Monday, July 22, 2013

Did the Zimmerman-Martin Case Just Leave Us with Two More Scapegoats - and an Unchanged System - Rather Than Useful Answers?

14 & 22 July 2013

I have done a quick scan of Google, looking for an intelligent analysis of the Zimmerman-Martin case, the obsessive media coverage of which I acknowledge I have not followed particularly closely. Thus, I wanted to get myself better informed. Unfortunately, a media review has not helped on that count!

So far, all I have found is arguments for one side or the other. In my view, that is simply not journalism, it is advocacy. Thus, I shall here attempt to raise the questions to which I have wanted answers….

In brief, there remains much that is not known, and it certainly raises reasonable doubt in my mind as to whether Mr. Zimmerman committed murder or manslaughter. Issue number one, why did Mr. Zimmerman pursue Mr. Martin when the 911 operator told him not to? Perhaps he assumed that 911 would not get anyone there in a timely manner. Hmmm. He may certainly have been right about that one.

Should Mr. Zimmerman have pursued Mr. Martin? Well, I think it is obvious that he was unwise to do so, for many reasons, the most prominent of which is the fact that Mr. Martin was walking down the street not breaking any laws. My impression is that Mr. Zimmerman was in fear of Mr. Martin from the outset because (1) there had been break-ins in the neighbourhood, and (2) Mr. Zimmerman was already frightened and suspicious of black men.

Was Mr. Zimmerman breaking any laws by pursuing Mr. Martin? In Canada, he would have been breaking several. However, as a neighbourhood watchman in Florida, my understanding is that he was entitled to observe and approach anyone of whom he was suspicious, whether for good reason or not. As our airports are teaching us, in our fearful era, the observation of suspicious behaviour is NOT a requirement for the initiation of monitoring activity.

Was Mr. Zimmerman harassing Mr. Martin? I'd guess the answer to that big question is probably yes, and that he may also have had inappropriate courage due to carrying a gun (legal in Florida).

What options did Mr. Martin then have? Well, he had a neighbourhood watchman following him with a gun (of which he was presumably unaware; I don't know at what point, if any, the gun was visibly displayed). Mr. Martin may or may not have been alert to the fact that Mr. Zimmerman had some level of authority to monitor his behaviour, whether he was profiling him or not. Did Mr. Zimmerman appropriately inform Mr. Martin of his duties, or did he inappropriately provoke Mr. Martin? Again, I haven't followed the story in detail. Maybe this question has been answered, but in my review so far, my impression is that this is unknown. Here, I can imagine a dozen scenarios, in some of which Mr. Zimmerman is aggressive and intrusive, in some of which Mr. Martin is provocative and threatening, and in some of which, both players are getting out of line. Until I know more, my assumption is that the third option most likely applies – that is, that both gentlemen were behaving badly, which in my mind is one of the key conundrums of the case (not the only one, by any means). Was one player more out of line than the other? That is where reasonable doubts (not to mention perceptions and prejudices of many kinds) really begin to surface.

Based on the evidence I am aware of, it is apparent that these two apparently angry young males got into a physical dispute with each other. Mr. Martin seems to have been young, fit, and willing to go at it with Mr. Zimmerman, possibly to the point of making serious threats, if one is to lend credence to Mr. Zimmerman's report of events. Mr. Zimmerman, for his part, was probably behaving provocatively, though, as noted, he was in a position of some authority, whether equipped with the skills to carry out that authority or not. Mr. Zimmerman has been described as unfit and unskilled in physical combat. This all fits with Mr. Martin being "on top of" and physically "close to" Mr. Zimmerman, a point on which the prosecution seems ultimately to have agreed with the defense.

Now, here's where I'm going to draw on personal experience. In my work, I have heard (and sometimes examined) thousands of narratives of physical altercations between disputing parties. The story is ALWAYS different between the two sides. If Mr. Martin was "on top" and Mr. Zimmerman was "on the bottom," who was crying for help? Well, it could have been either one, of course, but, given the circumstances, I'm going to say that the cry was far more likely that of Mr. Zimmerman (Mr. Martin would have felt out of place in a mostly non-black neighbourhood, and thus would not have been likely to perceive help as being available to him, a probable reason for his acting aggressively, which he seems almost certainly to have done).

Would Mr. Martin have used threats – including threats of death, as Mr. Zimmerman reported – to intimidate and deter Mr. Zimmerman? Based on my experience of such encounters, I would say this again is highly likely. Going further out the same speculative limb, I'm going to guess that Mr. Zimmerman may have been more provocative at the outset (though it is perhaps possible that he was not – reasonable doubt, again).

In other words, it is transparently obvious that Mr. Zimmerman was fearful of Mr. Martin from the start. In fact, his excessive level of fear from the outset is probably the best reason why he should NOT have pursued Mr. Martin in the first place. That is, if your fear is out of control at the start, emotional intelligence suggests that further action will lead you deeper into the abyss, as quite obviously occurred in this situation.

So, was Mr. Zimmerman in fear for his bodily integrity and life at the time he discharged his gun into Mr. Martin's chest at close range? On this point, I honestly have little doubt. Mr. Zimmerman was excessively fearful at the start – in fact, so fearful that he certainly should not have acted, particularly with his courage apparently dependent on the gun in his possession. Ultimately, Mr. Martin is on top of Mr. Zimmerman, and, by inference, has the physical edge, and very likely the psychological edge. How fearful is Mr. Zimmerman at this point? Well, if Mr. Martin was truly in the superior position and now behaving in a threatening manner in an act of perceived self-defense on his part, Mr. Zimmerman almost certainly feared serious injury or death. Assuming that Mr. Zimmerman had cried for help, obviously no help had readily arrived (I don't know the time frame, but time passes slowly when you're undergoing traumatic stress – and yes, both were experiencing traumatic stress, and roughly equally, in my best guess).

So, given that this is Florida, and both parties were arguably standing their ground, Mr. Zimmerman discharged his firearm into the co-party's chest, ending his life. On this point, I have little doubt that Mr. Zimmerman was in fear for his bodily integrity and of his possibly impending death.

Mr. Martin, for his part, was dealing with a different, and arguably more complex, set of fears, which probably only a minority group member can fully grasp. In short, Mr. Martin almost certainly assumed that he was "on his own" in Mr. Zimmerman's neighbourhood, and that his best chance of deterring his pursuer was to incite fear in him (compliance with authority is risky for minority groups in an unjust society). Given that Mr. Zimmerman's problem seems to have been excessive fear, Mr. Martin's strategy was thus understandable, but ill-chosen (I'm guessing he would have lived that night, had he reassured rather than challenged his pursuer, but it would have been very hard for him to do this, for many reasons, some of which have to do with issues of race, inequality and the multiple levels of prejudice already in place against him, and he was also a not-yet-mature adolescent male).

Returning to the legal matter in question, and in brief, if Mr. Zimmerman was in fear for his physical integrity and/or life, then there is reasonable doubt that he committed homicide. Thus, on the question to the jury, “was Mr. Zimmerman guilty of homicide,” then "not guilty" is almost certainly the only reasonable answer. However, there remain a dozen or more additional questions which this trial did not either ask or answer. Unfortunately, the media coverage seems also to have skated past these questions. Thus, I guess we are on our own if we want to understand these matters better.

So, please let me close by listing just a few of the unasked questions in this case….

This tragedy arose in the context of a legal system in which an untrained neighbourhood watchman, and indeed, any citizen, is entitled to bear arms, and to use them in self-defense. Further, self-defense is the motive assumed under the law (as it should be), unless it cannot be proven that a legitimate case for self-defense existed. Given this system, how can anyone possibly believe that this (and other tragedies) are not inevitable?

Is this not therefore a systemic problem?

If this is actually a systemic problem, how can focusing on, trying in court - and blaming - an individual whose actions cannot be shown to violate any Florida law, resolve any fundamental problems? 

Should not our dialogue focus on developing a better legal code, and ultimately, wiser, safer and more competent citizens, rather than on the search for scapegoats (on which members of the public somewhat arbitrarily choose sides)?

Moving down from the systems level, here are a few practical questions:

Should fearful young men with guns be acting as neighbourhood watchmen? Also, what level of training is necessary for neighbourhood watchmen?

Does the 911 system actually work in situations where a (possible) immediate threat is identified (whether actual or perceived)?

How can we effectively reduce fear and prejudice among the thousands of differing/distinctive groups in our society?

Could improved social skills on both sides have saved lives and prevented violence this particular night? (I think so.) If the answer is "yes," what skills in particular?

What are the social/institutional causes of crime/threat and racial misunderstanding that contributed to the fearfulness of both Mr. Zimmerman and Mr. Martin?

Why is it so difficult to identify and talk objectively about the experiences, thoughts, emotions and behaviour of both parties in this event?

Did anyone, anywhere, accurately capture the stories of either Mr. Zimmerman or Mr. Martin – or even try?

What reforms would be most effective in preventing recurrences of unneeded violence of this type?

Does Mr. Zimmerman have a continuing moral or legal obligation to redress the harms he did to Mr. Martin, his family and society?

Similarly, does society have some obligation to redress harms done to Mr. Zimmerman?

Were both parties ultimately scapegoated for the sake of pursuing partisan agendas on both sides of the issue - in fact, diverting attention from a system of laws and social policies that cannot possibly produce desirable results?

Are there thus many more than two sides to this issue? What are the real competing agendas here?

Could we do better than this both in preventing violence and in administering justice, particularly in situations that are racially charged?


The point I've been trying to make is that this story is not actually about Trayvon Martin OR George Zimmerman. The United States has a system of laws and social norms that guarantees that such tragedies will be repeated. Mr. Zimmerman was correctly found not guilty. There is far too much room for reasonable doubt in circumstances such as occurred in this particular case to proceed to conviction, and it has nothing to do with "stand your ground legislation."

But where else besides Somalia and the Congo are you going to have neighbourhood watchmen legally bearing arms? That's where the problem begins (and ends), in my view. Until the American legal and regulatory framework is changed, this story will continue to be retold again and again.

Addendum: The following is a link to the first coherent specifically legal analysis I've seen - brief, focused, and composed by an experienced Florida lawyer: The Embarrassment Of The George Zimmerman Verdict

Now, I'm waiting for public interest in a systems level analysis of this problem to emerge. I hope not to have to wait "forever," but I fear that I will. 


  1. This post is awesome! Kudos to you! I, too, suddenly started reading online last night to try to right a helpful, captivating, and possibly thought-provoking blog post now that the verdict was finally in. I aimed to get re-informed and more informed, while at the same time trying to find FACTS not OPINIONS, and then put pen to paper...or finger to keyboard actually. Ok, maybe you and I are not special or the only ones out in "blog world" who did, or is trying to do, the same thing regarding this particular case. But it was still refreshing to see where someone had seemingly had the same goals and intentions as I did! You can check mine out here (it's a 2-parter, since the news kept changing today!) AND

  2. Andrea, I looked up your comments, also. Thanks for your kind words, and congratulations to you for your efforts to keep people thinking more deeply about where tragedies such as this one actually come from!