On Zimmerman and Stand Your Ground [Updated]
If your Facebook wall looks anything like mine, yesterday was a big day for The Nation’s Aura Bogado, whose response to the George Zimmerman trial — headlined “White Supremacy Acquits George Zimmerman” — went positively viral. Bogado’s piece deserves to be read in full, but here’s the gist:
When Zimmerman was acquitted today, it wasn’t because he’s a so-called white Hispanic. He’s not. It’s because he abides by the logic of white supremacy, and was supported by a defense team—and a swath of society—that supports the lingering idea that some black men must occasionally be killed with impunity in order to keep society-at-large safe.
Powerful stuff. In fact, Bogado’s piece was so successful as a piece of polemic, my regular nagging worry that things were more complicated or more prosaic than they seemed started acting up in full force. I began to wonder if the Zimmerman case wasn’t best understood as one of bad law — chiefly, the so-called Stand Your Ground law operational in Florida and elsewhere throughout the country.
My hope was that the problem made evidently plain through the Trayvon Martin tragedy would be something manageable, like changing the law, rather than something titanic and amorphous, like changing the way “society” views young men of color. Repealing Stand Your Ground laws obviously wouldn’t make right what went wrong in Sanford, but it would be a tangible, ameliorative step.
Sadly, here comes Scott Lemieux in The American Prospect, disabusing me of any such hopes. Because, assuming Lemieux is correct, it turns out the much-talked-about Stand Your Ground had nothing to do with the case:
Although some media reports continue to assert that Florida’s infamous “stand your ground” law was “central to Zimmerman’s defense” during the trial, the defendant’s team didn’t even invoke it; Zimmerman’s defense involved just standard self-defense. Under Florida law, the fact that Zimmerman initiated the conflict with Martin did not foreclose a self-defense claim if Zimmeran “reasonably believe[d] that he…[wa]s in imminent danger of death or great bodily harm and that he…has exhausted every reasonable means to escape such danger other than the use of force which is likely to cause death or great bodily harm to the assailant.”
Rather than focus exclusively on Stand Your Ground, Lemieux proposes a more sweeping overhaul of self-defense laws, one that reflects the reality of an America where many, many people have conceal-carry licenses and more than a passing awareness of how to use firearms.
That doesn’t strike me as a bad idea, certainly. But if Stand Your Ground wasn’t the decisive factor in the trial, then the stubborn, lingering demon of racial sentiment moves again to the forefront. The fact that, in the eyes of many, Trayvon Martin, by his very being, was reasonably suspicious enough that Zimmerman had a right to initiate the whole affair — that becomes the central issue.
And that’s the kind of problem so big, so sweeping, and so hard to concretely define that the thought of tackling it can inspire apathy if not outright woe.
Update: Looks like SYG’s relationship with the case might be more complicated than Lemieux believes.