I said earlier that I thought millions of people were not qualified to be upset about The Verdict. I still believe that, but I’ve been talking with a liberal friend to try to better understand them instead of automatically writing them all off. Megan McArdle noted that the left and right have reversed criminal justice stances in this case – usually it’s the right that’s all about punishment and justice and deterrence, and the left that doesn’t want harsh jail time because it’s not very rehabilitative or whatever. So what’s going on to make the left so upset that George was acquitted?
Well, it’s important to remember that this happened in the context of blacks being treated unfairly in our criminal justice system. Blacks get arrested for marijuana at much higher rates than whites. There’s the 100 to 1 disparity between sentencing for crack (apparently more likely to be used by blacks) and powder cocaine (apparently more likely to be used by whites). There’s debate over whether driving while black is a real thing or not, but many are at least convinced it’s a real thing, just as many are convinced that blacks who kill are more likely to be convicted than people who kill blacks. There are stories like the Florida mom who got 20 years for firing warning shots, although the circumstances seem a little convoluted.
Now we could argue that many of these things are not as unjust as they seem due to hidden or historical or socioeconomic or whatever factors that don’t require enduring, widespread racism, but the point is that many people have an existing worldview where black lives have no little to no value in the American justice system.
Enter Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman.
It never ceases to amaze me how different people can arrive at such different yet so confident conclusions about the same event when none of them were there but they all theoretically have access to all the same information. You have liberals forming narratives like this:
Zimmerman was an overeager would-be cop, a self-appointed guardian of the neighborhood who carried a loaded gun. They were told that he profiled Martin — young, black, hooded sweatshirt — as a criminal. They heard that he stalked Martin despite the advice of a 911 operator; that the stalking led to a confrontation; and that, in the confrontation, Zimmerman fatally shot Martin in the chest.
The jurors also knew that Martin was carrying only a bag of candy and a soft drink. They knew that Martin was walking from a 7-Eleven to the home of his father’s girlfriend when he noticed a strange man in an SUV following him.
To me, and to many who watched the trial, the fact that Zimmerman recklessly initiated the tragic encounter was enough to establish, at a minimum, guilt of manslaughter.
And you have conservatives forming narratives like this:
- Zimmerman claimed to be trying to follow from a safe distance just so police would have a chance to question Martin. There had been break ins and what George did really isn’t any different than what other neighborhood watches have done in the past. Martin didn’t like being followed so he gave Zimmerman the slip, hid in the shadows, waiting for Zimmerman to pass, and then Martin approached Zimmerman from behind, initiated the confrontation and broke Zimmerman’s nose. No evidence or testimony has ever contradicted this.
- Other than the single point blank gun shot wound, Martin had no injuries. Zimmerman on the other hand looked beaten all to hell. This was consistent with Zimmerman being on the receiving end of an unexpected one sided beat down.
- When investigating officers lied and told Zimmerman that they had footage of the incident, Zimmerman was relieved, and said something along the lines of, “Thank God! I was hoping someone would have filmed to help prove what happened.” This convinced the officer that Zimmerman was telling the truth.
So, if you already believe that blacks are often unfairly treated as criminals, you see evidence of Zimmerman treating Martin like a criminal and ignoring the 911 operator, and that’s all you need because it fits your stereotype. It started with racial profiling of an innocent boy and ended in his death. You see the police’s initial refusal to investigate as more evidence of the broken justice system. You tend to ignore the details of what Zimmerman told the police or the blood on his head (or say it wasn’t bloody enough), or the details of Florida self-defense law, because Zimmerman started the whole thing and Matin was unarmed, so how could that be self-defense anyway? What more do you need to convict for murder?
On the other hand, if you already believe that blacks are often violent, you see evidence of Zimmerman getting beat up, and that’s all you need because it fits your stereotype. You see Zimmerman calling 911 before and going to the police after as evidence of his efforts to be honest and non-secretive. You see the police’s initial refusal to investigate as evidence of how obvious the self-defense was from the beginning. You tend to ignore the claims that Martin said “get off!” during his phone call, or the details of Zimmerman following Martin (or explaining the profiling as justified in light of some recent robberies).
You may beg to differ with some of my statements if you followed the story more than I did. But at the very least I think it’s possible that both of them made mistakes that led to a tragic ending. Yet, in my attempts to understand the different intense feelings here, I can’t help but think that everybody’s focusing on it way too much. This focus clouds the attention to the broader issue of criminal justice for American blacks, and makes people project things about the broader issue that may not be true.
Stand Your Ground.. Everybody
Many conservatives betrayed their stereotypes about black violence when they severely over-predicted rioting in response to the verdict. But what about liberal stereotypes about black injustice? Daily Kos says “Stand Your Ground: Just not if you’re black or female,” pointing to the Alexander story mentioned above.
Yet Zimmerman and Alexander are just two data points – what about the 131 or so other cases? Apparently blacks have used “Stand Your Ground” and been acquitted over 50% of the time, even slightly higher than the rate for whites. Atlantic Wire says blacks don’t actually benefit from that law, but I think it’s all about how you spin the numbers.
One graph shows a black killer claiming the self-defense law on a white victim and being acquitted 67% of the time! How many people with a tainted view of our justice system would expect that to be closer to zero? But wait. Is our system still racist because a white killer of a black victim was acquitted even more often (85%). Or is it not racist because whites who kill whites in self-defense get acquitted even less often than blacks (56%)?
Or maybe there’s just not enough data here to make broad claims about the justice system. But it’s definitely more complicated than you might think if you only hear about a couple of big stories.
What’s really bad, though, are the opinionators claiming that this verdict means it’s “open season” on “kids who wear hoodies at night,” or that it feels better to have a daughter because this verdict means sons are not safe, as if black children used to live happy, peaceful lives that are all now threatened by all the half-white, half-Hispanic racists who are now walking around with guns imagining danger so they can mow them all down.
We’ve already seen how the self-defense law may be helping protect blacks from violence as much as it “encourages” violence against them. But many blacks are troubled enough already without throwing into the mix the alarming racists who allow them to ignore the uncomfortable truth that the vast majority of blacks (93%) are killed by… other blacks, often in urban, inner-city neighborhoods.
Like 16-year-old Joseph Brewer, Jr. I can’t even figure out if they know who the shooter was, much less if he’s going to be apprehended and put on trial. Why am I seeing so many heartfelt blog posts about what Trayvon’s death implies about race relations in our country when many more Trayvons are dying unnoticed in our cities every day in shootouts that have nothing to do with race?
Maybe we should be talking about bigger things, like cycles of poverty and whether various welfare programs are making things better or worse. Maybe we should be talking about the War on Drugs, where the legal vacuum for resolving disputes among dealers and distributors and consumers basically generates violence on a daily basis. If we want to save lives, maybe we should stop devoting so much time and attention to one tragic, complicated case that got so much attention because it was so rare. Maybe we should stop criticizing racism and bad stereotypes and injustice for existing, and start viewing them as symptoms that spring from the root causes of a more general violence. Maybe that’s too hard.