It isn’t just that there is no one new to be the new Jackson and Sharpton; it’s that there isn’t a new community to lead. On the positive side, there isn’t a standard issue black community anymore. Maybe there never was, but there are now black children of privilege, black hipsters, blerds, etc. – all who identify with another group before they identify as black. The segregation in our society is more economic than it is racial. Poor, uneducated whites don’t really have it any easier than poor, uneducated blacks or Hispanics. There is nobody to come to the defense of the poor (no matter what the facts of any given situation are) in this country like Jackson and Sharpton did for African-Americans. The issues are more complex, and Jackson and Sharpton’s message has always been awfully simplistic. I don’t know if there CAN be a new one of them.
On the negative side, racism is a lot more sneaky then it used to be. Drug policy is perhaps the number one way the government is racist, and who stands up for that? The country as a whole just won’t open their eyes to that problem for myriad reasons.
Abraham Lincoln discussed this romanticization of violence in 1838, in one of his earliest public speeches, “Address Before the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois.” What, Lincoln asked, threatened the well-being of American democracy? Only one thing: vigilante violence, “the increasing disregard for law which pervades the country; the growing disposition to substitute the wild and furious passions in lieu of the sober judgment of Courts.” He detailed the epidemic of violence and then located its cause in the need for what we would now call identity politics. Constitutional institutions might be equitable, but they were not lacking in (and it’s striking that Lincoln used exactly this word) “authenticity”—the dry, rational legal system that the revolution had insured could never satisfy Americans’ need for an emotional connection with the past and with each other.
Lincoln’s own call, in response, was for an ever more radical rationalism: “Reason, cold calculating unimpassioned reason, must furnish all the materials for our future support and defense.”
As Adam Gopnik notes, Lincoln even cast the Civil War as the defense of the arid, legal principle that the Union was indissoluble – not a matter of honor or pride or culture. And that, of course, was his key difference with the dueling, honor-driven culture of the South (and Wild West). Adam Cohen also helpfully contrasts English and American self-defense laws:
Nearly 250 years ago, William Blackstone included in his classic Commentaries on the Laws of England a well-established rule: “[T]o excuse homicide by the plea of self defense, it must appear that the slayer had no other possible means of escaping from his assailant.” Sir Blackstone understood why people should be required to retreat before using deadly force: “the right to defend,” he warned, “may be mistaken as the right to kill.” …
[In contrast,] [i]n 1921, in Brown v. United States, the Supreme Court rejected the obligation to retreat. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, the author of the decision, later explained: “a man is not born to run away.”
More readers talk about overcoming their discomfort of neighbors of a different race:
I’d like to add my $.02 to the thread, from personal experience. Years ago, I was assaulted in my apartment in L.A. At least ten of my white friends either assumed or asked if my attacker was black. I told them no – the only black guy around was my big, scary-looking neighbor who rushed to my rescue when he heard me screaming. When the attacker was caught, he turned out to be (a) a serial rapist, suspected in hundreds of crimes and (b) a white, married Mormon. I hadn’t thought much about racism up to that time, but the lesson couldn’t have been more clear, and I’ve never forgotten it.
A few years ago, I lived in and around NYC jumping from sublet to sublet with two travel suitcases and one condition: $500 rent. This brought me to a plethora of places I had never experienced in college: Harlem, the Bronx, Queens, etc. And my Mom was terrified. And honestly, I was too. A child of the ’80s, I had grown up with the firmly held belief that New York was a war zone. This was on top of the fact that I lived in closet spaces that had a curtain (or hung up sheet) in place of a door.
But money was tight, so I just buckled up. And after a few months, it barely even registered. I felt safe – safer than I had ever been. At first, I wrote my parents off as paranoid, but over time I began to realize that things just used to be a lot worse.
Having said that, I’ve never erased the dread that seeps in when I find myself on an empty street – late at night – with a stranger my brain identifies as poor, male, and non-white. But there’s a difference between having that fear and acting on it – and certainly institutionalizing it. I could concede to Cohen that his idealized version of racial profiling could reduce even more crime, but like terrorism, there is a point where pure, practical security infringes upon liberty and justice for all.
I currently live in Crown Heights, a notable, new and exciting (and “gentrifying” – wink, wink) part of Brooklyn.
All I can say in my defense is that I never hurled a stone at him, or shouted abuse. But I stood by, many a time, as others did those things, and I neither walked away nor averted my eyes. I never held anyone’s cloak, but then I was never asked to. I watched it all, gripping a rock in my hand as though I were preparing to use it — so that no one would turn on me with anger or contempt — and I always stood a little behind them so they couldn’t see that I wasn’t throwing anything. I was smaller and younger than the rest of them, and they were smaller and younger than him. In my memory he seems almost a full-grown man; I suppose he was eleven or twelve.
We called him Nigger Jeff. I have never doubted that Jeff was indeed his name, though as I write this account I find myself asking, for the first time, how we could have known: I never heard any of the boys speak to him except in cries of hatred, and I never knew anyone else who knew him. It occurs to me now that, if his name was Jeff, there had to have been at least a brief moment of human contact and exchange — perhaps not even involving Jeff, perhaps one of the boys’ mothers talked to Jeff’s mother. But we grasp what’s available for support or stability. It’s bad to call a boy Nigger Jeff, but worse still to call him just Nigger. A name counts for something.
[T]here are not, and never have been, any new versions of the old Jesse and Al. Not a single young preacher or politician has even started to acquire national influence by taking a page from their old playbooks. The times have changed. If the more pessimistic strains in black America can be slow to fully acknowledge progress, we can take heart from the fact that Al Sharpton will be 60 next year, and a young version of his young self is now inconceivable as a national figure.
Your comments struck a chord with me, because it really does seem that a lot of older white folks are stuck in the ’80s. I’m a young white guy living in DC, and every time I go home for the holidays or a party with extended family, after the usual small talk it always comes up: “How do you deal with the crime?” It’s honestly a question that drives me crazy. I’ve lived here five years and all I’ve ever witnessed is someone stealing something from CVS. I do know of friends of friends who have been mugged and such, but still … it’s far from a war zone. When I commented that I had recently moved to nearby Arlington, they said, “Well, of course – I mean, you can’t live in DC, really.” It’s apparent to me that despite my denials, my aunts and uncles are convinced that DC and other urban areas of the US are something akin to Baghdad. They just don’t seem to believe me when I tell them that, yes, there are a lot of black men around (“sketchy people”, in their words), and, no, they do not bother me. They are convinced there is mortal danger around every corner, just like Richard Cohen is.
Another DC resident:
Just this morning I reflected on the Metro that I hardly notice race anymore. I am trying not to sound like Stephen Colbert as I type that, but what I mean is that I am far less race-conscious than I used to be.
A reader sends a fascinating examination of how the new law has affected Florida. It’s from last month in the Tampa Bay Times but reads even more powerfully today. Money quote:
The number of [SYG] cases is increasing, largely because defense attorneys are using “stand your ground” in ways state legislators never envisioned. The defense has been invoked in dozens of cases with minor or no injuries. It has also been used by a self-described “vampire” in Pinellas County, a Miami man arrested with a single marijuana cigarette, a Fort Myers homeowner who shot a bear and a West Palm Beach jogger who beat a Jack Russell terrier.
People often go free under “stand your ground” in cases that seem to make a mockery of what lawmakers intended. One man killed two unarmed people and walked out of jail. Another shot a man as he lay on the ground. Others went free after shooting their victims in the back.In nearly a third of the cases the Times analyzed, defendants initiated the fight, shot an unarmed person or pursued their victim — and still went free.
No wonder Zimmerman felt able to stalk Martin. What did he have to lose when he could simply kill the dude anyway and get away with it? Worse, the law is subject to huge discrepancies depending on the case, the jury, the prosecutors, etc. It’s enforced with wild inconsistency, as illustrated in the above video.
[W]e should take a moment to appreciate the import of Cohen’s words. They hold that neither I, nor my twelve year old son, nor any of my nephews, nor any of my male family members deserve to be judged as individuals by the state. Instead we must be seen as members of a class more inclined to criminality. It does not matter that the vast, vast majority of black men commit no violent crime at all. Cohen argues that that majority should unduly bear the burden of police invasion, because of a minority who happens to live among us.
I’m surprised that you repeatedly posted that chart about the Stand Your Ground results compared to white-on-white incidents without attribution. It’s a great chart, and the difference so stark, that it begs for attribution.
We subsequently updated the posts with a link to the study - by John Roman of the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center, via PBS’s Frontline, which followed up with Roman to create the chart. Another reader picked up on Roman’s study:
I was amazed by the graph you’ve posted several times this week regarding percentages of justifiable homicides between the races. It was troubling enough that I decided to track down the source of the study. In doing so, I found out an even more amazing statistic. The study looked at all 73,000 homicides between 2005-2009. It then separated all of the homicides where one stranger killed another stranger, similar to what occurred in the Trayvon case. Finally, the study separated those instances by race. Of the 73,000 homicides in that time period, only 23 were one white person killing one black person. 23! From the media coverage this weekend, I thought the number was probably in the thousands. The small sample size makes the significant portion of the graphic you posted basically worthless.
I don’t think it makes the chart worthless. But it’s an important piece of perspective. Update from a reader:
The reader is fundamentally confused on the difference between a random sample survey and a census or direct reporting of observed data. For a survey, you need to reach a certain number of responses/cases randomly selected from the total universe of potential respondents or cases to achieve statistical validity. But if you’re reporting the actual, total data for a universe of observed people or phenomena, there’s no “sample size” involved – you’re reporting the facts.
Each man likely was scared of the other. Each man likely thought he was fighting for his life. Martin, because a stranger was following him with a gun. Zimmerman, because he did not know if Martin was armed. Their mutual panic spiraled first into a fight, and then into a life-and-death struggle fueled only by fear of the other’s intentions.
I’m a gun owner, but this is what scares me most about guns. If two men are fighting, and one notices the other has a gun, won’t the one without the gun naturally fear for his life? Won’t this fear lead him to escalate the situation by trying to grab the gun, or disable the other by slamming his head into the concrete? Won’t the man with the gun, seeing the escalation, choose to use his gun rather than risk serious injury, or the other man taking the gun away and using it against him? Won’t both men be acting in self-defense?
Imagine that Martin is also armed, legally possessing a handgun, on the night of his killing. Is there a point in his confrontation with Zimmerman where he is legally justified to shoot Zimmerman in self-defense? It seems to me that Stand Your Ground laws give an incentive to use lethal force in confrontations with even potential for physical violence … and also to shoot first.
I’d like to raise one more point in this conversation which keeps being overlooked both in this specific case and the gun discussion in general: Why does any conversation about self-defense focus on lethal gun use? Zimmerman could have used mace or pepper spray. He could’ve used a Taser. He could’ve used rubber bullets or a bean bag rifle. He could’ve shot Martin in the thigh or right shoulder. And on and on. But his chosen method of self defense was to shoot Martin in the area of the heart using bullets intended to inflict massive internal injuries.
Like you, I’m a small “c” conservative. To me, those are the “conservative” approaches to self-defense. Shoot to kill first and ask questions later is the opposite. We apparently had a black woman in Jacksonville use a more conservative approach to self-defense by firing warning shots, and she is sentenced to prison for 20 years. What is the message being sent here?
I think it’s a bit dishonest to proclaim that Zimmerman confronted Trayvon without attempting to address the four-minute delay between the time Zimmerman told the dispatcher he lost sight of Trayvon and the start of the fight between the two. Keep in mind, Trayvon was about two blocks from his house when Zimmerman lost sight of him, yet, almost four minutes later, a fight occurred closer to Zimmerman’s truck than to Trayvon’s house. This was one of the defense teams main arguments in trial, yet conveniently enough, it goes unmentioned by virtually every serious journalists and commentator. And while this four-minute gap isn’t dispositive one way or another, it is pretty deceitful to leave it out of all analysis.
Glad to include it. Another:
Something I haven’t seen brought up in the Trayvon Martin case: In 2005 Zimmerman is arrested for “resisting officer with violence” and “battery of law enforcement officer.” But he wrote in his application to the Seminole County Sheriff’s Office Citizens Law Enforcement Academy that “the officer assaulted me first”.
He first got his column in 1976. At the WaPo, lifetime tenure trumps even unvarnished racism and even less varnished mediocrity. Can you imagine him being able to make it in the blogosphere on his own merits? Me neither.
Richard Cohen is cutting edge for 1988. In fact, a huge amount of the op-ed crap published by Fred Hiatt appears to be frozen from the time liberals decided it was time to move to the center-right. I think they were as right to do so in the late 1980s as they are wrong to cling to that position as if it is embalmed in aspic today.
So Cohen describes what he calls a “uniform” that young black men wear that legitimately causes fear among whites (and presumably blacks too). For twenty years, as I wrote earlier, I lived on a crime-charged corner in DC, where the 17th and Euclid gang still operates (and I hope to return). For the first ten years, it was sometimes hard to get people to visit me (not that I did much entertaining). And they weren’t crazy. It was a crime-ridden hood. I lived through several murders on my block, a dead body found in my alley way, and a bullet that came through my upstairs neighbor’s window.
But I honestly never felt any real fear simply being around young black men in the hood. And I still don’t. Yes, if I saw drug deals from my window, I took pictures in case the police needed help. Yes, I could see that most of the miscreants were black men – but that could have been said of my neighbors who played basketball, or hung out on the local stoops. I lived by minding my own business, something Zimmerman could have done as well.
I think it may be the fact that I wasn’t born or raised in America; or obliviousness; or a simple, growing awareness of how many young black men are in no way related to that kind of violence – because I lived among them; or aware that I was a familiar face and so in no way a threat. But I never felt fear. Hoodies were not a “uniform”, either, unless there’s been a fashion craze since I left for New York. What Richard Cohen is describing in his attempt at political incorrectness is a vision in his own head that equates all young black men he may come across with the potential to kill. I can’t think of a word to describe lumping everyone of a certain race, gender and clothing into a category of potential murderers other than, yes, racist. Can you?
There’s no question that young urban black men commit a disproportionate number of crimes, compared, say, with young white men.
Jelani Cobb responds to dashed expectations that riots would follow the Zimmerman verdict:
The prediction of violence was not simply wrong. It was wrong for all the wrong reasons, in an echo of the way responsibility in the case was shifted onto Martin’s shoulders. There’s a sly inversion at work in the references to lynch mobs and riots, one that takes Zimmerman’s acquittal and expands it to all of American history. This country has a long history of lynchings, but not one in which non-black defendants needed to fear the fury of black mobs. Amplifying the irony is the fact that the verdict was announced on July 13, 2013—the hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary of the Civil War draft riots in New York City, in which white mobs pursued and killed blacks on the streets and burned a black orphanage to the ground.
Did police scramble in the wake of the verdict to prevent anything from going sour in the cities? Yes. It just seems noteworthy that very little went sour. “Urban blacks may riot when X goes wrong for them” is a perennial story, one that got written in the run-ups to elections in 2008 (“Police fear riots if Barack Obama loses US election”) and 2012 (“New threats to riot if Obama loses the election”). An act of civil disobedience that blocks traffic—on a Sunday, not even rush hour!—isn’t an act of fury that tears a country apart. Honestly, don’t the panic-mongers remember what it felt like when peaceful Tea Partiers were accused of incipient anti-government violence?
Isaac Chotiner feels that Cobb “should recognize the lack of violence for what it is: a real sign of progress”:
Zimmerman and Martin with the races changed, from the Tumblr “While Seated” by Michael David Murphy.
The effect of race on acquittals in self-defense cases and with Stand Your Ground laws can be seen here. Update from a reader:
That FOTD just blew my mind. So powerful. Just sitting with it and being mindful of my own feelings and emotions, it’s amazing how deep-seated and unconscious some cultural and societal prejudices can be. Images like that bring them into consciousness though, which is the first step toward eradicating them. I’m emotionally shaken in a way I haven’t since this whole Zimmerman trial began, just imagining how different that hypothetical case would have played out. Could you imagine O’Reilly/Rush/Hannity’s rage in the unlikely event that an acquittal took place? Or their smug satisfaction when (far more likely) the black Zimmerman got the death penalty, and “justice” was done?
An interesting epistemological observation, to be sure, but jury-worthy?
Robert Weisberg teaches criminal law at Stanford Law School, and he immediately wonders what it meant when juror B37 asserted that “You never get all the information. How do you form an opinion if you don’t have all the information?” Weisberg sums up his lawyerly concerns in one sentence: “She thinks the world is one big reasonable doubt.”
Gail Brashers-Krug, a former federal prosecutor and law professor, is currently a criminal defense attorney in Iowa. She also jumped back when B37 said, ”You never get all the information.“ “That’s exactly what a defense attorney loves to hear,” says Brashers-Krug. “That’s reasonable doubt, right there. If I were a prosecutor, that would make me extremely nervous about her.” She adds that B37’s devotion to animals might raise flags for her as well. “The animal thing is weird. She doesn’t know how many animals she has, and she mentions her animals far, far more than her two daughters. She strikes me as eccentric and unpredictable. I never, ever want eccentric, unpredictable people on a jury.”
Apart from her use of newspapers, she seems like a total nutter to me. Alyssa reacts to the fact that B37 was, before thinking better of it, shopping around a book proposal:
I remain of the view that the best response to this case is to repeal these laws that empower vigilantes and all but encourage the murder of young black men – if you can find one alone, with few witnesses, and a semblance of a suspicion.
Why are you assuming that all “victims” of Stand Your Ground will be young black men? The above is a disgustingly inflammatory statement with no basis in fact. How about some balance in your argument here? All races of men and women have the right to defend themselves under Florida law. You assume whites will seek out and kill blacks because this law exists. This is sick. I, as a white man and a legal gun owner, find that so offensive.
I referred to vigilantes and “some whites” – not all white gun-owners. And my view that black men are disproportionately victimized by Stand Your Ground laws is not a guess. It’s statistically proven. Another defends me somewhat:
People keep saying that Stand Your Ground played no role in the trial, because the defense did not explicitly invoke it during the deliberations. But the judge DID explicitly use the Stand Your Ground language in her instructions to the jury. This is why people are saying the jury had no choice but to acquit Zimmerman. The attorneys for the defense presumably knew that this language would be in the jury instructions, so they could afford to ignore bringing it up themselves and focus generally on “self-defense.”
And yes, the juror interviewed by Anderson proved that this was a key factor in her judgment. Another reader:
I do not want to pile on, but I wanted to ensure that this post – “And he was told by the cops to stop his stalking. He decided to ignore them.” – was corrected. The transcript of the 911 call does not reflect your assertion:
Saletan says that he “was going to write that Zimmerman pursued Martin against police instructions and illustrated the perils of racial profiling.” But, after watching all seven hours of closing arguments in the Zimmerman trial, he thinks better of it:
In Texas you can get away with shooting someone to death if they’re running away with your property. That’s insane, and it’s easy to see how a law like that rigs the system in favour of people with a lot of property—a class that remains disproportionately white and male. However, on the whole, our criminal-justice system is so frightfully racist because it’s too easy for prosecutors, not because it’s too hard. Of course, in a racist society, rules that help defendants are going to help the most privileged defendants the most, and that’s maddening. But that shouldn’t stop us from recognising that the least privileged, the most oppressed, the most discriminated against, are far and away most likely to stand accused. That’s why I suspect that a legal system making it harder for the likes of Mr Zimmerman to get away with it would be a system of even more outrageous racial inequity.
Legally, it was irrelevant to the case, which hinged on basic self-defense. But listen to one of the jurors explain to Anderson Cooper how she came to her verdict:
COOPER: Because of the two options you had, second degree murder or manslaughter, you felt neither applied?
JUROR: Right. Because of the heat of the moment and the Stand Your Ground. He had a right to defend himself. If he felt threatened that his life was going to be taken away from him or he was going to have bodily harm, he had a right.
COOPER: It didn’t come up, the question of, did George Zimmerman profile Trayvon Martin because he was African-American?
JUROR: No, I think he just profiled him because he was the neighborhood watch, and he profiled anyone who came in acting strange. I think it was just circumstances happened that he saw Trayvon at the exact time that he thought he was suspicious.
The key to her was that Trayvon was allegedly just meandering around in the dark in the rain – but she concedes that that entire description was entirely from Zimmerman. It’s a glimpse into how the jurors balanced a black man’s corpse against a neighborhood watch’s testimony. And how racial profiling to some can seem like nothing of the sort to others.
People sit during services honoring Trayvon Martin at Middle Collegiate Church in Manhattan on July 14, 2013 in New York City. George Zimmerman was acquitted of all charges in the shooting death of Martin July 13 and some congregants wore hoodies during the service to honor Martin. By Mario Tama/Getty Images.
I’m completely with your perception of the Zimmerman trial as a real tragedy. But you made a mistake in your original post that I think requires a correction, or at least a clarification. In your original post you wrote:
I can see two things clearly: when there are no witnesses but the two individuals involved in a fight, and the victim is dead, and you live in a state that provides “stand your ground” immunity for self-defense, then proving a murder beyond a reasonable doubt is hard.
But there was one witness to the actual fight: Jonathan Good.
Responding to George Zimmerman being found not guilty, Joyner writes that “the prosecution handled a weak case poorly and that an acquittal should surprise no one”:
Now, of course, juries sometimes get it wrong. Many innocent men have been found guilty and many people who plainly did what they were accused of doing are acquitted. In this particular case, there’s no doubt, reasonable or otherwise, that George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin, a teenage boy who did not deserve to have his life ended. But that wasn’t what the jurors were being asked to decide. Rather, they were charged with deciding whether Zimmerman committed second degree murder as defined by Florida statute. And, as contemptible as George Zimmerman is and as outrageous as Trayvon Martin’s death is, it strikes me as pretty obvious that he did not, regardless of what one believes about what happened after the events we hear on tape end.
I think the jury basically got it right. The only real eyewitness to the death of Trayvon Martin was the man who killed him. At no point did I think that the state proved second degree murder. I also never thought they proved beyond a reasonable doubt that he acted recklessly. They had no ability to counter his basic narrative, because there were no other eye-witnesses.
But, in a later post, TNC puts the case in context:
The injustice inherent in the killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman was not authored by jury given a weak case. The jury’s performance may be the least disturbing aspect of this entire affair. The injustice was authored by a country which has taken as its policy, for lionshare of its history, to erect a pariah class. The killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman is not an error in programming. It is the correct result of forces we set in motion years ago and have done very little to arrest.
A glimpse at those forces:
Cord Jefferson likewise connects the shooting of Trayvon Martin to society’s racial prejudice:
It is a complicated thing to be young, black, and male in America. Not only are you well aware that many people are afraid of you—you can see them clutching their purses or stiffening in their subway seats when you sit across from them—you must also remain conscious of the fact that people expect you to be apologetic for their fear. It’s your job to be remorseful about the fact that your very nature makes them uncomfortable, like a pilot having to apologize to a fearful flyer for being in the sky.
Meanwhile, Jazz Shaw dismisses any idea that the trial was about race:
In the post-Zimmerman era, anyone who winds up in a conflict situation where there is a racial difference between the parties can now stand up and say that the villain was profiling the other party. It provides the convenient mental imagery to lump them in with rogue cops and the rest of the story. Don’t look for this to end any time soon. Profiling is the new substitute for discrimination, even if the perpetrator has nothing to do with law enforcement, and I’m betting it’s going to have a long run.
But I fail to see how profiling wasn’t obviously salient in this incident. Zimmerman convicted Martin of being a punk and a would-be burglar because he was black and wearing a hoodie in a complex where burglaries had recently taken place committed by young black men. Implicating an innocent person in that criminal group because he was a stranger, and looked like the criminals, is classic profiling. Charles P. Pierce groans:
[O]f course, this was not about race because nothing is ever about race.