Cashing In On Tragedy

The death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in February 2012 was in every respect a tragedy.  Martin was shot by a Neighborhood Watch volunteer, George Zimmerman, who claimed the shooting was in self-defense; a Florida jury later found Zimmerman not guilty of second-degree murder and manslaughter charges in connection with the shooting.

29906170001_4892088941001_4892074610001-vsNow Zimmerman is trying to sell the gun that fired the shots that killed Trayvon Martin.  This morning he’ll put the weapon, a Kel-Tec PF9 9mm handgun, up for on-line auction on a gun sale website.  He’s asking for a starting bid of $100,000 for the gun, which he describes as an “American firearm icon” in auction materials.  The manufacturer’s suggested retail price for a brand-new Kel-Tec PF9 9mm handgun, by way of comparison, is $356.36.  Whether Zimmerman will actually be able to sell the gun is anybody’s guess — an earlier attempt at an on-line auction was highjacked by obviously fraudulent bids.

A jury found George Zimmerman not guilty of a crime in shooting Trayvon Martin, and we’ll never know exactly what happened the night Martin was shot.  But now we do know this:  George Zimmerman is a cheap, classless person who is trying to cash in on his role in the death of a kid.  It’s indecent, unforgivable, and grossly unfair to the family of Trayvon Martin, who have denounced the effort to sell the gun.  When several other gun sale websites declined to auction the gun on ethical grounds, it tells you all you need to know.  

It’s a free country, of course, and people buy and sell all manner of curiosities.  But selling the gun used in the Trayvon Martin shooting for big bucks is a new low.  It’s trafficking in death and blood money, and it’s wrong.

 

The President Speaks About Race

Today President Obama made an unscheduled appearance in the White House Briefing Room, in order to talk about race and the Trayvon Martin shooting.  The transcript of his remarks, which were extensive, is here.

It’s tough to talk about race in America — even if you are the nation’s first African-American President.  The social and cultural elements of America’s terrible and sordid racial past have made the topic virtually taboo.  We’ve all been in situations where people have tried to talk about race and have said things that, intentionally or inadvertently, cause everyone to cringe.  When that happens often enough, the default option is to not talk at all.  And when people don’t talk about an issue, often it just becomes magnified and increasingly difficult to address.

I believe the President is cautiously trying to encourage a national conversation about race — a conversation, not people shouting at each other, or talking past each other, or limiting their comments to people who they know already agree with them.  As a big believer in free speech, I think that is a very worthy endeavor.  I welcome the President’s comments, which I think were a thoughtful attempt to address an important national issue.  The President walks a fine line when he talks about an individual criminal case and state law issues.  I think the President recognized that fact and gave remarks that were the product of careful deliberation.  If people disagree with him, they should do what the First Amendment contemplates:  respond to speech with more speech.

I had two reactions to the President’s comments after I read the transcript linked above and reflected on his thoughts.  First, I think it is immensely valuable for the President to raise the issue of context, because it helps people like me — an aging white male — to dimly understand what I’ve never personally experienced.  I’ve never had a taxi ignore my outstretched arm for no good reason, or heard car doors lock as I walk by, or shared an elevator with a nervous woman who clutches her purse tighter and avoids eye contact when I walk in.  Understanding context is important, and when the man describing those unfortunate scenarios that are all-too-common for African-American men and boys is the President of the United States, it helps to demonstrate the incongruousness of a knee-jerk racial reaction.  We trust this man with every secret we have and invest him with the authority to act as Commander-in-Chief of all of our armed forces and weaponry, and yet someone didn’t trust him to walk through a store without shoplifting?

The context helps to explain why the Trayvon Martin shooting strikes so deeply for African-Americans.  I am sure that some people will object that the President has personalized the Trayvon Martin shooting — saying previously that Trayvon Martin could have been his son, and today that Trayvon Martin could have been him 35 years ago — but I think it is important for the President to give voice to such feelings.  In order to address the issue in a meaningful way, isn’t it important to understand the intensely personal nature of such reactions?

Second, I do think things are getting better, and that the young people of America are leading the way.  The President thinks, and I agree, that over time race will become less of an issue.  Our challenge is to not get in the way of that cycling-down process.   Angry voices and accusations don’t help.  The President’s comments today were meaningful, but measured.  I hope that those people who disagree with him will be equally thoughtful when they express their views.

If He Had Only Walked Away . . . .

A Florida state court jury has deliberated for more than 16 hours and found George Zimmerman not guilty of second-degree murder and manslaughter in the death of Trayvon Martin.

The jury heard all of the evidence; I didn’t.  Their verdict will settle the issue of whether Zimmerman committed a major crime under Florida law, although prosecution for violation of federal civil rights laws remains a possibility.  Of course, that is a different question than whether Zimmerman bears significant responsibility for the incident in which Martin was shot and killed.

When I think of this case, I always come back to one thing:  why didn’t Zimmerman simply walk away after he had reported Martin’s presence to the police and the police had told him not to pursue?  He had advised the authorities, and it had become their responsibility to deal with the situation.  If Zimmerman had just walked away, the course of events would have changed and, perhaps, the fatal encounter would never have occurred.

In virtually very confrontation, there is a tipping point at which the situation is defused or events escalate.  The surly man in the bar who is becoming angry at the behavior of another patron chooses between having another drink or heading home.  One driver in a road rage incident speeds up and flips off the guy who just cut him off or decelerates and lets it go.  Or a would-be neighborhood watch volunteer decides whether to pursue an unknown visitor or let the police do their jobs.  In each situation, choices are made and the causal chain moves in one direction or another.

One other point:  in an encounter between an adult and a teenager, I put the onus on the adult to do what is necessary to avoid a physical confrontation.  The adult should be able to draw on years of experience, appreciate the potential consequences, and exercise cool judgment when the teenager cannot.  Any parent of teenage boys must hope that, if their sons become involved in such a situation, the adults around their children will, in fact, behave like adults.

It’s unfortunate that George Zimmerman didn’t just walk away.  We’d be better off as a society if more people did so.

Show Trials

In Sanford, Florida, the defense has rested in the trial of George Zimmerman for the killing of Trayvon Martin.  In Boston, Dzhokar Tsarnaev appeared in court yesterday to plead not guilty to 30 counts related to the Boston Marathon bombing.  In Texas, Major Nidal Hassan is representing himself in trying to select a jury of Army officers to hear the evidence in his trial for the shooting rampage that killed more than a dozen people at Fort Hood in 2009.

The media loves these trials — which is why, at any given point in time, there’s likely to be a criminal trial in the news in America.  O.J. Simpson.  The officers involved in the Rodney King incident.  Jean Harris.  The Lindbergh baby kidnapping.  Whenever a crime attracts the attention of the country, the trial allows the media and the public to revel in their fascination with the case and the evidence, the witnesses and the lawyers.  Reporters and commentators can breathlessly describe the evidence presented, critique the conduct of the judge, the prosecutor, and the defense attorney, and express their opinions on whether conviction or acquittal is likely.  And when the case has an overlay of race, or class, or religion, the stakes are heightened and there is even greater opportunity for commentary about the broad social lessons that supposedly should be drawn from the trial and the verdict.

The fact that there is almost always a criminal trial in the news suggests that none of these cases involve “the crime of the century” — and, in reality, they don’t.  Every day, in every corner of America, judges, lawyers, and juries are doing their jobs to resolve criminal charges.  The trials in those little-covered cases aren’t materially different from those that command the headlines; they also involve disputed evidence, contested rulings by the court, compelling testimony, and distraught families.  The evidence is presented, the jury is instructed, deliberates, and announces its verdict.  If you know anyone who has ever served on a jury in a criminal trial, they’ll likely tell you that they and their fellow jurors took their jobs seriously and did their very best to fairly evaluate the evidence they heard.  The vast majority of the time their verdict is accepted without any outcry or incident, and the system moves forward.

The American criminal justice system is a transparent one.  Criminal trials are open to the media and the public precisely so citizens can see how the justice system works — and it does work.  The “show trials” get the news coverage and may provoke the heated emotions and charged responses to jury verdicts, but we shouldn’t forget that they just represent the tiny tip of a very large iceberg.

Obsessing over Trayvon

Okay I have to admit it – I have been obsessed with the Trayvon Martin shooting after listening to the 911 tape (below) on You Tube where you can hear someone screaming numerous times for help, then gun shots, then silence. Each morning I wake up and the first thing I google is the Trayvon Martin shooting.

Brief details as to what happened on February 26, 2012 – Trayvon Martin a seventeen year old was a guest at the residence of his fathers girlfriend who lived in Sanford Florida. Trayvon went to a convenience store at 7:00 pm to get an iced tea and skittles. When he returned to the gated community George Zimmerman a neighborhood watch coordinator for the condo association took notice and placed a call to the police department reporting suspicious behavior on Trayvon’s part stating “he was walking around looking about”. During the call to police Zimmerman said that Trayvon “was starting to run and that he was going to follow him”, but the police dispatcher told Zimmerman that it wasn’t necessary and that they didn’t need him to do that because police were on the way. Zimmerman said “okay I will meet the police by the mail boxes”, but before hanging up he said “actually could you have him call me, and I’ll tell him where I’m at”. A confrontation occurred between the two, they got into a scuffle on the ground and Mr Zimmerman who had a gun shot Trayvon once in the chest and is claiming self defense under Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law.

It should be noted that a number of burglaries had taken place in Zimmerman’s condo complex in the past year or so, but there are a few things about this story that just don’t sit right with me.

Is it fair on Zimmerman’s part to assume that because a person is “walking around looking about” that they are up to no good ? It was dark and raining, could Trayvon have been lost or confused as to which was the condo he was staying at.

Zimmerman did his job by alerting the police, but does he have the right to pursue Trayvon especially after he’s told not to do so ?

If Zimmerman had not had a gun would he still have pursued Trayvon ?

When they got into a scuffle on the ground does it seem reasonable for Zimmerman to claim self defense under the Stand Your Ground law when he was the one armed with a gun and outweighed Trayvon ?

If charges are brought against George Zimmerman I am hopeful that a public trial will answer some of these unanswered questions and I will be glued to court TV watching. It’s only my humble opinion, but every story has two sides to it, if charges are in fact brought against George Zimmerman then he will have the luxury of deciding whether or not it is in his best interests legally to tell his side of the story. As for Trayvon Martin, he can’t tell his side of the story because he’s dead.