The shooting of 17 year old Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman has prompted a wide variety of commentary. From a critique of "stand your ground laws" and gun rights, to ongoing racism in America, to the very nature of self-defense in a modern society. Yet few of these commentaries on the shooting have tackled the issue of justice in a way that really captures the nuances and complexities involved.
Depending on your perspective you may see Trayvon Martin as an innocent victim or a thug wannabe who had a history of problems with authority and almost beat the life out of George Zimmerman. Depending on your ideological commitments, you may also see George Zimmerman as either a gun-loving racist looking for an excuse to shoot an unarmed black kid or a concerned citizen doing his best to protect his neighborhood from crime. As with most cases like this, the truth is somewhere in between.
Trayvon Martin seems to have been a good kid at heart, one with college aspirations, good grades, and a caring attitude towards people in his life. At the same time, photos from his cell phone show a somewhat cocky kid who had some interest in weed and guns. He had gotten in trouble for being late and vandalizing property with graffiti. Yet this hardly amounts to being a criminal and countless youth of all races flirt with that sort of rebellious attitude in their late teenage years. Considering Zimmerman, we see not a classic racist, but a mixed race man himself who along with his wife mentored two young black kids and was generally helpful to the people in his community. Still, he was also someone who desperately wanted to be a cop, who had issues with anger and assault in the past, and who was seemingly obsessed with the break-ins in his gated community, reportedly making hundreds of calls to police dispatchers to report suspicious activities in his neighborhood. These ranged from other youths allegedly casing empty houses for robberies, to overly loud house parties and unruly kids running around. These concerns seem to be motivated by a desire to keep his community safe, but they also seem to be motivated by a desire to be the hero that provides that safety, even if such a hero wasn't really needed.
Zimmerman may have been found by a jury to be legally justified in shooting Martin, but very few of us could seriously call it "justice" when a young innocent kid lies dead after all is said and done. From observing Martin just for walking at night with a hoodie, to getting out of the car and following him against the instructions of the police dispatcher, to doing all this with a gun attached to his hip when no acts of armed violence had occurred in his neighborhood before, Zimmerman showed about as poor judgment as imaginable. He put himself into a violent situation with Martin and then reacted out of instinct when fear took over at the realization that he no longer had things under control.
Does this mean Zimmerman should have been found guilty of second degree murder or even manslaughter? I don't know, I was not a juror in the case, but testimony from one of the jurors indicate a desire among members of the jury to pin something on Zimmerman because "he should have never gotten out of his car", but the way the charges were presented and the way the law is constituted, they had argue they had no choice but to acquit him.
The outcome of the trial exemplifies the failure of our justice system in usually only having two recourses to deal with situations in which grievous harm or loss of life has been caused. The first recourse, criminal charges, has already been exhausted, and the second, a wrongful death civil law suit, will probably have a good chance of succeeding and at the very least, bankrupting Zimmerman. Yet none of these remedies really deal with the core issues of prejudice, fear, violence, and anger that underlie the case. They don't address faulty legislation, or bad priorities on the part of our elected officials, so called "leaders" that prefer to do armed nation building in foreign countries that hate us rather than once and for all dealing with the urban ghettos of economic degradation and social injustice that have festered since the middle of the 20th century. Despite a promise of restitution and opportunity that goes back to the end of the Civil War, the African American community still bears the burden of its ancestors enslaved and denied a chance at the American dream. This entrenched poverty and cultural isolation from the rest of the country, and the sense of anger and alienation that goes with it, leads to suspicions of all young black males as potential criminals, suspicions that are so ingrained in our culture, that they even infect the very community that suffers from them. Those suspicions are why despite walking home with a damn bag of skittles and a soft drink, Martin was seen by Zimmerman as a young hoodlum up to no good.
Beyond this outrageous situation vis a vis African American and other minority communities, we have gun laws which conflate a right to bear lethal arms responsibly, with an entitlement that knows no bounds. Worse, we have a shoot first mentality among the law enforcement professionals that Zimmerman so admired, a mentality that combines with draconian war on drugs police powers, to cause so many tragic incidents similar to the Trayvon Martin shooting that it we hardly seem to notice anymore. The actions of George Zimmerman may have been unique in that they were carried out by a civilian, but the harsh reality is that even supposedly well trained police officers routinely fall back on easy racial profiling and aggressive paramilitary tactics instead of doing the real police work of walking a beat, getting to know a community and keeping the peace through guile, grit and a very judicious use of force.
If some measure of justice is to be achieved, not only justice for Trayvon Martin, but also a wider justice for society as a whole, then we must use this tragedy as a catalyst to really start addressing the systemic issues that contributed to it. Unfortunately, people on both the right and the left want to focus on the sensationalism of the trial itself, seeking to portray either Zimmerman or Martin in a bad light in order to justify their own entrenched ideological commitments. They want to keep the focus on character issues and justice system drama because it makes all the other complex issues easier to ignore and it provides the dear party leaders with political cover when the fail to meaningfully address them and seek true justice. If we really want to honor Martin and not let his death be in vain we must demand changes in our police forces, reforms to a legal system that incarcerates too many young black males for petty drug offenses, and real economic stimulus for the destitute citizens of our inner cities, not the inner circle of Wall Street bankers.