I spent some time on the Internet discussing the very tragic and emotional event involving the death of 17-year old Trayvon Martin. Amidst the usual noise of heavy worded banter about the innocence and guilt of Trayvon’s shooter, George Zimmerman, there was this very apparent message among Zimmerman supporters which baffled me. The message was:

“Race wasn’t a factor, therefore he’s not guilty of murder.”

This, if anything, becomes almost as equally disturbing as profiling a young black kid and then shooting him because he’s walking around at night in a gated neighborhood.

To suggest that no evidence of racism means that killing a human being is okay, is ludicrous. This fact is supported by the understanding that no murder ever committed was punishable because of the killer’s beliefs—killers are punished because of their actions.

George Zimmerman shot and killed an unarmed teenager.

Nowhere in that sentence does justice rely on the race of the victim, Trayvon Martin, nor the belief system of George Zimmerman. The guilt lies in the actions of the killer.

Race Cards

Was George Zimmerman a racist? Probably. Yes, I said it. I believe George Zimmerman held reservations about race—as most research suggests we all do. Is it terrible that such racial biases can be powerful enough to guide actions to killing those that we “just don’t like”? Absolutely. It’s outright sickening and beyond tragic.

But racial issues in America are difficult to navigate, as the diversity of our population make the issues deeply personal and emotional. This cannot be ignored. That racism still exists and that there are those who would still be punished for the color of their skin continues to be one of the most difficult and shamefully horrible barriers to progress. But in the case of Trayvon’s death, there’s some danger in getting too caught up in the emotional nature of the racial implications of the event. In fact, viewing the case with only the full-light of racial motivation—even in defense of Trayvon—only serves Zimmerman supporters, who justify his actions simply because “his actions were not found to be racially motivated.”

In order to expose Zimmerman’s actions as a true violation of law, the conviction cannot rest solely on his racial bias, because, as we’ve seen, that may have been what set him free.

So what do we do with the race card?

Leave it alone.

It’s very difficult to prove that someone’s actions were purely motivated by race. When I wake up in the morning to have breakfast, the simple choice of eating cereal is an amalgamation of several factors calculated to that end. It may be the case that I absolutely LOVE cereal (I actually do), but loving cereal is not the only reason I choose to eat it on any given morning. I love bacon and eggs, but I’m too lazy to make them and I hate the thought of my family health history catching up with me and forcing blood thinners down my throat at the tender age of 28. I’d like to stay heart healthy as long as I can stand it.

So, in the end, does the fact that Zimmerman might be a racist even matter? Well, let me put it this way: Does it matter more than the fact that a 17-year old kid is dead?

In addition to being a racist, Zimmerman was probably not hugged enough as a kid, or maybe he got picked on throughout high-school and that’s why he became an action junkie. Carrying a gun in your car suggests that one anticipates the possiblity of conflict that would demand its discharge. This choice to have a gun in his car is indicative of the methods of “Conflict Resolution” Zimmerman favors, regardless of his racial biases.

The Price of Death

The question of how responsibility for Trayvon’s death should be attributed lies with the question of: Who’s actions began a chain of events that lead to Trayvon’s death?

Did Trayvon act in a way that led to his own death? Or Did Zimmerman’s actions lead to Trayvon’s death?

The answer to this question is: both of their actions contributed to the death of the 17-year old. But, what’s more important is the understanding that Trayvon cannot be put on trail for his portion of responsibility; He’s dead. He’s paid the ultimate price. Mouthing-off to a stranger while walking home at night might make Trayvon a bit of a jerk, but it doesn’t make him worthy of death. In the end, the only person left to stand trial for the events leading to his death is George Zimmerman.

That being said, Zimmerman’s decision to shoot and kill Trayvon might be better understood if examined in the light of manslaughter. The focus of this thought experiment relies on the observation of punishable negligence. According to Zimmerman, he was convinced that Trayvon was armed with a pistol. This was later proven to false; Trayvon was carrying skittles and a bottle of a popular brand of iced tea.

Observation of those details alone illustrate a great disconnect between what Zimmerman THOUGHT was a threat to his life, and the reality of that “threat”. That’s bad judgement, plain and simple. And, bad judgement that results in the death of a person carries a prison sentence, folks.

At the federal level, involuntary manslaughter—that is, the causing of a person’s death through reckless behavior but without the intent to kill—carries a sentence of 10-16 months in prison.

So those who would judge Zimmerman’s deadly shooting of Trayvon are faced with a two difficult scenarios.

Either

A.) Zimmerman did not mean to kill Trayvon, but acted reckless in his judgement about what threat existed to his life, which resulted in the death of the 17-year old.

Or

B.) Zimmerman willingly pursued and intended to harm or kill Trayvon, despite the absence of evidence that there was even a threat to his life.

Either scenario places Zimmerman in a position of fault for the unnecessary death of Trayvon. Which brings me to the next point.

 

The Pursuit of Responsibility

Existing evidence suggests that Zimmerman had an intent to pursue, and indeed, did pursue Trayvon willingly, despite pleas by 911 dispatchers to stand down, saying “we don’t need you to follow him”. The audio recording reveals an out-of-breath Zimmerman commenting to himself, “F*cking punks…these a*sholes…they always get away”. This is hardly the language of an individual frightened for his life. In pursuing someone, you take on a certain responsibility, as the action of pursuit accepts the increased possibility of conflict and the role that one plays in the development of subsequent events which take place as part of the result.

While Zimmerman claims that he, indeed, did stand down and retreated to his car, other questions remain about both his and Trayvon’s actions that night.

By Zimmerman’s account, after standing down as the 911 dispatcher told him to, he went to return to his vehicle only to be prevented from leaving the scene by Trayvon. Zimmerman claims that Trayvon attacked him, despite the fact that he did not engage physically nor verbally with the teenager. In other words, Zimmerman claims that he did not say or do anything to provoke Trayvon’s choice to pursue him to his car.

A friend of mine presented an analysis of the situation quite well when he said:


“It just doesn’t seem like the normal behavior of a person to attack someone randomly unless they feel physically threatened or verbal emasculated”

In other words, if Zimmerman in fact did not engage Trayvon, it’s more likely that the young man would have simply kept walking. That a lone 17-year old kid would pursue and attack an unknown, larger man at night, without any obvious provocation, seems absolutely ludicrous.

Zimmerman’s alleged actions cast some doubt about the true nature of his choice to discharge his weapon. Again, framing Zimmerman’s account of his own actions in the context of my friends analysis: Was Zimmerman’s actions indicative of a person trying to avoid conflict, or create it?

Again, retrieving one’s gun without the “attacker” being right on his back, indicates someone who is anticipating conflict in a situation where none currently exists. If truly scared for his life, why wouldn’t he just drive away? Getting away when you can, without engaging in conflict that might result in injury seems more like normal behavior.

If it can be shown that Zimmerman went “looking for trouble”, then Trayvon’s death was not in defense of his life, but rather, the result of his offensive actions. In that case, George Zimmerman should be doing prison time, period. I, for one, believe that the evidence clearly shows this.

 

THE BOTTOM LINE

Although this article discourages a fixation on racial motivation in the shooting of Trayvon, race is clearly a factor that cannot be ignored given the circumstances of the event. That being said, I would encourage readers to reflect on something one of my favorite comedians, Bill Burr, said on his Monday Morning Podcast a couple of weeks ago. Paraphrased, his message presented the following challenge:
Imagine if the tables were turned. Imagine if an adult, black male had shot and killed a 17-year old white kid and then claimed self-defense. Would he get the same verdict? Would the justice system and the conservative right believe that he had the right to shoot and kill an unarmed 17-year old kid.
I think, if truly honest with ourselves, we all know in our hearts that in such a scenario, a white Trayvon Martin would have been hailed to be an innocent martyr, and a black George Zimmerman would have spent the rest of his life behind bars.

 


Also published on Medium.