I tend to be very cautious in following the news stories of major shootings, because you have to watch out for 1) information changing and 2) narratives getting locked. The shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin by neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman is heading into the narrative lock stage. It's not just our conjectures that crystallize, but the *stories* we believe the event is telling. And Martin's death involves dueling narratives, not just about the meaning of his death, but about the legal circumstances. But the meaning and the circumstances have very little to do with each other at this point, because Trayvon Martin isn't just Trayvon Martin anymore. People aren't just pissed off about his death, they're pissed off over a *lot* of deaths, and about stuff that doesn't just involve death, but being hassled due to walking while black. For the folks who have these stories it's a major point of identification.
The legal issues at hand are 1) the actual shooting and 2) the performance of the police department. This is where the narrative can get thorny. Both legal issues have the same political narrative: Zimmermann is racist. The police department is racist. This conflates the two problems into one, which is compelling, but mechanically and from the POV of our institutions -- and for me, as a civilian with a carry permit -- these are two distinct problems. The Sanford PD has handled the case appallingly, but at the moment the state of Florida and the city of Sanford seem to be responding to the political pressure in appropriate ways, with the appointment of a special prosecutor and a vote of no confidence in the police chief. It is important that the politicos recognize the seriousness of this situation; at the same time, just because the public *thinks* Zimmerman guilty does not automatically mean that he *is,* and not only due to Florida's "stand your ground" law. There was a hell of a compelling narrative in the Duke lacrosse case, after all, and that didn't exactly turn out as everybody thought.
That said, looking at the evidence available, my most charitable assessment of Zimmerman (which is difficult to make) is that he is almost certainly criminally liable. (I will explain the "almost certainly" shortly.) It's surprising he wasn't arrested that night, though the initial police report makes it clear he was cuffed and the case was investigated as potential manslaughter. It's also worth noting that the most damning facts (Martin had left home on a brief errand to get some snacks) didn't come out till later, though they bloody well should have come out that night, because *Martin had his cell phone on him* and the cops still took three inexcusable days to notify his family. To me, that is item number one on the police malfeasance list.
Worse, as facts did come out they looked worse for Zimmerman. The Zimmerman family's initial statement was that Zimmerman did not pursue Martin. That, we shortly learned, was a blatant lie. It was also a stupid lie, because Zimmerman knew he had told the 911 dispatcher that he wanted to follow Martin, and he knew that his statement to that effect had been recorded. Either Zimmerman's family went out on their own limb, or Zimmerman lied to his family about what he did. Dumb move, either way. Moreover, the police foot-dragging on the arrest made it look a hell of a lot like they had sympathies for Zimmerman over Martin.
Zimmerman had been generally agreed to be the neighborhood watchman at a meeting of the neighborhood association with the Sanford PD, and took his gig seriously. It's worth noting that Zimmerman majored in criminal justice in college, which is usually a great big sign that he wanted to be a cop. Times are tough all over, and a lot of police agencies are on hiring freezes right now, meaning Zimmerman had no chance to get hired. So he was taking that neighborhood watchman job very seriously. He was, in short, what gun nuts refer to as a mall ninja. Think Seth Rogen's character in OBSERVE & REPORT, a guy who wants to be a cop more than anything in the world and who should never ever for the love of God come to hold such a gig. My guess is that Zimmerman probably hoped to use the neighborhood gig as a springboard into the police force, when hiring started up again. He may have lobbied for the position; when his neighbors held a meeting with the Sanford PD, they volunteered Zimmerman for his unpaid, unofficial position. I wonder if the cops knew Zimmerman's ambition, and if so what they thought of it. Reporters should be digging into that. Nobody seems to know what he did for money; they should be looking into that, too.
The short version of what happened next is that Zimmerman saw Martin "acting suspiciously" and called 911. When Martin evaded, Zimmerman, determined to not let a potential malfeasant get away, pursued him. He caught up to Martin again and confronted him. They reportedly fought. Then Zimmerman shot Martin and killed him.
There were several 911 calls reporting the incident, but two are of particular note. One is Trayvon Martin's last phone call to his girlfriend; the other is an eyewitness account of the fight. Martin's girlfriend told ABC News that Martin told her he was being pursued, thought he lost the guy, and then as she listened the guy found him again. Then she heard pushing, and Martin dropped the phone. When she called back, no one answered. Most of the 911 calls describe hearing the yelling and shots, but a man who gave his name as John told a local station that he actually saw part of the fight, and when he went to call 911 Zimmerman was on the ground, and Martin was on top of Zimmerman and beating the crap out of him. While John was on the phone to the cops, Zimmerman shot Martin with a 9 mm Kel-Tec PF-9, which the police report states Zimmerman carried in an inside-the-pants holster. The police arrived and held Zimmerman at gunpoint. He complied with police directions. The police report noted that Zimmerman had a bloody nose, a cut on the back of his head, and stains on the back of his shirt consistent with him having been lying in the grass. Martin was face down and wasn't moving. Police attempted resuscitation to no avail. Paramedics responded and had no more luck. At this point, the detectives were called in.
The exact scenario of the shooting is necessarily murkier. Much has been made of Florida's "stand your ground" law in this shooting (see, for instance, this very badly reported Tampa Bay Times article decrying the law), and the governor has promised to review it. I don't mind reviewing laws to see how they're working out, but what's curious about this is that the "stand your ground" law does not seem to have applied to George Zimmerman's choices at all. There are a few different scenarios that could have played out, but under none of them was Zimmerman dependent on the "stand your ground" law in the slightest. Zimmerman was not standing his ground. He was *pursuing* Martin. This is the thing that people are forgetting: *Trayvon Martin had the right to stand his ground, too.* He was pursued by a man for reasons he didn't know, and then that guy showed up again. Zimmerman wasn't standing his ground in this case. Martin was.
The most annoying part from an analytical, rather than moral, point of view, is that some relatively minor questions are extremely important to the case, but *none of these are questions that the press is asking.* These are the things I want to know:
1) How many times was Martin shot, and at what range, and how many bullets were there in Zimmerman's gun when the police arrived?
The news articles I've seen report that Martin was shot once, but these were recounted before the release of the 911 tapes. On the 911 tapes, I hear a muffled sound that could possibly be a gunshot, followed by screaming, followed by a definite gunshot. To me, that screaming doesn't just sound panicked; it sounds *hurt.* Two gunshots with a delay in between could spell Zimmerman coldly finishing off a wounded man. And that'd be murder, which is why the answer to this question is so important. It's also obvious and dramatic, which, given the fact that Zimmerman wasn't arrested ages ago, makes me think one shot is far more likely. There are questions about the circumstances of the shot, though. (See my most charitable reconstruction, in #4.)
2) What's the geographic relationship between the store, Martin's house, the site of the shooting, and where Zimmerman first saw Martin? What path was Martin taking before Zimmerman eyeballed him?
I don't ask this because I think Martin was at fault here. It's America, fer Chrissakes; he had the right to stroll anywhere he damn well liked on a public street. What I'd like to know is just how much Zimmerman fell down on the job by not knowing who Martin was. How big was Zimmerman's turf? Did Martin live in it, or near it, and did he pass through occasionally? I mean, call me crazy, but if I get appointed neighborhood watchman I'm not going to camp out in my car with my Glock, I'm going to go around knocking on doors, handing out my business card, and getting to know *who the fuck lives in my neighborhood.* If Zimmerman didn't know Martin, and he should have, then that's a serious problem right there.
ETA: He shouldn't have. I forgot that Martin was visiting family in Sanford, but lived in Miami. Zimmerman wouldn't have recognized him.
3) Did anyone document Zimmerman's injuries? Did Martin have any injuries other than the gunshot wound?
Much has been made of the fact that Zimmerman was not tested for drugs or alcohol. I think it's as important to know if he was injured, and to what extent. I'd also like to know if Martin had any injuries other than the gunshot wound. They reportedly fought. I'd like to see some corroboration of that story. It's extremely important, and the police need to produce it, because right now nobody trusts the Sanford PD's word on anything.
4) Did Zimmerman have his gun drawn when he confronted Martin, or did he draw it during their fight? How did the fight start?
This is the big question, because I think it pretty much decides whether Zimmerman is on the hook for murder. Let's assume the scenario most charitable to Zimmerman:
Zimmerman sees Martin, who strikes him as suspicious, because Martin is outside walking in the rain and looking at various houses. Zimmerman can't quite tell Martin's ethnicity at first -- but he realizes Martin is black pretty quick, and possibly utters a racial slur ("fucking coons") as he's getting out of his car. The neighborhood has had a bunch of burglaries recently, and racial tensions are exacerbated by a new minority influx. Zimmerman, a naturally aggressive and confrontational personality who hopes to become a police officer, is not going to allow any crap on his watch. He calls 911, and is told an officer is en route. Zimmerman is told not to pursue and initially heeds this order, though he complains these guys always get away. Then he gets off the line with 911, and figures, "Screw that, I'm going to keep watching him."
Martin notices Zimmerman is following him. Martin puts his hood up and tries giving the man the slip. He succeeds, briefly. Martin's friend (girlfriend?), on the cell phone, tells him to run, and Martin says that he will walk fast. When he thinks he's clear, he starts to make a break for it. Then Zimmerman intercepts him. When Martin says, "What are you following me for?" Zimmerman ignores the question and challenges him: "What are you doing here?" The phone call ends as their fight starts.
If Zimmerman has a gun drawn when he confronts Martin, then Martin is legitimately terrified and he believes he is in a fight for his life.
If Zimmerman does not have a gun drawn, but he attacks Martin first, Martin may not believe he is in a fight for his life but has every right to defend himself.
If Martin just gets pissed off or scared and decides to clock this asshole, then *Zimmerman* believes that this is just further proof he was right to be suspicious, because Zimmerman knows himself to be the neighborhood watch and so obviously *the guy attacking him must indeed be a dangerous criminal.*
One thing is clear: whatever started the fight, if we believe the one eyewitness by the time it was well underway Martin had knocked Zimmerman down and was on top of him beating the crap out of him. Zimmerman could have turtled and yelled, "I quit, I quit, I'm sorry!" But if he's pegged Martin as a dangerous criminal who is beating the crap out of Zimmerman when *Zimmerman* believes himself to have done nothing wrong, then Zimmerman would be certain that surrender wouldn't work. So if Zimmerman did not have his gun drawn, he drew it now.
And then he shot and killed Trayvon Martin.
I don't mean to paint an equivalency between them, because whether or not Zimmerman legally culpable (which, as I said, he almost certainly is; only one of the three potential one-shot scenarios I buy comes down to a horrible mistake and two of them come down to Zimmerman inciting violence and putting Martin in the position of defending himself), Martin was a guy on his way home from the store and Zimmerman is *the guy who killed him.* But it's a little eerie to see how each's thinking about the other would have fallen into similar lines. Trayvon Martin wasn't just killed by George Zimmerman. He was killed by the Prisoner's Dilemma. Martin could have surrendered to Zimmerman, but he didn't know who the hell this guy was or what he wanted, and he was justifiably scared of him. Zimmerman could have surrendered to Martin, but (under, I repeat, the most charitable presumption), he believed Martin to be a dangerous criminal and didn't think that it would work. Neither of them felt safe cooperating, so they both defected. And now Martin is dead and folks are posting "George Zimmerman: Wanted Dead or Alive" posters because, legally culpable or not, Zimmerman was a fool and a bad neighborhood watchman who would have been a bad cop.
This is the confrontation with Trayvon Martin that George Zimmerman should have had:
"Hey, man, I'm George! What's your name?"
If Zimmerman had done that, Trayvon Martin would be alive, and Zimmerman a better man, today.
Originally posted on my DW. | people have commented there. | Do so yourself, if you like.