bike joined the search for an older white man who had kidnapped a 5-year-old white girl. He found the man and when the kidnapper knew he was being followed by a kid on a bike, he dumped the little girl out of his vehicle and took off.
“She runs to my arms and said, ‘I need to see my mommy,’ ” Temar Boggs told a local newspaper. He’s a genuine hero. He’s the one we should be talking about today, not George Zimmerman or Trayvon Martin.
There are many millions of black Americans who are just like 15-year-old Temar. They’re brave, moral, ethical and law-abiding people — just like many millions of whites who are the same. When we get locked in on a racial narrative that declares black teens (or black adults) to be criminals or at least suspects, we become racists and we deny the obvious reality that there are many good people of both races who simply want to do the right thing.
Whatever your narrative is about race, please understand that there’s another side. If you’re a scared white person who’s convinced that all (or most) blacks are thugs and criminals, you need to broaden your horizons and meet some new people. Most blacks are far more like you than you realize. And you need to look into the facts about why many of them are scared about the way they’re treated in our society, especially by the criminal justice system.
If you’re black and you’re indignant about being lumped together with the thugs and criminals who are scaring so many white people, maybe it’s a good idea to look at why so many whites are scared — because such a disproportionate share of violent crime is committed by blacks. Maybe it’s a good idea to be more concerned about the serious epidemic of black-on-black crime and with the simple fact that so many black kids grow up in homes where they don’t learn the values that will make them more like Temar and less like Trayvon Martin.
The race issues are messy. They’re very complicated. If you even try to truthfully address them, you offend people. You risk people calling you a racist. But until we start getting honest about race — on both sides of the issue, not just one side or the other — we’re going to keep misunderstanding one another.
And as long as we do that, we’re going to keep pretending that people such as Zimmerman and Martin are heroes or martyrs — and nothing’s going to change.