Saturday, March 31, 2012

On good guys and bad guys

This is very difficult for me to write as it involves the death of a child. Having two children of my own, there is no subject closer to my heart. In a perfect world, no child would ever die before his or her parents.

Let me say at the outset that the killing of 17 year old Trayvon Martin in Florida last month was an unspeakable tragedy. I grieve along with Trayvon's parents who have been dealt the cruelest blow any person can experience.

Trayvon, in case you don't know, was shot and killed while walking through a gated community in Sanford, Florida, a suburb of Orlando. The man who unquestionably shot him is George Zimmerman, 28, a resident of the community and a volunteer neighborhood watch patroller. There are conflicting reports but this much is undisputed: Zimmerman felt that Trayvon, whom he did not know, was behaving suspiciously. Zimmerman followed the teenager, there was an encounter, and Zimmerman shot the boy who was unarmed.

The police interrogated Zimmerman but did not hold him as they felt there was not enough evidence that Zimmerman did not act in self-defense as defined by Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law.

The reaction to the tragedy has been viral in the month since it happened. There has been severe criticism of the Sanford Police for not arresting Zimmerman, as well as the Florida Law which seems to have introduced an open season on human beings. Specifically, the feeling is there is a double standard in our judicial system regarding both the protection, and the prosecution of minorities. In this case, Martin, who was African American, was a young man unfairly targeted (because of his race) and murdered by Zimmerman. For his part Zimmerman, who is also a member of a minority, was allowed to go free, literally getting away with murder.

I feel that much of the reaction to Trayvon's killing has been justified. It brings to light many of the problems that unfortunately still exist in our society, namely violence, racism, injustice, and the disenfranchisement of certain segments of society. Moreover, the almost universal sorrow, anger and frustration over the tragedy shows me that our society hasn't completely given up on the ideals of fairness and compassion for all. It has even brought together if only briefly, such disparate figures as Barack Obama and Rick Santorum.

Yet a great deal of the public's reaction deeply troubles me.

When I originally sat down to write this post a week ago, I wrote this:

From all the media accounts I've read to date, I have come to the opinion that the the actions of George Zimmerman, were reckless, foolish and perhaps criminal. I find it puzzling that the police did not at the very least take him into custody, instead taking his word at face value that he acted in self defense. 

The problem lies in the first few words of that statement. All I had to go on, all anyone in the public has to go on, are media accounts. The court of public opinion is condemning Zimmerman based on the stuff they see on TV, read in the papers or social media, and hearsay. Furthermore, as more accounts of the tragedy have surfaced, a more nuanced picture of the story has developed. Unconfirmed witness reports of Trayvon before the shooting, on top of Zimmerman and beating him, do not jibe with the original reports that Trayvon was simply an innocent bystander. Reports, also disputed, of Zimmerman's broken nose and bruises on the back of his head when he was at the police station, and still others that some of the police sought to arrest Zimmerman the night of the killing, shed new light on the actions on the department.

None of that takes away the fact that Zimmerman was armed and Martin was not. Or that Zimmerman seems to have gone well above and beyond the scope of his duties, especially in ignoring a 911 operator's admonition to not follow Trayvon. Right now, knowing what I know, I still can't come up with a scenario where I feel the shooting could have been justified.

More importantly however, regardless of my opinion, it's not my job to be the judge and jury of George Zimmerman. Imperfect as it is, that's the job of our justice system. As we speak, that's exactly what it is doing in Florida, gathering evidence which will be presented before a grand jury who will decide if there is enough for an indictment of Zimmerman. If he is indicted, he will have his day in court and held accountable for his actions before a jury of his peers who will decide his fate.

That is not enough for some protesters, including Trayvon's parents who in the name of justice for their son, demand the immediate arrest and conviction of Zimmerman. The Black Panther Party has offered a $10,000 bounty for the "citizen's arrest of George Zimmerman." Tweets posting Zimmerman's (incorrect) address, were forwarded on Twitter by the film director Spike Lee, causing great peril to the people living at the address. Meanwhile Zimmerman and his family are hiding for their lives.

Politically incorrect as it may sound, these actions come mighty close to lynch mob mentality. They undermine any meaningful discourse on the subject.

Trayvon's story on the surface is very compelling, filled with right and wrong, good guys and bad guys. It could have come off the pen of Harper Lee or any number of authors who have dealt with the tragic story of race in this country. Small wonder why so many public figures have come out and taken a stand against the perceived injustice of it all. Yet the reality is not as simple as we might have hoped. The grim truth is that Trayvon's murder is not simply a case of a paranoid vigilante, profiling and murdering an innocent victim, and a racist police force turning a blind eye on the death of a minority child, but a tragic result of decades of stupid, senseless violence in our society. We can blame all sorts of causes for the violence; guns, poverty, racism, violent movies, video games and TV, the lack of respect for human life and dignity, the breakdown of the family, heck maybe even the people who commit the crimes themselves. Innocent people are murdered every day in this city and around the country at an alarming rate. As I write this, the news of yet another shooting (one killed, five injured) in Chicago is just coming across the radio. Yet where is the righteous indignation over all those victims and their families?

Justice for Trayvon Martin will not come with George Zimmerman's arrest or possible conviction. Justice will come only when we as a society, all of us, learn to love, care and respect one another, and by God, figure out how to stop all the killing.

Then and only then will Trayvon's death, and all the rhetoric that surrounds it, have any meaning.

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