The Real Lessons of the Zimmerman Verdict

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Following George Zimmerman’s exoneration, I find myself on the other side of the line from the good-thinking crowd that sees the decision as evidence that America doesn't care about black lives. Just last night, I was at dinner with perfectly sensible people who thought that Zimmerman should fry. "Contrarian" though I apparently am, I am always looking for something that I might have overlooked in my thinking. But this time, I'm not sure what I'm missing. 

It’s not that I can’t see that Zimmerman “started it.” I am well aware that Zimmerman set in motion the chain of events that led to Martin’s death, and for a reprehensible reason. The case clearly speaks to how black lives are routinely undervalued by law enforcement, as well as by other figures of authority such as schoolteachers — and even self-appointed neighborhood “watchmen." I was repulsed by the way the media treated Martin’s friend Rachel Jeantel.

Charles Blow puts it well in his decreeing upon Zimmerman – and this was before last night’s verdict — a cosmic kind of “righteous conviction,” declaring that “Martin will never be free from the grave, and Zimmerman will never be free from his role in assigning that fate.” Yes. Amen, even. 

But there is a difference between these broader moral issues and jurisprudence, and I’m not sure the people who took to the streets last night – and will take to the columns all week now claiming that racism has proven its eternal vitality – are taking that into account.

It comes down to this. Yes, if Zimmerman had stayed in his damned car – and hadn’t been packing heat – Martin would be alive. To many, this alone is supposed to mean Zimmerman belongs behind bars for 30 years. But the reason the law is complex is because sandbox logic like this isn’t always justice. It doesn’t even always feel like justice.

Suppose Zimmerman had been a black man patrolling his mostly black neighborhood, and white teens from a couple of towns over had been coming through lately pulling off petty thefts. Suppose the exact same sequence of events had panned out, ending with a 30-ish black guy held down by a white teen good with his fists. Scared he’s about to be either killed or gravely injured, the black guy desperately fires his gun, and the white guy dies.

I can’t help thinking that the people calling for Zimmerman’s head would not think this black man deserved to be sentenced to decades in prison – especially if the facts were as murky as they are in this real case. 

More to the point, I suspect these same people would defend this black man because of a sense that the case had resonances for black-white relations in the larger sense – the black man would be seen as having tried to stick up for his people in the face of an age-old oppression. That would make it “different” – “you’re not seeing the context” would be a common objection. And let’s not even think about if the white boy had somewhere along the line called the black man an offensive name – or used that word in one of his tweets some months prior.

Here, then, people perfectly capable of seeing how the law makes Zimmerman’s exoneration technically plausible are up in arms because of a deep sense that the verdict was supposed to be a statement about Amadou Diallo, Patrick Dorismond, Sean Bell, Ramarley Graham, Kimani Gray, and Oscar Grant, shot dead while handcuffed in San Francisco and now the subject of the film Fruitvale Station, so widely discussed in part because of how aggrieved so many people are over the frequency of murders like the ones of those men.

But criminal verdicts are not theater – we’re not in a movie like Fruitvale Station (and even that film offers no easy conclusions). When verdicts do become dramatic, the results tend to serve little purpose. The exoneration of O.J. Simpson was dramatic, the jury making a “statement” about the LAPD’s racism. But what kind of teaching moment is it when no one learns anything?

The Trayvon Martin story is not a sign that racism never dies. Just twenty years ago, there wouldn’t have been enough public outcry around his death even to get Zimmerman arrested, much less bring together crowds of Trayvon supporters full of white people as well as black ones. Anyone who doubts that wasn’t there or wasn’t paying attention.

Zimmerman’s exoneration, rather, is a call to revise the Stand Your Ground law, and is also as resonant an indication as the Newtown shootings that it’s too easy for people to get guns in their hands in this land. 

Protest and indignation are well in order – but of a less ad hominem stripe than the kind that tars Zimmerman as a bigot, assails the jurors for coming to their decision because they aren’t black, and magnifies the whole episode into pretending Martin Luther King died for nothing. America is hardly perfect on race, but it has changed.

Progress is getting ahead, not getting back at white people. This is one time when the usual suspects must acknowledge this, if Trayvon Martin’s death is to create anything but histrionics soon to be forgotten.