Gwendolyn Albert: Zimmerman verdict is about living in fear
The verdict of “not guilty” in the trial of George Zimmerman the weekend before last was extremely disheartening for millions of Americans, as indeed the entire drama has been. In order to understand why it was possible for Zimmerman to shoot unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin in the heart and be legally absolved of wrongdoing by his claim of self-defense, we need to understand where the law that has spared him the designation of “murderer” came from.
The Florida law which the jury was instructed to follow when rendering their verdict is one of a number of “Stand Your Ground” laws enacted by more than 30 states in the USA. These laws state that the use of force is justifiable in self-defense when there is “reasonable belief” of an unlawful threat. They do not require those defending themselves to first retreat in the face of such a threat. Critics of these laws include many professional law enforcement officials, as well as groups working to reduce gun violence in the United States.
Prior to the law being passed in Florida, the Miami police chief opposed its adoption, saying it was dangerous because it might encourage the use of “deadly physical force where it shouldn’t be used”. Self-defense claims in Florida tripled after the law was enacted. Last year a Florida task force concluded the law is “confusing” and a lawyer representing the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association recommended it be repealed.
Florida’s law was not the product of some sort of grassroots initiative to enhance the legal position of force used in self-defense. It was written by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a conservative lobbying group with corporate backing that drafts model laws and ordinances and recruits local and state-level politicians to pass them. Speaking on MSNBC after the Zimmerman verdict was announced, National Urban League president Marc Morial, himself a former state legislator, called once again for corporate supporters of ALEC to stop funding the group.
When Trayvon Martin’s family finally managed to get police to press charges against Zimmerman last year and the role of ALEC in the drafting of Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law first came to light, businesses and nonprofits such as BestBuy, Coca-Cola, and the Gates Foundation publicly reversed their affiliations with ALEC. The lobby group’s other bad ideas include laws to prevent workers from having paid sick leave, laws to stop whistleblowers in agriculture, laws to stop environmental regulations, and laws to stop education about climate change. Oil industry magnates such as the Koch brothers continue to support the group, as does America’s most powerful gun lobby, the National Rifle Association (NRA).
Through ALEC, the NRA has pushed many bills to make sure access to firearms in the US remains unfettered and that people can carry concealed firearms essentially anywhere. In response to NRA input, ALEC’s model laws include provisions preventing cities from being able to ban armor-piercing bullets or machine guns and prohibiting cities from suing gun manufacturers for gun deaths. Other ALEC laws remove state-level bans on bringing guns to college campuses or into classrooms and are designed to prevent law enforcement agencies from using their purchasing power to favor gun manufacturers that adhere to a code of conduct. Smith & Wesson, for example, had agreed to penalize retailers if the guns they sold ended up used in crimes, if they avoided performing criminal background checks on prospective customers, if they released more than one handgun to an individual purchaser per day, and if they sold handguns without mechanical trigger locks to prevent accidents. ALEC’s draft legislation seeks to bar states from rewarding any firearm manufacturers for adopting such codes of conduct.
Zimmerman’s attorney, by the way, announced after the verdict that the
vigilante will be getting his gun back. Allegedly he needs to be able to defend
himself “now more than ever”. The FBI disagreed.
The state of Florida did not prosecute George Zimmerman until after Trayvon Martin’s death had become a national scandal and was reluctant to contravene the initial assessment of local police, who believed Zimmerman’s account of self-defense. Every effort was made to “de-racialize” the trial when it did finally take place, with the judge instructing the state prosecutors that they could not characterize Zimmerman as having “racially profiled” the unarmed black teenager he shot, despite overwhelming evidence that this is exactly what he did.
Television viewers could also have been forgiven if they were confused by the cheerful response of the Florida state attorney in charge of the case after the “not guilty” verdict was rendered. Instead of regretting that the state had failed to convict Zimmerman of murder when there was no dispute that he had pulled the trigger, smiling prosecutor Angela Corey said the case had “never been about race or the right to bear arms” and that she was “proud” to have been part of this failure.
Of course, these efforts to remove race from the official handling of the case do not mean the issue of race has been removed from the court of public opinion, as the many demonstrations in response to the Zimmerman verdict show. The public always renders its own verdicts on the outcomes produced by the justice system, and many groups working to promote equality for people of color in the United States have come forward to point out exactly how biased Florida justice is when it comes to non-white people. The example now being most discussed is that of the conviction of Marissa Alexander, an African-American woman who sought the protection of “Stand Your Ground” when she was arrested for firing warning shots at her husband, against whom she had taken out a protective order for abuse, inside her own home. No one was physically harmed as a result of her actions, but Alexander was convicted of attempted murder on the basis of her husband’s testimony and was sentenced to 20 years in prison last year. So much for self-defense, or actually - would Alexander have stood a better chance of being believed if she had actually killed her husband? What lesson does Florida hope people will draw from such verdicts?
While criminal legal remedies have been exhausted in the Zimmerman case, the search for justice is far from over. An attorney for Trayvon Martin’s family said after the verdict that they would continue to work to “define the legacy of their child”. The director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) said the criminal verdict “casts serious doubt on whether the legal system truly provides equal protection of the laws to everyone regardless of race or ethnicity” and called on the US Justice Department to thoroughly investigate whether Zimmerman’s action was a federal civil rights violation or hate crime. Federal prosecutors have said they plan to do just that. The ACLU also called on Congress to pass the End Racial Profiling Act, a piece of legislation that does not seem to have the billion-dollar backing of ALEC. Introduced earlier this year by Senator Ben Cardin (Democrat of Maryland), the act would prohibit racial profiling by law enforcement. What it would do about the George Zimmermans of America is less clear.
Why is the Zimmerman verdict important to readers in the Czech Republic? The main reason is that ideas like “Stand Your Ground” have a tendency to spread. In the Czech Republic we already saw a similar case, complete with an element of interethnic tension, when Jaromír Šebesta attempted to excuse his fatal shooting of a Romani man, Martin Hospodi, by claiming self-defense. Šebesta has since been convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 10 years in prison. The vital question is whether the Czech public accepts that verdict as the right one.
Trayvon Martin was shot to death in Florida, a southern state notorious in the history of US race relations for, among other things, preventing non-white voters from exercising their right to vote and for the fiasco at the polls that resulted in the Supreme Court awarding George W. Bush the presidency. The Zimmerman verdict has also come on the heels of yet another Supreme Court ruling that has disheartened many Americans, the decision to strike down the mechanism in the Voting Rights Act used to select states for federal review of their voting procedures should discrimination be suspected.
Make no mistake: The neo-Nazis in the Czech Republic and all over the world who fly the Confederate flag along with their swastikas understand very well the message of the Old South that it represents. Ever since the United States took its first real steps toward undermining entrenched assumptions about white supremacy half a century ago, those who believe in the inferiority of non-whites (as well as in the inferiority of non-heterosexuals and non-men) have been tirelessly strategizing for that ideology to regain dominance in the United States. The tropes from earlier eras are recycled in more modern guises, but they remain the same: African-Americans are to be feared as inherently criminal and the vigilantes who kill them are to be excused because the fear that prompts their “self-defense” is justified. We no longer live in a time when it is commonplace, as it once was, for a crowd of white vigilantes in the US to proudly pose for a photograph with an African-American corpse and know they will never be prosecuted, but the “not guilty” verdict in the Zimmerman case is, at bottom, a continuation of that same story.
The promoters of white supremacy, whether in the Czech Republic or in the USA, essentially want the same world ALEC is trying to create with its cookie-cutter laws: An individual, low-level war of all against all, a world in which every single person lives in fear of every other person, constantly armed and ready to retaliate, even pre-emptively. That would be a world where people do not blow the whistle when power is abused, where people do not unionize, where people do not use the democratic process together to bring whatever is out of control – be it the government, the private sector, or a vigilante thug - back into balance.
Divisive tensions ultimately serve the same purpose in every society: They keep people from exercising their human rights in solidarity with one another. As long as people are at each other’s throats, they are not working to change the world they live in.
The biggest mistake any of us can ever make is to succumb to our fears like Jaromír Šebesta and George Zimmerman have. This is why, when the neo-Nazis march on Roma neighborhoods in the Czech Republic, it is so wrong for officials to counsel Romani residents to hide from them and stay out of sight.
Standing our ground does have its place. Doing it without fear and without force is our challenge.
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