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Trayvon Martin, Prejudice and the Rush to Judgment
The facts were sketchy. Trayvon Martin, 17, left his father’s girlfriend’s house in a gated community and went to the convenience store to pick up some Skittles and iced tea. On his way back, a community watch person named George Zimmerman felt that Martin looked out of place (in his experience) and called the police to report a suspicious person. The police told him that they didn’t need Zimmerman to follow the kid. Then it gets really muddy. Someone yelled for help. Zimmerman said it was him. Others said they thought it was Martin. At some point, Zimmerman, who had a license to carry a firearm, shot and killed Martin.
When the police finally showed up, Zimmerman claimed it was self defense, that he had been attacked by Martin. A police officer noticed that he was wet, as if he had been on the ground, and had injuries. The incident didn’t get noticed by the media for a few weeks, but when it did, it took off mightily. Zimmerman was not arrested, first, because of the claim of self defense, second, because his firearm was carried legally, and third, because of a Florida law that states that no person has any duty to retreat when attacked, so long as the person had a right to be where he or she was when the attack occurred. It’s referred to as the “stand your ground” law. More and more states are passing such laws to protect innocent people from being criminally charged when they are only defending themselves.
The media finally took notice, but the information it spread tended to be very one-sided:
The last was obviously the most important and what started the lynch-mob mentality of people around the country. There were rallies, public statements, people intervening in any capacity they could to defend the poor black kid who was so obviously racially murdered by a white guy. Even President Obama made a statement that, if he’d had a son, the son would look like Martin. The New Black Panthers offer $10,000 bounty for capture of shooter George Zimmerman.
Given the consistent anti-Second Amendment bias of most of the major media, I guess its approach was to be expected. To my view, journalists are supposed to be objective and to suppress their biases, so I found it seriously objectionable. Nevertheless, the media missed emphasizing the other part of the known facts:
Won’t Take Sides
I refuse to take a side in this situation. We do not yet know the facts. I am greatly disturbed by the trend to condemn this guy Zimmerman because some people say that the person he shot was just an innocent kid who did nothing. We don’t know that yet. Both parties should be presumed innocent until proven guilty. There is no doubt that it’s a tragic thing for a kid to get killed, especially if he was doing nothing wrong to begin with. However, as yet, we don’t know what happened throughout the incident. Even though people who knew Martin said that he was a good kid who would never escalate something, strange things can happen.
Anyone who has studied political science in international relations will be familiar with what is called the security dilemma. It occurs when country A thinks its neighbor country B is arming itself and might be preparing to attack. Therefore country A starts arming itself. Then country B, which might or might not have been arming itself, but was in no way preparing to attack country A, starts arming itself, or increases what it was doing before in light of what it sees country A doing. This can continue to escalate, and wars have started this way. It’s a difficult scenario from which to escape without mishap and requires the development of some sort of mutual trust.
To illustrate this, think of the Cuban missile crisis. Cuba, feeling under threat by the United States, the world’s strongest military power, decides to import nuclear missiles from its ally, the Soviet Union. Cuba has no design to attack the U.S., just to get itself some deterrence against an attack by the U.S., something that has already happened at the Bay of Pigs. The U.S., via U2 over-flight espionage, has discovered what’s happening, stops the Soviet ships in international waters, and implies nuclear war to prevent the installation of nuclear weapons so near to itself. Through main-channel and back-channel diplomacy, and a true desire to avoid war by all sides, the situation is defused. But it took very careful and sophisticated maneuvering to accomplish it. (For an excellent description of the event, see Essence of Decision, by Graham T. Allison.)
Delicate diplomatic maneuvering is not a hallmark of interpersonal confrontations. What happened next between Zimmerman and Martin? We don’t yet know.
Information Trickles In
It begins to look like there are things to be considered other than the fact that Martin was just this good-natured black kid who was killed by some white wannabe cop. We still don’t know the answers, but it shouldn’t seem, to anyone with an open mind, that it’s a simple, cut-and-dried affair.
So Many Things Don’t Matter
Except in a few cases, serial killers and others where there is a proven continuing motive, every incident stands on its own. What does it matter that Zimmerman had a run-in with the law years before, especially one that was dropped by law enforcement? It doesn’t mean that he was doing something illegal in this case. What does it matter that there were a number of burglaries committed by young black men. Martin wasn’t one of them (that we know of; presumably not), so his mere presence walking down the street did not mean that he was up to no good.
Trayvon Martin “Family spokesperson Ryan Julison confirmed to ABC News that Martin was suspended for an ‘empty baggy that had contained pot. It’s irrelevant to what happened on Feb. 26, does not change material facts of the situation.’” Perhaps so. Why then is the family and so many others harping about a scrape with the law Zimmerman had when he was 21, in which no charges were filed? There is a double standard being applied. “Martin's mother, Sybrina Fulton, and family attorneys blamed police for leaking the information about the marijuana to the news media in an effort to demonize the teenager.” Of course, Zimmerman's critics have no problem demonizing him before all of the facts are in. He is routinely being referred to as a racist murderer. You can’t have it both ways.
As an analogy, suppose you flip a coin and it comes up heads 20 times. Does that mean that the odds have increased that it will turn up tails the next time it’s flipped? No! The odds of the next flip are still 50%, because each flip is unique.
On the Other Hand
The principal way humans got to the top of the food chain and built successful societies is because they learned from past experiences. This is not only natural and normal, but is imperative if society and individual people are to survive. However, in this, as in most things, caution is necessary.
If you are walking down the street at night, and someone is following you, step for step, turn for turn, does this person mean you harm, or is it the person who lives upstairs from you who happens to be going home at the same time you are? Any fear you have is your problem, and it need not concern someone innocently walking behind you. If you look over your shoulder and see that the follower is black, and you know that African-Americans commit crimes disproportionately to their fraction of the population, does it mean that that particular black person has evil intent? Certainly not! But it doesn’t mean that you should blithely ignore the situation, either. Perhaps you should cross the street or go into a store or restaurant and see what the follower does. No matter how afraid you must be, the situation absolutely does not justify you take out your pistol and shoot the person! You need to apply judgment.
This is one place where prejudice can enter into things. Our word comes from the Latin prae judicare, judging in advance of the facts. It means that we must handle the facts that we know carefully, realizing that we might not have enough of them to make a solid judgment. What is called for is what I call a speculative inference. You make a tentative judgment based upon the facts that you have, but realize that further facts might change the situation entirely. This is the difference between taking immediate action against the person following you and making some other moves that might shed further light on the intent of the other person.
This sounds very intellectual, but in fact it happens all of the time. It’s called being careful. Do you look both ways before crossing the street? Do you avoid standing on the top of a step ladder? Do you wear your seatbelts? They all mean that you think about the possibilities and take some action, even though you have not decided that some terrible situation is imminent.
This awful incident between Martin and Zimmerman, it seems to me, probably turns on someone making a firm judgment when the situation was much too speculative to make such a call. There are not enough facts presented — indeed, there might never be enough facts presented — to definitively prove what happened. That’s unfortunate. Whatever else it might mean, it certainly implies that a lynch-mob mentality against Zimmerman is not justified!
There is confusing and contradictory information circulating, some indicating that Zimmerman was injured and acting in self defense, and some indicating the opposite. If, after all of the facts are in, it seems that he overstepped the bounds of legal behavior, then he should be prosecuted. However, things are not always what they seem to be at first, especially when there are advocates of one position who base their attacks on some ideology instead of the facts that ought to spearhead any criminal investigation. That is just as much an indication of prejudice as would be Zimmerman shooting that kid for racial reasons.
The “stand your ground” law is a good one. There is no reason why someone should have to retreat from a position where he or she may legally be because of the actions of some malefactor. On the other hand, hiding behind such a law when one is practicing some attack upon an innocent person is a heinous thing.
In my first Google search on Trayvon Martin’s name, in the 65 pages I looked at, I think that there were less than 10 articles calling for restraint until all of the evidence is in or directly supporting Zimmerman. The rest presumed his guilt. It reminds me of the campaigns against Wobblies, union organizers and Communists in decades past. The press and the people crying for punishment, all before there was any arrest or trial.
Wait for the facts! Too many people are not. Especially egregious is the fact that Seminole State College decided to expel Zimmerman “because of the high level of controversy that has been generated by this case.” Expelled for controversy? Whatever happened to innocent until proven guilty? Trying the case in public and in the press is as wrong here as it is everywhere else. It could go either way.
Again, On the Other Hand
In this country, we have seen over the decades that the powers that be, be they police or one or another level of government, frequently stall and dismiss incidents in which racial discrimination take place. To wit: the city of Chicago still has not charged any police officers in the murder of Black Panthers Fred Hampton and Mark Clark in 1969. The evidence of bullet penetration from the police, killing the victims in their beds, is overwhelming. It is still important that the public exert pressure on the government and police to come to a true resolution of such crimes. However, taking sides before the facts have been established is prejudice. Calling for justice for one party in a situation in which so many facts are unknown is not justice at all! We need justice for Zimmerman, too, without the interference of prejudice.
I’m sad to say it, but I think very strongly strongly that if the races of the two individuals were switched, we would be hearing cries of Justice for the shooter, cautions against rushing to judgment and a quick expression that the story told by the shooter ought to be believed. Life is always a delicate balance if one wants to do the right thing. Intelligence, as well as emotion, is required, and too much of one without enough of the other can lead us astray.
For some further remarks on this subject, please visit Trayvon Martin--What Happened?
March 25, 2012
Last Updated — April 06, 2013