“It’s important to recognize that the African-American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away. . . . There are very few African-American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store or of getting on an elevator and having a woman clutch her purse nervously while holding her breath until she had a chance to get off.”
When I wrote last week that I was conflicted about the Zimmerman verdict, I expected some reactions that were inclined toward my perspective and others that asked me to clarify it. What I didn’t expect was most of what I received, which was a variety of attacks for my suggestion that on one level the result (not the verdict) was unjust. And then, when President Obama verbalized some of the feelings I was sympathetic to, I found myself again having to explain, if not defend, what the President had expressed.
Among the reactions I found surprising was a critical response to my use of the word “killing” to describe George Zimmerman’s action in causing Trayvon Martin’s death. The reader with that response seemed to feel that I was implicitly suggesting Zimmerman was guilty of a criminal homicide even though the jury had found him not guilty of one. No, all I was saying was that Zimmerman killed Martin. That’s a fact no one contests. Zimmerman wasn’t guilty, not because he didn’t kill Martin, but because the jury found that at least a reasonable doubt existed as to whether he killed him in self-defense.
Another surprising reaction was to my comment that the criminal trial was incapable of dealing with the inherent injustice in Martin’s death. This reaction appeared hostile to my non-legal view of the incident, which is that the culture that exists in that part of our country makes it more, not less, likely that otherwise innocent young black males are going to be confronted with attitudes such as Zimmerman apparently possessed. I wasn’t condemning the jury verdict in the case; rather, I was speaking of the human response to what I regard as a life unnecessarily lost.
But that viewpoint elicited another seemingly angry response, which was that Martin wasn’t blameless (I said he “was doing nothing wrong”), because he initiated the fight with Zimmerman when he could have avoided it and then became the aggressor in viciously beating Zimmerman.
That reaction suggests a view of the case that is a reasonable, but not absolutely certain, interpretation of the evidence. Yes, Martin may have initiated the fight, but that point will never be known and certainly wasn’t proved conclusively at the trial. And, yes, he may have been viciously beating Zimmerman when Zimmerman killed him. That point also wasn’t conclusively proved at the trial. What the trial established was that those may have been the facts. (They weren’t disproved beyond a reasonable doubt).
But for someone to reach those conclusions and assert them as absolute facts is bewildering, if not revealing of the person’s biases. If you understand how a criminal trial is structured and what a jury verdict in one indicates, you cannot assert as definite what is not definitively established by the evidence and the verdict flowing from that evidence. And in the Zimmerman trial, all that was established was that Martin may have been the aggressor in initiating the fight and that he may have been beating Zimmerman in a life-threatening manner.
A final point that surprised me came in an exchange I had with a reader for whom I have a great deal of respect. I told the reader at one point that while I thought a federal Justice Department investigation of the Martin killing for a possible federal charge against Zimmerman would be “inappropriate,” it could well serve to have a calming influence. The reader responded with seeming incredulity.
From the reader’s perspective a “calming influence” was neither a likely result of a federal investigation nor a justifiable reason for undergoing the investigation. On both points, I disagree. The announcement by Attorney General Holder that his staff would investigate the possibility of bringing a federal charge against Zimmerman could have a calming effect on emotions and attitudes in the African-American community, where the views expressed by President Obama are widely held. And it is a justifiable action under the executive’s responsibility to keep the peace and, more importantly, appear to be sensitive to the views of all Americans.
In many issues in a complex society such as ours, “right” and “wrong” are the incorrect adjectives to apply to differing viewpoints. Acceptance of diversity of thought is every bit as important as acceptance of diversity of race or religion or gender or sexual orientation.
Some in our society cannot accept that others regard the killing of Trayvon Martin to have been unjust, even as others regard the very charges brought against George Zimmerman to have been unjust. Which of those positions one accepts might well depend on one’s personal experiences or on the ability to empathize with those closely related to one or the other perspective. What I was expressing last week was my ambivalence about the entire incident: of the justice served by Zimmerman’s not guilty verdict and of the injustice I still felt in Martin’s death.
I’m comfortable with that ambivalence and, in fact, am empowered by it. Those who are less sanguine about their attitudes might do well to appreciate that until you can walk in another’s shoes (or at least understand what walking in those shoes would feel like), you probably haven’t opened yourself to the reasonableness of the other person’s attitudes and perspectives.
Race is still a dividing issue in the United States. We may like to think it isn’t, but the many angry attitudes about the Zimmerman trial and verdict (from all sides and from every distinct community) are ample evidence that we aren’t nearly as color blind as we might claim we are. And until we admit that fact to ourselves as a society, we will continue to have an intractable problem.