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The Dead Tell No Tales

Self-Defense in Florida

by BINOY KAMPMARK

An intelligent, self-interested observer of this case, who happens to live in Florida, would not be wrong to do as George Zimmerman did – buy a gun, master the finer points of Florida self-defense law, and then wait.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Atlantic, Jul 14

Deliberations in the law court are one thing, often dull, often sterile.  The result can be something else.  George Zimmerman’s acquittal has unleashed a furious storm, though it is a complex one, riddled with overtones of race and legalism.

Among the great U.S. curses is that of race.  Colour blind legal systems only belong to the land of Cockaigne.  Policy makers race to the podium to call for “racial dialogue” after unpalatable decisions where the proverbial black man is deemed the devilish provocateur.  U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder was quick off the mark. “This tragedy provides yet another opportunity for our nation to speak honestly about the complicated and emotionally-charged issues that this case has raised.”

Having been acquitted of killing Trayvon Martin under Florida’s expansive self-defence laws, Zimmerman has thrown a good deal of fuel on the fire.  He has insisted from the start that his act of violence, perpetrated as a neighbourhood volunteer, was made in the name of self-defence.

Martin continues in some instances to be portrayed as a violent thug who got his comeuppance after he “weaponised” (odd choice of words) the street.  He attacked Zimmerman. In true instinctive valour, the reaction followed.  What else could he have done?  Observing this reputational drubbing of the youngster, Geraldo Rivera contended that the jury that acquitted Zimmerman would have happily dispatched Martin, given the chance.  In milder language, Jelani Cobb has suggested that the trial’s most “damning” feature was not Zimmerman’s acquittal but “that Trayvon Martin was found guilty” (New Yorker, Jul 13). Should not anyone be surprised?  Hardly.

Zimmerman does have his supporters, not least of all the jury verdict itself in Sanford, Florida.   Commentators like Ta-Nehisi Coates feel that the jury did, for all the problems attending the case, get “it right”, if only “basically”.  For Coates, “any violent confrontation ending in a disputed act of lethal self-defense, without eye-witnesses, the advantage goes to the living” (The Atlantic, Jul 14).  The dead tell no tales.

As for the living, a study done by the Pew Research Centre for the People and the Press found that, while there was “relatively modest public interest overall”, black respondents were more likely to say they had followed the trial than white respondents (a 56 percent versus 20 percent reading).

The Justice Department, having been caught unawares by the verdict, claims it is “investigating” Zimmerman, though it is by no means clear whether the federal government can lay charges against him.  The Obama administration evidently feels some official front of interest has to be maintained in the case.  Ben Jealous of the NAACP has contacted Holder asking for formal federal charges to be laid.

The legal burden here will be a large one, a legacy of the Reconstruction Acts that arrogated power to the federal government in the context of civil rights violations.  “It’s not enough if it’s just a fight that escalated,” argued Samuel Bagenstos, who formerly served as the principal deputy assistant attorney general in the U.S. department of Civil Rights Division.  “The government has to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the defendant acted wilfully with a seriously culpable state of mind” in violating Martin’s rights.  Not merely does the act have to be shown to be unjustified – it must also be proved that Martin was attacked because of his race, and that he was using the street – in other words, a public facility.

The court of public opinion is now in session, and the site is an ugly one.  If one believes Andrew Cohen, trials “can never act as moral surrogates to resolve the national debates they trigger. In the end, they teach only what each of us as students are predisposed to learn” (The Atlantic, Jul 13).  It is also fitting to recall that the case may never have gone to trial to begin with.

Legal trials are not all-seeing pursuits of truth, but exercises of weighing and consideration, judgment made on available evidence.  That evidence itself is strictly controlled in terms of what is admitted.  An imperfect legal system merely reflects an imperfect social order to begin with.  Change and reform has to lie elsewhere. And it is not in Cockaigne.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.  Email: bkampmark@gmail.com