Not Guilty: And That’s The Problem!

mhagandefaultMichael Hagan ’15

Despite being outraged by the fact that George Zimmerman was not held accountable by a court of law for the 2/26/12 death of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, I do not call the verdict into question. It disturbs me that a teenager was profiled, stalked, and murdered by an armed and self-deputized civilian watchman. It further disturbs me that Florida law forbids none of the choices George Zimmerman made before ultimately killing Martin. It would be outrageous and appalling if a Florida jury had acted on racial prejudice and danced its way around the law in order to acquit Zimmerman. But that sin would belong to the jury and the jury alone. Instead, the sin belongs to the entire body politic. It belongs to the people of Florida and of the United States generally. It belongs to you and me. Our laws permitted Zimmerman’s every choice the night Trayvon Martin died, up to and including the decision to pull the trigger.

The law permits and a prevailing gun culture encourages civilians like Zimmerman to arm themselves with lethal weapons in complete neglect of the risk and burden of responsibility involved in such a choice. No law prohibited Zimmerman from defying the instructions of the police dispatcher by pursuing Trayvon Martin on foot. Why should there be no legal culpability for those who precipitate tragedy, even unintentionally, by taking law enforcement into their own hands? Finally, Florida law codifies the very prejudice that led Zimmerman to profile and stalk Martin as reasonable grounds by which to justify homicide. Zimmerman feared for his life when he fell into a physical altercation with the teenager he was stalking. Of course he did! He assumed that Trayvon Martin, guilty of no more than walking while black, was a serious threat to the neighborhood based on the onceover conducted from behind a windshield. In the eyes of laws like stand your ground, that is sufficient grounds by which to use lethal force in a confrontation. These are all laws (or lack thereof) written of, by, and for the people. Why do the people adopt laws that endanger the lives and liberty of the marginalized, prejudged, and all who are not members of a privileged majority? The body politic must take responsibility for the systematic injustices it has built into law.

Systematic injustice has never been an easy epidemic to eradicate, but the American people have toppled far greater walls than Florida statute. We’ve abolished injustices written into constitutional law designed to be near impossible to amend. We’ve enforced national standards in civil rights against the bitter opposition of officials and voters in many jurisdictions. If this were 1963, busloads of young people would be flocking to Florida and states with similar self-defense laws to mobilize campaigns for repeal. In 2013, the tendency is to merely express outrage online with little real thought or personal investment. But whether we like it or not, we are invested; we are accountable for the consequences of our laws. The ball was never really in the jury’s court when it came to justice for Trayvon Martin. It was and remains in ours.

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