The protests of the George Zimmerman acquittal taking place around the country on campuses and cities has been largely peaceful, which is something, I guess. Nonetheless, pointless and misguided protests are, in my view, unethical, as those of you who recall my posts about the Occupy movement will recall. They waste public resources, inconvenience bystanders, and risk violence, not to mention trivializing a key tool of democracy. If you are going to demonstrate, you are ethically obligated to have your facts and grievances straight and clear, and a practical objective in mind. By this measure, the post-verdict “Justice for Trayvon” protests fail.
What do protesters mean when they chant, “Justice for Trayvon,” now? What do they want, and why do they think it is reasonable to want it? I have listened to and read so many radio hosts, talking heads, experts, lawyers, activists, callers, friends and relatives on this story, and the truth is this: those who are angry about the verdict and want to sign petitions and carry placards about it cannot articulate a single legitimate reason that is supportable by fact or law. Not one.
I say this not because I am a “Zimmerman supporter.” I am not a Zimmerman supporter. Nor am I a Trayvon Martin supporter, though I am sorrowful that his young life was cut short. This isn’t a team sport, and it certainly isn’t a game. Those who have used this sad tragedy to divide, polarize and demonize belong on a splintered spit in Hell. I have pleaded for an honest, rational, fair justification, other than raw emotion, for the indignation over this case, requiring only that the facts cited actually apply to what happened in Sanford, and not a litany of racism through the centurues. I haven’t received them, and that is because they don’t exist.
So I ask the protesters, both on the streets and campuses and the pundits, activists, columnists and elected officials:
What is it that you want, and why do you think this episode is the fair and rational place to make your stand?
These are the answers I am hearing repeatedly:
“Zimmerman should have been convicted.”
If you believe this, then you advocate the elimination of the hallowed “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard of guilt in criminal cases, which means you are willing to see more innocent whites, Hispanics, Asians and blacks incarcerated on less than definitive evidence. The prosecution did not prove second degree murder or manslaughter, because it didn’t have evidence to prove either charge. (Here is Florida criminal defense lawyer Brian Tannebaum’s blunt take on the criticism of the verdict and some of the media circus act inciting it. Bingo.)
“Just knowing” he set out to kill Martin and that it wasn’t self-defense isn’t enough to convict a George Zimmerman…there has to be evidence that supports it. And if you are an American, you should know this, honor it, and be grateful for it, because when”just knowing” someone is guilty is enough to imprison them, a police state isn’t far behind.
“Something is wrong with the system if an innocent unarmed teen is shot and nobody goes to jail.”
This sounds good, but it is really a call for vengeance and scapegoating rather than accountability, and has the further difficulty of framing the tragedy dishonestly. Someone should go to jail if a crime is committed and proven. Are you arguing that any time an unarmed teen is shot dead, it must be regarded as a criminal act? Is that approach–a no-accident, strict liability—rule what you are after? It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to come up with scenarios where this would be horribly unjust. There is also the problem, if you mean “Justice for Trayvon” and not merely “Justice for Future Trayvons,” that your theory is not consistent with current law. Did you know the Constitution forbids prosecuting people for acts that weren’t illegal when they were committed, and made criminal subsequently? Are you protesting against that principle? If you are, then you are giving up the right to know when you are committing a crime, and your protection from being made retroactively a criminal at a government’s whim.
It is irresponsible to argue that “something is wrong” when you haven’t a clue what. The fact that you don’t get the desired result in every case does not prove that the system is flawed, and as I already pointed out, the jury system in this case performed perfectly: it acquitted a defendant when there wasn’t enough evidence to convict, no matter how may fools were screaming for his head.
“It’s open season on black teenagers!”
“I find it very hard to accept that it’s ‘lawful’ to shoot an unarmed 17-year-old boy dead as he walks home,” the reliably idiotic Piers Morgan tweeted Sunday morning. If you are protesting because you have a fantasy version of the truth you want to maintain accurate, have fun in your world, but don’t pollute mine. Jeffrey Toobin, a legal analyst who should know better, tweeted that Trayvon Martin “got the death penalty for buying Skittles in a hoodie.” Shame on him. He’s a lawyer and a news analyst, and he’s deliberately making the public stupid while stirring up unrest. There was no evidence that Zimmerman “executed” Martin, who was killed as a consequence of a direct physical altercation, for which he may share some culpability. Zimmerman had no idea what he was carrying—that is the purest moral luck. Martin’s death wouldn’t have been any more or less of a tragedy or undeserved if he had been carrying a human head in that bag. The hoody outfit legitimately made Zimmerman suspicious, just as it would have made him suspicious if Trayvon were wearing a Guy Fawkes mask or was dressed as Zorro.”
“Trayvon’s civil rights were violated!”
Apoplectic liberal screamer Bill Press shouted, “We’ve gotta join the NAACP…and put some pressure on. God, Eric Holder, man, he’s disappointed us so many times. He’d better come through here. File the case against George Zimmerman for violating Trayvon Martin’s civil rights.” Irresponsible and foolish: where’s evidence, Bill? The prosecution couldn’t prove that Zimmerman shot Martin out of hatred, animus and prejudice, and the Justice Department won’t be able to prove that either. Oh, I wouldn’t be surprised if Holder allows such a wasteful, unethical prosecution to go forward to make the NAACP happy, because he is a total embarrassment, partisan and incompetent, as Attorney General, but literally no respectable legal analyst believes that such a case can be justified or won, which is the same thing.
“The verdict shows the contempt America has for black men!”
African-American TV commentator Tavis Smiley actually said this in public, on ABC, and a more disgraceful utterance it would be hard to find or imagine. By following the rules of evidence, the jury of six refused to find guilty a defendant who had not been adequately shown to be guilty as the law has required for centuries, and Tavis takes from this that all of America has contempt for black men. Adherence to principles of justice means contempt for black men, ergo, Smiley’s protest is to refuse to adhere to principles of justice?
“Only a white man can “stand his ground” in the U.S!”
This trope arises because the narrative on the Zimmerman case began with focus on state “stand your ground” (SYG) laws, of which Florida has one. The case did not involve SYG; it wasn’t mentioned in the trial. Never mind: most of the protesters and the media critics either didn’t watch the trial (Tannebaum: If you didn’t see the trial, stop criticizing the verdict, it just makes you look stupid.”) or just pretend stuff was in it that wasn’t.
Then there are all of the micro arguments inside the macro one, that Zimmerman is obviously guilty. They come up again and again, relentlessly, basing fury and indignation on false facts:
- Martin was racially profiled! Prove it. Even the judge, who was leaning over backward to help the prosecution win its lame case, refused to let the State say this. There was no evidence. None. The presumption that Martin must have been racially profiled because he was black and Zimmerman is (sort-of) white is itself racist. There was no proof at all.
- Zimmerman was guilty because he was carrying a gun. Unquestionable wrong. The gun was legal, and he was licensed to carry it. This is the point where the Sandy Hook “Guns are evil and those who own them are too!” crowd further warp the “Justice for Trayvon” crowd. Yes, if Zimmerman didn’t have a gun, Martin wouldn’t have been shot. He also wouldn’t have been shot if Zimmerman lived in Georgia. Protest for tougher gun laws in you want, but it has nothing to do with “Justice for Trayvon.”
- Zimmerman was guilty because he disobeyed an order from the police not to follow Martin. 1) Getting out of your car is not a crime, or the element of a crime. 2) Zimmerman was not “ordered” to do anything. 3) The 911 dispatcher has no authority to order him to do anything, and disobeying a dispatcher’s advice is his right. 4) We don’t know that Zimmerman did follow Martin after he got out of the car, but assuming he did, it hs no bearing on his self-defense claim.
- If Zimmerman had just called 911 and not followed Martin, the kid would be alive. And if George didn’t have a gun, Martin would be alive. And if Martin took a different route home, or didn’t look confused, or wasn’t stoned, or had, as I’ve noted before, simply walked up to Zimmerman, introduced himself, explained where he was going and not been drawn into an argument, he would be alive….or maybe not. “But for” is not necessarily the same as guilt or even fault, legally, ethically or logically. In the Multiverse, I’m sure there are versions of this confrontation where Martin gets home without encountering Zimmerman, where he survives, where the two meet but don’t fight, where Zimmerman stays in his car, where Zimmerman doesn’t have a gun and Martin gives him permanent brain damage, and on, and on and on, even a version where Martin and Zimmerman becoome close friends years later, and go on joint speaking tours about bridging the racial divide. Yes, Zimmerman is the primary actor in the set of unintended circumstances that led to Martin’s death. That doesn’t make him a criminal, and we don’t want the law to make that an automatic criminal offense.
In the end, it appears that the protesters are just, you know, protesting, because they really, really wanted someone or something to blame for Trayvon’s death, the persistence of racial injustice, the fact that there is no neat, deserving villain in the tragedy as much as everyone has tried to make a non-racist, Peruvian/black/Caucasian into a white, racist murderer, and the escape of their designated scapegoat for all the past atrocities and indignities white American has perpetrated against African-Americans and a little thing called a fair trial and the requirement of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt foiled their plans. It’s a tantrum, and it deserves all the respect tantrums usually deserve.