July 15th, 2013
That is how a friend of mine greeted the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the slaying of Trayvon Martin. All caps. This is a very level-headed, intelligent, thoughtful man. And if I, like him, were black, I think I would feel the same way, too. His cri de coeur expresses the boundless, ever-renewed sense of betrayal to which black citizens of this country are exposed. Langston Hughes’ poem A Raisin in the Sun is forever relevant. 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, 50 years after the March on Selma, 48 years after the Watts Riots, 45 years after cities burned following the assassination of Dr. King, 21 years after the beating of Rodney King and the destruction consequent upon that, 16 years after they tortured Abner Louima with a broomstick in that New York City police station, and so on, and so on – what happens after all these explosions? What is left, but mortal weariness?
I suppose one way to answer my friend could be that criminal law is only incidentally about justice. When they teach you about the purposes of criminal law in your first year of law school, they don’t spend a lot of time on “justice” as such. They talk about deterrence, punishment, retribution. Mainly, then, from the point of view of those who train its practitioners, criminal law is about keeping the lid on. “Keeping the lid on black people,” my friend would say. I have no answer to that. Anyone who knows something about the differential incarceration rates for blacks and for whites in this country, in this state (ANY state), knows there is no answer to that.
But I had to say something. So, when my friend posted his banner on Facebook, I commented, “It makes me so sad,” without knowing why that seemed to be the most salient thing. The next evening I talked with my son about it. He is 21 years old, formidably bright and perceptive, and his thoughts are not blinkered by any form of conventionality. I said, what do you think of this George Zimmerman thing? He said, it’s ridiculous. Kid walks through neighborhood. Guy with a gun follows kid. One of them winds up dead. It’s not the guy with the gun. Shouldn’t the guy with the gun be held responsible? The kid didn’t need to die. Is there any doubt that the guy with the gun caused his death?
I played devil’s advocate. I said, but Zimmerman’s story, supported by the physical evidence, was that Martin bashed him in the nose hard enough to break it, and then jumped on him and banged his head on the ground. His busted nose and banged-up head were real. What about self-defense? My son stuck to his figurative guns. Guy beats you up, doesn’t mean you have to kill him. Anyway, who was following whom? Who created this situation? Who, after all is said and done, wound up dead?
My son said, obviously race has something to do with it, but I don’t think it’s all about race: Zimmerman’s hispanic. I said, still playing devil’s advocate, stand them up next to each other and tell me who’s the black guy. To emphasize my point, I used a different word. My son granted the point, but I could tell he wasn’t entirely convinced. There was a different narrative running in his mind. I can imagine it this way. Zimmerman is perturbed to see this young black guy in the neighborhood. He follows him. It scares Martin. Out of some combination of anger and fear, he attacks Zimmerman. He busts his stalker in the snoot and bangs his head on the ground. He’s seventeen years old, he’s seen someone do that in a movie. Zimmerman, who is basically a coward, thinks he is fighting for his life and shoots him. The jury that has to digest all this is a group of modern white Americans; people deeply insulated from brutality, who fear it in direct proportion to the distance of their removal. They all too easily understand that if someone is beating you up, you make him stop by blowing a hole in his chest, if you can. In the land of the free and the home of the brave, we understand the coward’s way of thinking pretty well. We have lost the personal, gut-level knowledge that violence – personal violence – comes in degrees, and that you can and should respond proportionately.
I think my son is right. We’ll never really know what happened in the final minutes of Trayvon Martin’s life, and perhaps those moments of obscurity create enough doubt to prevent a conviction of guilt in the narrow sense of the criminal law. Clearly the defense did a very skillful job of focusing the trial on that. I didn’t sit on the jury, and I don’t know enough to judge them. One thing I learned when I worked as a prosecutor was that it is next to impossible to understand what is really going on inside the courtroom, from outside the courtroom. Human reality is that dense, and a courtroom with a criminal trial under way is just about the most densely human place on earth, once you dig through all the rules and procedural niceties. But I know in my heart of hearts that the verdict in this case was ignorant of its context, and without context there is no meaning. Big guy with gun chases skinny teen through neighborhood. Teen winds up dead. What more do you need to know? It makes me so sad.