June 2012

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Reply to Jonathan Wallace About Zimmerman & Martin

by Bruce A. Clark

I find lots of bones to pick in Jonathan Wallace’s Rags and Bones article last month. Some of them are factual, some legal and some philosophical, all mixed up together.

Acceptable Basic Premises

Mr. Wallace thinks it’s unacceptable for “George Zimmerman [to] patrol his own neighborhood with a loaded weapon.” This is a confusion and conflation of several assumptions and judgments, and the only way to understand it is to break it down.

The “Illogic of the Situation”

Actually, we have here the illogic of the example given by Mr. Wallace. The “stand your ground” law is not one that protects “the one who is better armed or a better shot.” It protects the one who is the victim of an attack and whose actions fall within the legal definition of self-defense. That is the purpose of the mini-hearing that will take place before Zimmerman actually goes to trial. Even in Mr. Wallace’s ludicrous example, such a mini-hearing would examine the evidence to see who was actually the attacker and who was actually practicing self defense, regardless of how each was armed.

Playing the Race Card

Here we have a perfect example of what I have called “The New Bigotry”, that is, “the assumption of prejudice in others.” Mr. Wallace clearly practices this when he says “the shooting of Trayvon Martin was unlikely to happen in the absence of a racism so innate that some commentators, such as Bruce and Ethics Alarms, claim not to be able to see it.” This new prejudice is something that has developed in this country in the 1960s and continued since. It is part of what is commonly called “political correctness.” It assumes that everyone not a member of a minority group is prejudiced against that minority group. In this case, George Zimmerman is presumed to be prejudiced against African-Americans because he is half Peruvian and half Anglo. Never mind that he might be part African-American himself, never mind that he has shown in the past an attitude that is very friendly to Blacks.

Added to that, Zimmerman himself was not even sure, as evidenced by his 911 call, that Martin was Black. He is condemned to be fundamentally guilty of practicing racism or racial profiling only because he is not himself Black. Unfortunately, those who claim themselves to be liberal or progressive are the worst practitioners of this type of bigotry. Even more unfortunately, it is often brought to the fore whenever such a liberal or progressive is confronted with an argument that he or she cannot defeat in a rational manner. If all else fails, call the other person a racist. In this environment, it is the last refuge of the scoundrel.

While Mr. Wallace is certainly correct in assuming that racism still exists in the United States, it is nothing but plain old garden-variety bigotry to characterize any particular person as a racist without strong and personal evidence to that effect. This evidence Wallace does not have. It is especially surprising to find him practicing such an infernal method given his extraordinary sensitivity to the prejudices that have taken place in the past and in the present against certain groups in the world. There is no doubt about his condemnation of the holocaust. There is also no doubt about his criticism of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. He is definitely (ostensibly) on the side that fights against prejudice in this country. Why, then, does he stoop to the level of assuming that some person has racist motives when he has no such particular evidence. I’m sure I don’t know.

Zimmerman’s Account to the 911 Operator of Trayvon’s Behavior

George Zimmerman stated his opinion about the behavior of Trayvon Martin as Mr. Wallace described. Like Wallace, I too might be walking around in the rain in the same manner. However, Zimmerman correctly noticed that Martin was not a resident and also has a right to his opinion as to how he felt Martin was acting. That does not change the fact that Zimmerman’s only stated motive was to ask Martin “Who are you? How do you fit in here?” There is nothing in the world wrong with that! If Martin responded to such a question “My dad’s girlfriend lives in number XXX and we are visiting,” Zimmerman’s response, if he is anything like me, would have been: “I’m sorry to have disturbed you. Have a nice evening.”

I’ve been in the same situation myself when I have seen strangers to the neighborhood being on properties where no one lived, or something similar. I always asked politely and non-confrontationally. Is there evidence that George Zimmerman would have done anything different? Not that we have seen. There is no reason on earth why Martin should have responded with his fists, perhaps even before Zimmerman got to ask the question. (That part of the evidence is not clear yet.) This, of course, also raises the race question, with the same justification as when Mr. Wallace raised it: Did Trayvon Martin attack Zimmerman because the latter was white or Latino? Was Martin the racist in that situation?? He didn’t know Zimmerman was armed. Did Martin do that because they were alone, in the dark, he being six inches taller and athletic, and thought he could get away with it? It is just as legitimate a topic for speculation.

Were the Police “Doing Their Job”?

Mr. Wallace assumes that since the local police did not immediately arrest Zimmerman, they were not. Therefore, a rush to judgment is ok. I beg to differ. The Florida “stand your ground” statute reads, in part

(1) A person who uses force as permitted … is justified in using such force and is immune from criminal prosecution and civil action for the use of such force … As used in this subsection, the term “criminal prosecution” includes arresting, detaining in custody, and charging or prosecuting the defendant.

(2) A law enforcement agency may use standard procedures for investigating the use of force … but the agency may not arrest the person for using force unless it determines that there is probable cause that the force that was used was unlawful.

As is obvious from the text, if the police thought that Zimmerman acted in self defense, they were legally prohibited from arresting Zimmerman. Therefore, they were very much doing their jobs by assessing what they could see of the evidence and following the dictates of the “stand your ground” law. The police chief determined, from the best he could see, that it was a case of self defense and released Zimmerman without charge after much questioning. Contrary to Mr. Wallace’s view, there was very much “visible law enforcement interest in George Zimmerman” — the police were visibly enforcing the “stand your ground” law and continuing to investigate. Moreover, since in this country a person is presumed innocent until proven guilty, there was never any reasonable excuse to rush to judgment and presume that Zimmerman was a racist and a murderer and call for his head. This case was nothing whatever like that of Amadou Diallo and the reasonable course was to wait for the evidence and see if the initial assessment by the police was correct.

I’m not an attorney, but it looks to me that if Zimmerman is found to have acted in self defense, he will have the grounds for a major lawsuit against the prosecution for arresting and prosecuting him.

(3) The court shall award reasonable attorney’s fees, court costs, compensation for loss of income, and all expenses incurred by the defendant in defense of any civil action brought by a plaintiff if the court finds that the defendant is immune from prosecution as provided in subsection (1).

Another Non-Fact

In the very numerous articles I have read about this case, I also have seen slanders of Trayvon Martin, some of them downright racist. They disgust me equally as much as they do Mr. Wallace. Unlike him, however, I am equally offended at the slanders aimed at George Zimmerman. Unfortunately, even when showing legitimate outrage, Mr. Wallace needs to be careful about his facts. (This has been a persistent problem throughout his contributions to the Martin/Zimmerman situation.) Wallace stated “others will actively slander Trayvon Martin, imply he had no right to be there (in his own neighborhood) …”. In fact, it was not Martin’s own neighborhood. He lived a few hundred miles away in or near Miami. Martin was in Sanford after being brought by his father to visit the father’s girlfriend, while Martin was suspended from school. That’s not saying that he didn’t belong there; he was an invited guest. But the fact that Martin was a guest and not a resident probably explains why Zimmerman recognized that he was a stranger to the neighborhood and wanted to discover who he was. There is no evidence supporting the fact that in so doing, Zimmerman was “looking for confrontation.”

In Summary

Unfortunately there are lots of people in this country who tend to color the character and actions of people involved in such incidents based only on the fact that they don’t like the way it turned out, the real facts of the situation be damned. (Sherlock Holmes would be outraged!) They look for the worst in people they disagree with and the best in people they agree with. That seems to be the problem with so many folks involved in the rush to judgment against George Zimmerman, Jonathan Wallace included. Since an unarmed kid got killed, people are not interested in hearing that the shooter might have no motive at all to kill someone except in his own protection. They assume that

Of course, the mainstream media is also to blame for fanning the flames. It used old photos that showed Martin to be a little kid and not the tall, strong, athletic person he had grown to become. The Zimmerman photo used showed him as a heavyset man who obviously could have prevailed in a physical confrontation with Martin, implying that Zimmerman should never have drawn his weapon. Furthermore, said media has a decades-long bias against guns and the Second Amendment, and never uses a fact when a lie will do.

What all of this says to me is that the rush to judgment against Zimmerman was not just people getting a little carried away. It was motivated by an enormous amount of prejudice: prejudice against guns and people who legally own or use them, and prejudice in favor of Blacks (i.e., the assumption that the African American must be the victim of racism) in any situation in which more than one race is involved. It’s a sad state of affairs.

I, like everyone else, am waiting with bated breath to find out how this situation will turn out. While there still can be some surprises here, the evidence that keeps trickling out to the public makes it look more and more like there are going to be two people who were right all along: George Zimmerman and the Sanford, Florida, police chief, who declined to press charges because he recognized a self-defense situation when he saw one.