I was a senior in high school when the O.J. Simpson verdict came down. I was in a classroom in Indiana, everybody was watching on television. After the verdict was announced, the first thing I heard was my white teacher saying “bulls**t.” The next thing I heard was a bunch of black people screaming (I went to a pretty diverse high school). Then, basically, all the black people started streaming out of class. Nobody went back to school that day. I found my cousin. We high-fived. At that moment, I really believed that a racist cop had planted blood evidence to frame O.J.
Of course, that’s not what I think happened now. I think O.J. murdered those two people in a jealous rage, got caught and thought about killing himself, didn’t, then hired the best lawyers in the country, and beat the rap.
Still, I’m happy he got off. I know that is a controversial thing to say. It’s not really normal to be “happy” when a guilty person evades justice, unless you’re watching a mob movie. But I think Mark Fuhrman was a racist cop, and I think the O.J. case went a long way towards showing state prosecutors that basing your cases on racist cops is a bad thing. The state knows that putting blatantly racist people on the stand isn’t the best way to get a conviction. I’m willing to suffer the injustice of a guilty man going free to make the larger point that racist cops are not credible witnesses.
And so as I sit here, watching the news and reading Twitter accounts of people who are just “happy” that George Zimmerman was acquitted of any wrongdoing in the death of Trayvon Martin, I’m forced to wonder what “larger point” is being serviced today by the release of a man who shot an unarmed teenager to death?
Zimmerman committed a homicide. He admitted he shot Trayvon Martin. If we are going to let people legally shoot unarmed teenagers to death and not go to jail, we should have a damn good reason. Here, the jury apparently found that Zimmerman reasonably believed that his life was in danger, which justified his use of deadly force.
If you believe that’s what happened, that Zimmerman was simply defending himself, fine. I disagree with you, but you’re beyond my powers of persuasion. If you just think that the prosecution failed to prove that Zimmerman didn’t act in reasonable self defense, then that’s what you believe. If you think Zimmerman’s acquittal is proof that “the system worked,” then you need to go back and give O.J. an apology.
But what is there to be “happy” about? Even if you think Zimmerman acted reasonably, you’re still left with a dead child who didn’t have to die. At the very least, if Zimmerman had stayed in his car instead of getting out and calling 911 about Martin (for whatever reason), Martin would be alive right now. Even if you think Martin started the fight (and I don’t see how you think that), Zimmerman started the event. Whether or not you attach legal culpability to that, it’s still a tragedy.
No, I think the people who are “happy,” the people who are celebrating, the people who are acting like they won something here, I think they are acting out of more sinister emotions than dispassionate legal analysis of the facts presented. I can think of three groups of people who are really thrilled by the verdict in this case. And I find them all troubling:
2. Gun Nuts
The first two groups are easy to understand and dismiss. Racists are happy because: “blacks, hoodies, shoot first ask them why they’re in your neighborhood later.” Whatever, between this, John Roberts’s decision in the voting rights case, and the fact that Rand Paul gets to hire people, racists have been on a real good run lately.
It’s also easy to see why gun nuts are happy. Finally, somebody used a gun to shoot only one unarmed child. After all of this overwhelming evidence that guns are predominately used by suicide victims, terrorists, and crazy people, the average armed vigilantes who are the backbone of the NRA must be thrilled to see one of their own actually squeeze off a round.
There will always be vocal minorities in the first two groups of people who keep us from having nice things.
But the third group I find more troubling because they are making it possible for injustices to happen all across our legal system. When I say “cowards,” I’m talking about the growing number of American citizens who seem to be afraid of everything, at all times, and are willing to give up nearly any amount of freedom to achieve just a little bit of perceived security. There are cowards dancing around who are so afraid of being menaced that they want to be told you can shoot to kill if anybody messes with you.
Increasingly you see people who are afraid all the time retreating behind “gated communities,” trying to wall themselves off from everybody else who is “not them.” They’re the ones who would even notice a black kid walking down the public street in the zone of control of a gated community and think, “Hmm… what is he doing here?” They don’t trust the system. “The system” has gotten too big and too confusing for them. They’re afraid of the system and just go along with it because they don’t want to get in trouble with the system. And they are the other group of people who are cheering Zimmerman’s acquittal today. The larger point, from the cowards’ perspective, is that “the world is scary,” so you better shoot before they get you.
The people who are happy are people who feel that there are bad guys out there, lurking behind every corner, and there’s nothing they can do about. The people cheering are the people who don’t understand why everybody wasted so much time with George Zimmerman, when there are real killers out there.