On the Trayvon Martin verdict

While this blog on the convergence of rhetoric and literature generally attempts to lean most heavily toward what we call the literary, last night’s news would seem to demand a more strictly rhetorical response. Though in doing so I note that the strict distinction between the two is a false dualism. In any case, what follows is the text (lightly edited) of what I wrote this morning in my journal:

Last night I happened to be in the room when the TV was on and a special news report appeared with the jury just in with a verdict in the Trayvon Martin case. I can only say that I was stunned when I heard the verdict of “Not Guilty.” Period. At first I was thinking: okay, not guilty on … second-degree murder? but what about the manslaughter? But nothing more came and soon the judge was thanking the jury for their service and advising them of their rights to refuse or to speak about their deliberations, as they please. George Zimmerman, the acquitted, had had time to stop looking somewhat stunned himself and, in his case, relieved, to smiling as his defense team and family members congratulated him. But I can’t help feel that justice was not done in this case – whether because the prosecution had not proved its case or the jury for whatever reason did not want to convict, I can’t say. But while I had anticipated the jury’s not finding sufficient evidence to prove the malicious intent necessary for a second-degree murder conviction, I remain stunned this following morning that they thought they could not find sufficient recklessness in his behavior to convict him for manslaughter – which would have carried a heavy penalty itself and felt much more like justice for this senseless killing of an unarmed black teen, walking at night between a family member’s house (in a mostly white neighborhhood) and the 7-Eleven, while wearing a hoodie.

Zimmerman, a white Hispanic community watchman, either self-appointed or operating far beyond the call of duty (I’m not sure of that detail), saw the kid returning from the 7-Eleven as he was seated in his car keeping vigil. Coincidentally, there had been some break-ins in the neighborhood by young black males, but the only suspicious activity he saw was the boy’s wearing a hoodie (like millions of youth nationwide, black, white, brown, you name it) and being black in a nice and mostly white middle-class neighborhood. Naturally the boy would feel threatened by the shouts of “some creepy cracker,” as he said to his girlfriend on his cellphone shortly before being shot to death. Especially when, against all community-watch guidelines and against the orders of the dispatcher he was speaking to while still in his car, he got out and gave chase. Of course, under those circumstances, the kid would try to defend himself, and in the ensuing struggle and on tape and in the first-person accounts of neighbors who witnessed parts of the conflict, it would be hard to tell who was on top when and whose voice would be heard crying for help. But in the end, one of them had the gun and, with barely a few scratches on his threatened person, fired the fatal shot (or shots – I dont remember).

To my mind, the very fact of his disregard to the rules of engagement and to the instructions of the dispatcher, and thus precipitating the very situation in which he felt so threatened as to fire his gun, is far and away sufficient to prove recklessness, and hence manslaughter. I suppose the water is muddied by Florida’s new self-defense law that makes practically any shooting permissible if someone can claim that he feels his life threatened. But think: the boy did not assault Zimmerman in his car. Zimmerman pursued him, thus giving ample cause for Trayvon himself to be afraid for his life. Under the same circumstances, if Trayvon had been packing a gun for his own defense as the new law encourages, and if he had shot and killed Zimmerman, would he too have been acquitted?

And with the new anti-voter’s rights Supreme Court decision, and in the brief time since then the spate of new activity to restrict or suppress the minority vote in Texas and other states, in this paradoxical age of a black President but increasing racial divide across the nation, how do you escape the impression of racial preference in the case of this trial and almost incomprehensible verdict? What will it take to turn the tide back in favor of real racial justice in this nation so increasingly addicted, in the name of security, to racial profiling? At the least, it would seem, a vast new Civil Rights revolution is going to have to take place. Non-violent, one hopes – far be it from me to advocate violence and riots – but the way that historically goes is non-violence by the oppressed met by acts of clear prejudice and violence by the oppressor, whether official or unofficial. What will white America have to see acted out on our television or computer screens before we rise up with those oppressed and demand, once and for all, universal freedom? this white man asks from the peace of his front porch in lily-white Perry County, Indiana.

Of course, nothing in this world is “once and for all” – as the recent Supreme Court decision shows, what was once gained must continually be re-argued and re-fought if it is to be kept. Or expanded.

In the wake of this verdict, in any case, I am depressed. And if I am, imagine the despair and the anger in the black community.


One response to “On the Trayvon Martin verdict

  1. Hi, Brett–
    Although I am reluctant to second-guess a jury that heard all the testimony in the case, I can certainly understand your feeling “that justice was not done in this case.” My own view, as a physician and ethicist, is that the tragedy in question is a miniscule fragment of the much larger national tragedy of gun-related violence and killing in this country–a tragedy largely of our own making, and apparently beyond the willingness of our lawmakers to remedy.

    Best regards,
    Ron Pies MD
    Author: The Three-Petalled Rose: A Synthesis of Judaism, Buddhism, and Stoicism

    for more on this issue, see: Harvard Injury Control Research Center website.

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