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Why you should care about Trayvon Martin


It’s April Fool’s Day. I suppose I should do an April Fool’s post, but I couldn’t think of anything beyond the old standby of saying I’ve seen the light, sworn off the cock and will now only have sex with prostitutes and whatever wives and concubines I can afford, as the Bible commands. That seemed a bit played out, though. If I were going to do a National Atheist Day post, I would have needed to start thinking about it before now and I already committed to Trayvon Martin today. I have nothing against April Fools jokes on blogs in general, but not in the mood for it this year. Freethought blogs has an excellent one this year, though. It’s a chain. I suggest you go check it out. You can start with my favorite here.

As I covered the other day, the word in certain segments of the honkisphere on the Trayvon Martin case has been that we shouldn’t care. Dozens of murders happen in the US every day and we never here about most of them. This is only getting attention because people are reading racism into it. No one would care if a black guy shot a white teen. This is grievance seeking and has led to Zimmerman being crucified in the press without a trial. We need to just stand back and let the police and do their jobs. The problem is that this is all wrong. It’s built on lots of unstated assumptions. Let’s unpack them:

  1. The only thing special about this murder is the fact a white man shot an unarmed black teenager.
  2. The police and courts would do their jobs if they weren’t busy fending off the press.
  3. The races of the parties involved here are just coincidental.
  4. Claims of racism are political plays, not driven by good-faith concerns.

The first one is the biggest problem. Even without the racial angle, there are lots of ways this is an important case. As I wrote about yesterday, it exemplifies the problem of any idiot with a gun getting to declare himself society’s only protection. Lots of other people get killed this way, but this case makes a good rallying point because Trayvon was  an unarmed kid with no criminal record, making him the perfect victim. However, he was also human. No one’s perfect. As more information comes out, we’ve started to see complaints that Trayvon is being sanitized for media consumption. I can understand this concern, but what a lot of seems to come down to is arguing that Trayvon looked like a scary black man, not some smiling cherub, with the implication this makes it more reasonable to shoot him. The truth is even if Martin were a hulk of a man with a rap sheet and facial tattoos wearing a jacket that declared he belonged to an outlaw motorcycle gang, this would not have made it any more reasonable to shoot him.

It also brings up weaknesses is stand your ground laws, which victim advocates, police, prosecutors and basically everybody except gun advocates have been warning about for years. Granted, Zimmerman’s story doesn’t invoke this defense, but we have Florida precedent that if you are caught in a lie, you can just change your story to fit the known facts and still get your case dismissed as self-defense. Unlike most states, you can use deadly force whenever you reasonably feel your life is in danger, or someone else’s life or to stop a forcible felony. Normally, there is also a provision that you can only use deadly force if you lack other options (and not to protect property), but that is not the case in stand your ground states. In theory, this empowers citizens to stand up to crime. I covered why this is a dangerous mindset yesterday, but the problems go way deeper. Basically, in any situation where there are two people are one of them ends up dead, self-defense is really hard to defeat in court. You aren’t supposed to escalate situations, but you generally can’t know what happened and what is and isn’t escalation is a very murky issue where doubt goes to the defendant. You don’t want a situation where either party would be legally justified in killing the other, because that amounts to legalized dueling at best, but that’s what SYG turns every fight into.

I’ve seen some gun-rights people on Facebook argue this case is exactly why we need more guns. People are reluctant to shoot if their victim might shoot back. Unfortunately, that ignores everything about this case. Even if we ignore the implication that Trayvon should have been carrying a gun (and I’m sure shooting a member of the neighborhood watch would have played really well in court, regardless of whether the guy was armed), Zimmerman did have a legal gun. If anything, this demonstrates that if a lot of guns are out their, it creates an incentive to shoot first, because the other guy might shoot you. Like so many gun arguments, it’s mired in thought experiments and ignoring how these things play out in the real world.

Plus, while a lot of murders may never lead to a conviction, police dragging their feet on even investigating is not common. As I detailed yesterday, it looks like this is largely the fault of the state attorney assigned to the case and police administration rather than the cops on the ground, but we never would have even found this much out if the press hadn’t investigated. This brings us to issue two. The fact that the system didn’t seem to be doing its job is the main reason this became a big story. The standard counterpoint is that I don’t know what police were and weren’t doing because I’m not on the force. Unfortunately, this would seem to preclude ever criticizing the police. We didn’t know a lot, but we knew they hadn’t arrested Zimmerman despite clear-cut probable cause, they hadn’t made much of an effort to ID the body and hadn’t questioned key witnesses. The press didn’t pick this up until a week and a half after it happened. At what point are we allowed to start criticizing the police? Ultimately, they work for the citizens and we need to hold them accountable. It’s not like there isn’t plenty of reason to not blindly trust the police, especially if you’re black.

This brings us to point three. Even if we didn’t know Zimmerman had a history of thinking basically all young black men he didn’t know were suspicious according to his neighbors and his previous 911 calls, there’s still the fact that black men are way more likely to be shot by police or citizens in mistaken self-defense than anyone else. Even without conscious racism, there’s plenty of reason to conclude there’s a problem. You may not think this is a big deal and that people just need to try to not be scary looking, but frankly it’s easy to be cavalier about this when you and your kids are not the ones likely to be shot. In fact you could make an argument (though it may be a bit of a stretch) that giving wide latitude on self-defense claims when a particular group is going to get the shit end of this is a violation of equal protection and of the fifth amendment guarantee that people cannot be deprived of their lives without due process. I can see this being difficult to sell in court, but I do think the government allowing any citizen to kill another outside the legal system violates this guarantee except in cases of necessity. Therefore, any self-defense statute that goes beyond necessity is unconstitutional. I’m not a lawyer, though. We’ll see if anyone tries to use that in court.

As for point four, yes, sometimes people see racism where it isn’t or go way beyond what’s reasonable in how to fix real racism. If, as my Facebook friend alleged, people were trying to get the system to declare Zimmerman guilty without a trial, that would be unreasonable. However, this is a strawman. People just wanted to see the system work like it’s supposed to. The police could have handled things better, but they couldn’t have put out a statement that they tried to bring Zimmerman to justice, but the corrupt system cares too much about the rights of the accused. At least, this would have been a bad idea if they didn’t want any more vigilantes shooting people. Hardly anyone expected this, though. Spike Lee seemed to be fine with vigilantes so long as they were on his side (and didn’t get his facts straight), but Spike Lee is hardly representative of civil rights concern about this case. You can’t discredit whole ideas just because a few people who hold them lack credibility. In fact, that’s an ad hominem argument as well as a straw man.

What makes this case important is that people can see themselves in it. I probably wouldn’t have done much different from Trayvon when I was his age. Parents see this and think their kids could be gunned down and the shooter could escape punishment. That’s not a society anyone wants to live in. I will be keeping tabs on this case, but tomorrow, it’s back to media.

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