In the Roman Coliseum the crowd voted thumbs up, or thumbs down based on the performance they had just witnessed. Life or death depended on the fancy of a mob who had come out to view blood sport. I wonder how different we are today.
There is no dispute of fact about what caused the death of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida. He was shot to death by George Zimmerman. Whether the shooting was justified is what stirs passions. Virtual mobs were quick to form: Prosecute Zimmerman, we are told. This white man shot a black boy for the crime of "walking while black." The failure of Florida lawmen to act enrages, proving, as though further proof were necessary, that black boys are expendable in the South.
It is a compelling narrative. But for the press of a hectic court schedule and illness, I might have joined the chorus. The color line remains a scar that separates and divides in the United States. There is no doubt about it.
But I stumbled upon an opinion piece in a South Carolina newspaper that shocked me. The paper reports on a news release issued by the Sanford Police Department that relays the following, together with other facts under-reported in mainstream press accounts:
1. An eyewitness told police that Martin was observed on the ground punching Zimmerman moments before the shooting. This is different that Gospel version circulating online, the narrative that has a young boy walking home, eating candy, when he is suddenly attacked by a white racist.
2. The witness reports that Zimmerman was on the ground screaming and yelling for help. Apparently this was a moment in which Martin was not reaching into the package of Skittles for another treat.
3. When police arrived, Zimmerman was bleeding from the back of his head and had grass stains on his back, facts consistent with the eyewitness account.
4. When police played the 911 tape for Martin’s father, the father said the screaming voice was not that of his son.
5. The shooter in this case, described as a white male, in fact appears to Latino/Mestizo.
6. The neighborhood in which Martin was shot was ethnically and racially diverse, and not mostly white.
7. Far from being a model student, Martin was on a five-day suspension from school for reasons unknown.
8. Martin was not the scrawny, pre-teen displayed in a photo released to the press by his grieving family; he was a 6'2" football player.
None of this justifies the shooting of this Trayvon Martin. It merely reframes the confrontation from one in which a racist vigilante went hunting for black boys to one in which a man may have overreacted in self-defense, or, and I am not prepared to say this, been justified in his use of force. The point is that witnesses report information that changes how one perceives what went down in Sanford.
Florida’s permissive self-defense law imposes no duty to retreat when one is in one’s own home. A confrontation on the street is, however, different. Did Martin assault Zimmerman? If so, did Martin reasonably believe either that his life was in danger or that he was at immanent risk of serious physical injury? If so, was his use of deadly force reasonable given the events as he perceived them? These are the lawyerly questions that inform a legal analysis of this case.
Our national love affair with firearms makes these sorts of cases inevitable. Our inability to have a meaningful discussion about race and the color line makes politicization of such cases inevitable as well. This case, much like the Casey Anthony case, should be resolved in the relative calm of a courtroom, and not on the Internet’s version of the coliseum, where flash mobs respond to those inclined to confirm what they already believe about events they have not witnessed.
There are too many guns on the streets. Period. We will keep killing one another because it is easy and satisfying to do in some primeval way we care not to acknowledge. In the case of the Trayvon Martin homicide there are serious questions about what happened and why.
There is no doubt that George Zimmerman killed Trayvon White. The only question is whether he was justified in doing so. That question should not be answered by opinion polls. It should be answered in a courtroom. That requires charging George Zimmerman with a crime, cloaking him in the presumption of innocence, and then testing the theory that has now become dogma on the streets: Zimmerman killed a young boy out for a stroll, minding his own business, merely eating candy. If that’s true, the crime is murder; if it is not true, the killing still might not be justified, a jury might conclude that the shooting was an overreaction.
But let’s let a jury decide. Appealing to the crowd in the Coliseum for a verdict in this case makes no sense. None of us where there to witness what went down when Martin was killed. Let’s hear from the witnesses. If nothing else, this trial can indict firearms manufacturers for turning our streets into killing fields.