Over at Slate, William Saletan has joined the plethora of pundits voicing an opinion about the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case. However, unlike the vast majority of them, Saletan seems to really understand a little something called “reality” when it comes to this case:
The problem at the core of this case wasn’t race or guns. The problem was assumption, misperception, and overreaction. And that cycle hasn’t ended with the verdict. It has escalated.
I almost joined the frenzy. Yesterday I was going to write that Zimmerman pursued Martin against police instructions and illustrated the perils of racial profiling. But I hadn’t followed the case in detail. So I sat down and watched the closing arguments: nearly seven hours of video in which the prosecution and defense went point by point through the evidence as it had been hashed out at the trial. Based on what I learned from the videos, I did some further reading.
It turned out I had been wrong about many things. The initial portrait of Zimmerman as a racist wasn’t just exaggerated. It was completely unsubstantiated. It’s a case study in how the same kind of bias that causes racism can cause unwarranted allegations of racism. Some of the people Zimmerman had reported as suspicious were black men, so he was a racist. Members of his family seemed racist, so he was a racist. Everybody knew he was a racist, so his recorded words were misheard as racial slurs, proving again that he was a racist.
Saletan goes on to point out that a lot of people placed their own pet ideology on display in this case, either claiming racism or gun rights or “castle doctrine” laws. The reality is, there’s plenty of other things going on here that makes this impossible to be cut and dried.
Now, however, Zimmerman has been found “not guilty”. For the rest of his life, he will be a target. His life will never be the same. For many people, Zimmerman’s life should be forfeit. For the slightly saner members of the anti-Zimmerman crowd, they want him charged with violating Trayvon Martin’s civil rights.
As Doug Mataconis wrote over at Outside the Beltway, that’s easier said than done:
Deciding whether or not to proceed with civil rights charges against Zimmerman is not going to be an easy task. On the surface, there really isn’t any evidence that would establish definitively that Zimmerman targeted Martin because of his race, or more importantly that he ended up shooting him to death in the middle of a fight because he was black. None of the comments that Zimmerman made before or after the evidence can fairly be read to support that conclusion, I would submit, and there doesn’t appear to be any independent evidence that establishes any kind of race-based motive for the crime. The case is further complicated by the fact that the killing occurred at the end of what was, going by witness accounts and by Zimmerman’s own statements, was a fight between the two men that had Martin on top of Zimmerman hitting him repeatedly. It would seem difficult if not impossible for a prosecutor operating under those facts to be able to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Zimmerman was acting out of racial bias when he shot Martin and killed him. One could argue, perhaps, that his use of deadly force, although the jury verdict clearly seems to indicate that they believed Zimmerman’s use of force was reasonable under the circumstances. Getting from the idea that his use of force was “unreasonable,” though, to the idea that it was motivated by racial bias seems to be a bridge too far.
Doug’s piece is fairly lengthy but it’s all relevant and an in-depth look at the potential difficulties of civil rights charges sticking.
However, the truth is that civil rights charges aren’t about punishing the wicked, but appeasing a base that has already convicted Zimmerman and are just mad that a jury of his peers were unable to do so. Zimmerman isn’t some saint. He made a tactical mistake by following Martin in the first place, or at least doing so at so close a range.
Trayvon Martin wasn’t a saint either. While he wasn’t doing anything illegal, he wasn’t above his own racial profiling as Saletan notes:
Martin, meanwhile, was profiling Zimmerman. On his phone, he told a friend he was being followed by a “creepy-ass cracker.” The friend—who later testified that this phrase meant pervert—advised Martin, “You better run.” She reported, as Zimmerman did, that Martin challenged Zimmerman, demanding to know why he was being hassled. If Zimmerman’s phobic misreading of Martin was the first wrong turn that led to their fatal struggle, Martin’s phobic misreading of Zimmerman may have been the second.
Folks, “cracker” is an acknowledged term for “white person”. I’ve never heard it used for “pervert” in any context ever. I’m from the deep South, where this term has been thrown at me for years, and at no point has it been meant as “pervert”. I’m sorry, but you don’t get to make up your own definitions.
It’s worth nothing that George Zimmerman is as white as President Obama. That’s right. Half. So, how is Barack Obama a black man, while George Zimmerman is a “cracker”?
Martin looked at his facial features and made a determination about his race. He then used a term many people consider a slur while talking to his friend. On the other hand, Zimmerman only acknowledged Martin’s race after the 911 operator asked him.
The truth is that this case, like so many other cases, is a complex situation that is impossible to boil down into just one or two issues. The fact is that Trayvon Martin is still dead, and George Zimmerman will be dealing with the ramifications of that for the rest of his life.
Now, there are plenty of things left to discuss. For example, perhaps we can have a conversation about how terms like “cracker” aren’t any better than Paula Dean allegedly dropping the N-word (and I could go on about that for a while. Paula and I are from the same town, so I know the world she was raised in fairly well). That’s just one of many that we can have about racial equality.
However, no matter how you cut it, Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman have little to do with your political position du jour and has everything to do with a really bad set of circumstances that will hopefully never happen again.