Monday, July 15, 2013

"Blind" Justice

The verdict in George Zimmerman's murder trial is, without a doubt, an explosive topic.  On one hand are the justifiably outraged, denouncing the decision as letting a murderer walk free while mourning yet another unjustly slain son.  On the other are those who argue one of two things: it's the justice system and it was a fair trial or that Zimmerman was somehow justified in shooting the young man he stalked, chased, and confronted.  Running through the whole debate is the standard American non-discussion of race following its usual dynamics of people of color calling out systemic racism; some more articulately than others, while being ignored, dismissed, or patronized in some way or another by the punditry, mainstream opinion, and unfortunately far too many people who should be listening. 

One cannot deny this is trial and its outcome are heavily rooted in race.  Blacks in America have been very negatively slandered as violent, dangerous thugs ever since the first slave ships arrived in the early 1600s.  These fabrications were crafted and used as one of many the justifications for slavery and segregation, both in the form of Jim Crow South and the less overt forms discrimination which were practiced in the rest of the country.  Even today these assumptions manifest in the clear and unjustified emphasis on communities of color in the enforcement of drug laws.  These myths and policies seep into the greater discourse of society in a number of ways, one example being how commonplace the "angry black man" and the "black thug" tropes are in popular culture and the media.

Set against this is the very strong vested interest most white and mainstream Americans have in the criminal justice system as it currently functions.  Many in society perceive the justice system as a bulwark of order against imminent chaos.  As they see it the criminal justice system works because it requires guilt to be proven in a public court of law, the verdict is rendered by a jury of random theoretically ordinary people, and the requirement that the verdict be the unanimous agreement beyond all reasonable doubt of all the jurors.  The general perception this system is fair, unbiased, and impartial is central to their trust in the court system.  As is generally believed at the end of the day anyone can have their day in court and it will be a fair one.

Unfortunately, as this case brutally illustrates, the criminal justice system is no more infallible than any other system in the United States has proven to be in recent years.  This case brings these faults to the fore in three key ways.

First was the decision by the judge to allow Zimmerman, who was ordered by the emergency dispatcher NOT to pursue Trayvon Martin, to argue self defense.  A similar attempt was, ironically enough, denied when Stand Your Ground invoked last year by Marissa Alexander.  As a result she was sentenced to twenty years for firing a warning shot at her abusive husband so it looks like who the victim is exists purely in the eye of the beholder.  Perhaps it was Zimmerman's status as a neighborhood watch member, his previous attempts to apply for the police department, or the high profile the defendant has received which had something to do with an aggressive pursuer being granted what was denied to a mother backed into a corner.

Second was the approach the defense took to the trial.  Rather than deal with the cold, hard facts that Zimmerman pursued Martin and confronted him with a loaded firearm the defense chose to obfuscate these issues by focusing on Martin's character.  They staked their entire defense on arguing Trayvon Martin was a violent thug, therefore justifying Zimmerman standing his ground and using lethal force.  As goes the logic of some of those less principles practitioners of the law if the victim is more detestable than your client then they're not guilty.  To further support this they paraded photos of George Zimmerman's injuries as further justification, blithely ignoring the fact that any sane human being would do as much, if not more, harm to Zimmerman as Martin did if they too were confronted by some large man late at night who was waving a gun in their face. Of course this entire defense hangs on the very shaky notion that it is somehow relevant; it is doubtful in the extreme that George Zimmerman was aware of any of what his defense team presented at the time of trial making it extremely unlikely any of the smears leveled against Martin would have entered into his mind.

Third and finally was the fact that the judge allowed both of these farces to happen in a court of law, likely fully aware of the prejudicial effect they would have on the jury.

 And so we are now at the same, ugly impasse.  While I do not doubt some of those who defend the verdict do so with at least some racist motivation in doing so the vast majority I doubt see it that way.  To many the outrage against the verdict is on one level an attack on the justice system, a system which while imperfect is seen by many as the only hope for order and peace in society.  They believe in spite of its imperfections how the verdict was rendered is essentially fair, there's nothing wrong with the process, and the failings of the courts are the consequence of individual faults and not systemic flaws. 

If we lived in such a society where the justice system worked according to their largely-benevolent vision they might be justified in feeling the way they do, but when justice has clearly been denied by unscrupulous operators playing the race card it is the duty of every person to stand up, speak out, and not stop until the situation is changed.  When a young man, chased through the streets by an armed rejected wannabe police officer with a history of violence, is condemned for defending himself because the defense was allowed to parade ugly racist stereotypes in front of a jury the conduct of such a trial should be questioned.  When the court system is shown to be stacked against people based solely on their skin color it is not the one objecting to such circumstances who is in the wrong, anymore than Trayvon Martin ever was.

Correction: I previously stated Zimmerman called 911 & invoked Stand Your Ground which was not, in fact, the case.  This has been fixed.

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