I’ve blogged on the killing of Travyon Martin by George Zimmerman (I don’t post links to my own story, please use search window if you can’t see the previous item on the homepage) recently and need to go back to this story. I thought about deleting the original post, because enormous problems have emerged with the point of view I expressed. Thinking about this has been a bit of a distraction from blogging. In the end, I though it’s better to leave the original post and reflect on it in a new post. Some retraction is in order but not a complete retraction.
I initially said that the killing in Sanford Florida of a black teenager by a white neighbourhood watch leader was a case of vigilante justice by an out of control racist, and that it brought back memories of the segregationist South, suggesting that the interest of the Federal government in possible lack of a justice for an African-American in former state of the Confederacy was a return to the problems and solutions of the Civil Rights era, when the Federal government did start to act against southern racist violence. On this case I was very much impressed by the coverage in left leaning blogs and news sources, and shared their feeling that not seeing the case in this way was weird contrarianism if not outright racism.
Martin was a black schoolboy walking home after buying snack food in a local shop, Zimmerman thought he might be a criminal and phoned the police. He was advised to leave the matter to the police by the person who answered the phone (who was not a police officer). Instead Zimmerman followed Martin. There was a fight and Zimmerman killed Martin with his gun. The police arrested Zimmerman but no charges were made and he was quickly released on the grounds of self-defence. However, not everyone on the public law enforcement side agreed with this. The lead police investigator wanted to file charges, but this opposed by the state attorney’s office. On the night of the shooting, the personal the prosecutors office on call opposed filing charges. The Sanford chief of police also opposed filing charges. On that night Zimmerman was found to be injured, and pictures exist of his injuries but these are superficial cuts. He was not tested for alcohol or drugs. This has been later explained by the lack of a warrant, but I’m pretty sure there are means of obtaining such a warrant at short notice, otherwise hardly anyone ever would be tested.
The initial coverage of the killing referred to Zimmerman making a racist remark to the police phone operator, this was later found to be a lie made up by a network television employee. The case is nevertheless racially charged. Claims that Zimmerman is a clear racist, vociferously supported in the left leaning coverage of the incident have not been supported. Zimmerman looks like a rather odd character and not the kind of person a lot of people would want to be involved in leading neighbourhood crime watch schemes, but there is no good reason to believe he is a racist, and no reason to believe that that the killing of Martin was the equivalent of a Klan lynching of an ‘uppity’ African American. We cannot completely exclude the possibility that Zimmerman has some underlying racist attitudes, but that applies to just about everyone. There was a deluge of anger about the appearance of the police letting a racist killer off the hook. The faded film director Spike Lee got a bit of publicity for releasing Zimmerman’s home address, which turned out to the wrong address. The behaviour of Lee and others came disturbingly close to calling for vigilante action against someone, that is use illegal violence to punish someone who has not had the chance to defend himself in court.
That is part of the problem with the actions of those police officers and state legal officials who decided there was insufficient evidence to prosecute Zimmerman. By denying Zimmerman the chance, even though an unwanted chance, to defend himself in court, they created the possibility of violence illegal retribution. One function of criminal justice is to protect criminals, that is protect criminals against what some angry individual or mob, might to to that person, in circumstances when psychological restraints on violence and sadism are weakened. Orderly punishment through a legal system is likely to be more moderate and respect of the humanity that criminals share. Though the cries of racist directed at Zimmerman, and anyone who made any attempt to suggest hat the killing might have been legitimate self-defence, have been shown to be tawdry nonsense (something I failed to recognise at the time), there is a racial angle. The fact is white police officers, and legal officials, thought it was not even worth filing a charge of manslaughter against an armed white man who shot to death an unarmed seventeen year old boy. We do have to ask at least two questions here. 1. Would those people have opposed charges against someone who shot the son of a police office or a legal official in similar circumstances? That is a question about whether they would have opposed changes if someone they recognised as one of their own had been killed in such a manner. 2. Following on from 1, and expanding on the issue of recognising someone as one of your own, would they have opposed filing charges against a black adult who killed a white 17 year old? It would be going to far to accuse all these people of being out and out racists, but we can at least ask if they are too inclined to assume that certain groups of people are victims and certain groups are offenders. An armed man killed an unarmed boy, surely the man should have his day in court to explain what he did, facing a charge of manslaughter at the very least.
Zimmerman has now been charged with second degree murder, a charge which got past the grand jury, which might make you wonder why all those people did not want to file charges in the first place. Zimmerman was imprisoned and then released on bail. He will have to back to prison soon as he has been found to have lied about his financial circumstances, which reduced the bail money he had to pay into court. He has also been found to have concealed ownership of two passports. None of this suggests he is guilty of a crime in the killing of Matin, but he does suggest he is a strange and unreliable character, something which could affect the trial, and that there are many twists left in this tale.
Initial coverage included misleading aspects as I have already indicated. Other dubious aspects of the coverage include initial exaggeration of the difference in size between Zimmerman and Martin. Martin was slightly litter than Zimmerman. Matin was represented as a particularly innocent cure harmless teenager, but was clearly amore troubled person and a tougher looking teen than early coverage I suggested. As mentioned above, some left leaning sources really went to the extreme in placing the worst possible interpretation on the killing and on the case. Posters, even more so commenters, at generally serious blogs lost self restraint in the assumptions and accusations made. The coverage has calmed down and some left leaning coverage is leaning towards the innocence of Zimmerman, notably at the left leaning law blog TalkLeft: The politics of crime. A lot of initial coverage suggested that the failure to file charges against Zimmerman was connected with a ‘stand your ground’ law in Florida, which means killing with a gun is legal if it is an alternative to retreating from a threatening situation. Personally I am against such a law, anyway it appears to be irrelevant in this case, or no one who write in an informed way about the law, and the cases in which it has been used think it is relevant. Zimmerman’s defence is that he was being held down and beaten, and was in fear for his life when he pulled out his gun and shot Martin. There is no doubt that Martin and Zimmerman were on the ground fighting when the killing took place. By the way I support the right to bear arms, though I have never owned or carried a gun myself and have no wish to do so in the future. It’s the kind of right I support in principle, but don’t get worked up about, or think has to be exercised as often as possible. Anyway, bearing arms in considered a constitutional right by the Supreme Court in the USA, and Zimmerman had the right to wear a gun.
Some left wing writers behaved poorly in seeing this case in the most extreme terms, and in the accusations they made against those who disagreed with them. People who left comments below those online items behaved even more badly, as is common. I don’t say this to condemn the left or to say it is less fair and intelligent than the right. I don’t place myself on the right anyway. I class myself as a classical liberal or libertarian and hate half the people who carry that label anyway. We all make mistakes, I hope some left wing writers will realise they made mistakes and will try to learn something about resorting to quickly to an already formed narrative about racist violence. I made a mistake in going along with that exaggerated overage. Part of that was that I thought the internet enables quick access to all reasonable views, and initially only found contrarians and racists to be be criticising the coverage much. I will have to be more careful and sceptical in future. Maybe Zimmerman will be found guilty of second degree murder, the left leaning coverage at the beginning will still have been in large part misguided, as was my own post. If Zimmerman is found guilty it will be a case of an unstable personality overreacting to a tense situation, not racist execution covered up by old school southern white supremacists.