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why killing someone is not equal to not killing someone

July 13, 2013

I make no claim to be an impartial observer of the George Zimmerman trial.

I am proud to say that I was one of the first few thousand to sign the petition last year demanding that Zimmerman be charged so he could be brought to trial, a matter of days before the story broke nationwide. I am partial to people who get killed violently. I am partial to people who are profiled. I am partial to people who are stalked.

However, I am able to put aside some portion of my partiality to discuss some of the dialogues that have taken place around the trial in what I hope is an impartial fashion.

An observation from a Facebook friend and former classmate caught my attention yesterday. He’s reliably conservative, I’m reliably liberal. So it’s not like I expected to read something from him and wag my head agreeably. But this observation gave me a particular kind of pause.

“Does anyone really expect riots if Zimmerman is convicted? No. If he’s acquitted? Let’s just wait and see.”

Disclaimer: before proceeding, I must make it clear that I am not picking on this particular friend or his comment. The main reason that I want to address this observation in such detail is that I am taking it as archetypal of the sorts of arguments that are being put forth by what I am calling the “other side” of the issue, the people who think this case has no social or legal context worth addressing; those who think it’s a stalemate of a “his word versus mine” sort, one that could really turn out either way and it’s just as well, either way.

Right off the bat, let’s assume there are no racial implications in the above quoted statement. I know that might be hard for some people, but I want to discuss this impartially, and telling someone what they meant when they said something can be construed as subjectivity.

What the statement does imply is that there are two groups of people: those who will be displeased if Zimmerman is convicted, and those who will be displeased if he is not convicted. The former group is presumed to be orderly. The latter group? Well, “let’s just wait and see.”

The upshot of this observation is that one side of the issue is more orderly and law-abiding than the other, which, although it overtly proves nothing about Zimmerman’s guilt or innocence, points to which side has the better judgment. Since the observation is entirely open-ended, we must draw our own conclusions from there.

More troubling than what I think is a roundabout comment on the outcome of the case itself, however, is the notion that the two sides of this issue are comparable in every way. This is patently untrue.

Rioting, almost by definition, is never a constructive form of social protest. That’s not in dispute, at least not by me. Anger, however, as the motivating factor of rioting, can be constructive if properly harnessed, and anger can to some degree be justified or unjustified, depending on the situation.

Simply put, anger over someone being allowed to go unpunished for a violent act is justified. If my kid beats up your kid at school, and the school administers no punishment to my kid, regardless of the reasoning, I think you’d be given the latitude to get angry.

If my child is punished, however, what is the cause for me to be angry? My child violated school rules, justified or not, and harmed a classmate. What grounds do I have for indignation?

I’ve said this a thousand times, and I’ll say it a thousand more, I’m sure: context matters. But there’s way more context here than the school analogy above.

People want to pretend that black males are not profiled in this country. They want to pretend that there is no drug-obsessed law enforcement agenda that skews punishment so that it is disproportionately meted out to people who are already disadvantaged, that they aren’t pushed through the system, stripped of their rights, creating a de facto underclass of “criminals” who can’t vote or get a job because they possessed ounces of an illegal drug, while DUI offenders who could have killed someone go about their lives after conveniently scheduling a weekend in jail and a series of classes.

If Trayvon Martin had called the police on George Zimmerman for walking home from the store, he would not have been taken seriously. If Trayvon had shot George after independently following him on foot, the only discussion we might be having now would be regarding the epidemic of crime among black youth. Most people would have completely skipped over the presumption of innocence. People want to pretend that’s not the case, either.

If we further suck all the social context out of the Zimmerman trial, then sure, we should expect just as much anger from those who support Zimmerman’s innocence as those who support “justice for Trayvon,” as the movement has been informally labeled.

The jurors in this case are the ones who are excluded context, because they function a very specific purpose: to determine wrongdoing in this individual case. However, applying the impartiality of the courtroom to the rest of us is ludicrous.

As an analogy, a court can find me guilty of speeding by two miles per hour over the speed limit based on the evidence, and that may be the correct ruling in my case. But if every other motorist on the road is going ten miles over the speed limit and it’s being ignored, then there’s a reason to be angry.

Zimmerman stalked a kid who was walking home from the store. He shot the kid. He was not charged initially for doing so, and was only charged after a nationwide movement compelled the inept law enforcement of his county. Here we have three instances of what appears to be differential treatment. If Zimmerman goes free, we have four. He may not be  found guilty by the standards of the judicial system… but is anger justified, due to the context of the situation? I believe it is.

“Does anyone really expect riots if Zimmerman is convicted? No. If he’s acquitted? Let’s just wait and see.”

Taken in the social context of this case, the above observation becomes less about the lack of reasonableness of the people who want Zimmerman convicted. I think it actually ends up speaking more to the lack of patience with a law enforcement system in our country, which for many people, is more like a set-up.

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