Like many, I was caught flatfooted by the verdict of "not guilty" in the George Zimmerman case Saturday night. The determination leaves me feeling betrayed and confused by the American justice system. I have spent the ensuing hours trying to understand what it means.
Unlike many of the people on the Internet who over the course of this trial have become legal critics and scholars I don't pretend to understand the ins and outs of the charges against Zimmerman, the strength or weakness of the case brought against him, or whether Trayvon Martin or Zimmerman initiated a fight, or whose voice was recorded calling for help, or the intricacies or need for Florida's "stand your ground" law. I'm not convinced that, as some have said, "the verdict was legally correct and was the only verdict the jury could have reached," but I could be wrong about that. But I am convinced of this, that a law that considers a man who does not deny he shot an unarmed boy and who does not deny he did nearly everything he could to provoke a confrontation "not guilty" in that boy's death, is a bad law.
George Zimmerman is a private citizen--not a cop, not even a security guard--who armed himself and who, when he saw a young black boy walking the streets, assumed the boy did not belong there and was planning a crime. He was wrong about that, but he was within his rights to call the local police to report Trayvon Martin's presence. That should have been the end of it. But for his own reasons, and I would not want to guess at them because like George Zimmerman I could guess wrong, Zimmerman took his gun with him and got out of his car to follow the young man. There are conflicting accounts from Zimmerman, Rachel Jeantel and Jonathon Good of what happened next, but for the result we have the mute incontrovertible testimony of Martin's body and Zimmerman's confession: George Zimmerman shot an unarmed 17 year walking home.
There may be something in human nature that causes us, when faced with tragic circumstances, to seek someone to blame. This may be why some have blamed Trayvon Martin and even President Obama. George Zimmerman himself said it was God's plan. But it does not strain credulity to place the blame squarely and fixedly on the man who could have avoided the situation. George Zimmerman did not have to leave his vehicle. The police had been alerted to the situation and no matter what someone thinks of their response time, a private citizen does not have the right to place himself or a potentially innocent person in a dangerous situation. Sanford, Florida, is not Tombstone in the 1870s and George Zimmerman was not in a Batman movie. At the very least Zimmerman is guilty for having exacerbated an already questionable situation into a lethal one. There should be consequences for that.
There are, of course. Two lives ended that fateful evening. No matter what his defenders say, Zimmerman is no longer a free man. He will have to live with the stigma of what he's done for the rest of his life, and because of the emotions his acquittal raises, he may have been safer in prison. Ironically, he will live the rest of his life under a cloud of suspicion similar to the one he placed Trayvon Martin under that evening. Except that, unlike his victim, he is guilty. Nonetheless, we should mourn the loss of his life too.
There may be something societal to blame too. Our young black men are dying and not all their killers are George Zimmermans. Some are other young black men; some are the young black men themselves. We need to determine why a young black man in 2013, if it's not true that he's more likely to end up in prison than in college, nonetheless is populating prison at nearly three times the rate that he populates the US. I don't accept the notion that it is because he is likelier to do criminal acts and neither should you. We deserve a better explanation.
In the midst of this I attended a vigil held at a synagogue in the hub for people who, like me, felt adrift and angry and betrayed, and who wanted to come together to sing our grief. Shortly before leaving I sat on the deck surrounded by my dogs and listening to my wife placidly tapping on her laptop in the three-season porch. As I started out by saying, I recognize how much more fortunate I am than many people.
I was reading Walking towards Walden: A Pilgrimage in Search of Place by John Hanson Mitchell.
Mitchell writes about a sixteen mile hike he and two friends made in the 1990s from a burial site in Westford, Massachussets, to downtown Concord. The book is full of digressions about history, geography, literature, biology and botony, previous hikes the three have done, and this meditation on the friends' Ideal Place to Live.
We would setttle outside a village ina small stone house with a flag terrace and half-wild gardens. From the terrace you have a view of the distant hills. The land to the west is unpeopled and wild and rises into sharp, unscaled peaks. To the east, within view of the terrace, is the village, the essence of the place. There is no traffic in this area, in fact we would be happy if there were no cars. You walk to town. In Thoreau's words, you saunter there, poking along as you go, looking at things, listening to birds. The town is small but intelligent. People read books there, and they sit in the cafes and talk about things, and furthermore, they are there all day and late into the night so what whenever you want some company, you have but to saunter along the thicket-lined track into town and find them. And whenever you want the abiding peace of nature, you can walk back to your cottage. If you want wilderness, you walk west to the mountains. Sometimes friends from the village wander out to your house for dinner and you discuss things late into the night, and sometimes they fall asleep on the couches. You find them sprawled there in the morning.Mitchell insists "Such places exist." Many of us have been there but for reasons we can't quite explain we end up leaving. He describes his own experience of such a place on the island of Corsica.
It was a good place. You could lose yourself there, you could forget that you ever had a past or a future and simply fall into that idyllic, dreamy state the locals called la dolce fa'niente, and within a few weeks I became a sort of adjunct to the place and stayed on longer than I had intended. I washed dishes and cleaned fish, peeled vegetables, helped with the table when the restaurant was crowded...Other than that I was free. I read books, I went for walks, and at night I eavesdropped on the local gossip. Mostly I stared into space and waited for something to happen. For hours, for days, weeks, finally for months, I simply gazed out across the harbor to the green slopes of the hills and the high, jagged peaks beyond. I rarely left the little island. The Hopi would say I had found my tuwanasaapi.My reflection was that, like Mitchell says, I had found that first place and, like everyone else, I left it. I can't explain why. But like he writes, I have also found, in some ways, my tuwanasaapi, my centering place. If someone asks why I attend vigils like last evening's, why I mourn the lives of both Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman, why I believe, with Martin Luther King, Jr, that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, I will answer: Not everyone has an opportunity to locate his or her centering place. Some, like Martin, aren't given the chance to find it and some, like Zimmerman, actively deny it to others. I want everyone to experience what I have. There is more than enough to go around.