Thursday, July 18, 2013

An Avoidable Tragedy – II. The Elephants in the Courtroom

Continued from Part I

From my perspective, there are four large elephants rumbling around in the back of Judge Nelson’s courtroom. Some are obvious, some are not.

Common to Whom?

The first elephant is not only apparent to most observers, it has become a simplistic fall-back in explaining the entire trial process. Race clearly played a role in this case though not the only role. We Americans breathe racist air as my classmate from seminary so accurately observed many years ago. And the stereotype of young black men wearing hooded sweatshirts is largely associated in the minds of white suburbanites – like those who sat on this jury - with notions of gang violence and drug use. Indeed, the defense won a ruling from this judge to introduce coroner’s evidence of marijuana use by the victim as the drug crazed black attacker.

To its credit, the defense never played that overtly racist card. But while the dichotomy of the fearful black assailant and the innocent white victim is not nearly as clear in this case as in others, this caricature is the subtext for many trials in America today including this one. The composition of our prison populations readily reveals this racial disparity in which black males disproportionately make up those arrested, convicted and incarcerated in an America in deep denial of its continuing race problem. Statistically speaking, if one wants to guarantee getting away with murder in America, they should be white, wealthy enough to afford a good attorney and kill someone who is black. If one wants to guarantee they will be killed by the state in which they reside, one only has to be the opposite of that composite.

Racism is also echoed in right wing polemics about the alleged coercion prompting this trial and pressuring its jury for a guilty verdict. This argument unwittingly recycles the “outside agitator” caricature from the days of desegregation – We wouldn’t have all these racial problems if it weren’t for outside agitators coming into our peaceful little communities and stirrin’ folks up. One wonders if the pastoral statements of the President who simply noted that this boy of color could have been his son and the investigations of the Attorney General in the face of Florida’s stonewalling would have ever been questioned had either of them been white.

Racism is also revealed in the strong racial divides in survey data in which white respondents solidly bought into immediate, acontextual constructs of self-defense while respondents of color almost universally saw the events as murder given the broader context in which they occurred. While only 30% of white respondents to the Gallup Poll believed Zimmerman was guilty, over 70% of black respondents thought so.

It also did not help that the jury was virtually all-white prompting comparisons of this jury to the Simi Valley jury that freed several white LA policemen who had been caught on tape beating black victim Rodney King. Like Simi Valley, the nearly all-white suburb of Los Angeles, could any other conclusion have resulted in this trial in a county that is significantly whiter than the state average (nearly 2/3 white non-hispanic)? From whom would the voices needed to draw the “common sense” into question have come?

While one of the jurors has insisted since the verdict that race never played a role in their deliberations, could they possibly say anything differently? If the battle over same sex marriage has taught us anything it’s that while many want to hold onto common prejudices thus avoiding the soul-searching required for repentance, few are willing to ever admit to them in the first place. Denial is the most common defense mechanism human beings utilize when accused of wrongdoing.

Premature Declarations of Victory

Disowned racism is also expectable in a society that wants to engage in self-congratulation for having successfully dealt with a long, bloody history of racism. Of course, mere assertion that “America has gotten past its racist history” is belied by the disproportionate numbers of people of color afflicted by every social pathology from infant mortality to low educational attainment to incarceration to gun deaths. A virtually all-white jury in an overwhelmingly white suburban county is hardly inclined to come to Jesus about its own or its nation’s repressed racism.

Indeed, the images of a terrified unarmed black man being stalked and finally killed do not arise in a cultural vacuum. This is a state with a long history of lynching and massacres of entire townships in places with names like Rosewood and Ocoee, a mere 20 miles away in neighboring Orange County.

Race may not have overtly figured into this killing. Indeed, I have no doubt that the jurors are telling us the truth when they say it was never discussed at all. Without a black juror on the panel to raise the issue, it was probably not too difficult to ignore it with impunity. But it certainly formed a highly potent contextual backdrop against which this drama played out.

Guns and Pimped Masculinities

The second elephant in the room is the completely irresponsible, deadly policies surrounding firearms in this country, particularly here in gun crazed Florida. The passage of the ALEC crafted bill called “Stand Your Ground” essentially removed any context of actual danger to self or others as restraints on encounters with would-be criminals. Until very recently, once the threat of lethal harm to the individual targeted by assailants was past, the target was not allowed to become the aggressor him or herself. Lethal force was only appropriate as a defense weapon when lethal force was imminent.

With the change of law largely at the behest – and the substantial funding - of the world’s largest gun industry, actual danger is no longer a required predicate for the use of lethal force. Mere anger or injured pride from having potentially been a victim is now sufficient. If your manhood feels pimped, you can kill the one who dissed you. While Stand Your Ground implies that a homeowner is on his property defending himself, his family and his castle, in fact the law permits roving gun-toters to track down those who have allegedly placed them in reasonable fear of harm wherever they might be, including young teenage boys on the sidewalks of a gated community armed only with candy and a can of tea.

While no one wanted to admit to the elephant in the room, it’s pretty clear that at a very basic level, the need for gun owners to affirm America’s gun policies formed a powerful subtext for the trial here. Much of the money for Zimmerman’s defense came from the gun lobby. America’s addiction to the weapons of war we believe will save us emerged unscathed. There will be no intervention coming out of Seminole County.

Be Afraid, They Tell Us. And We Are.

While those two aspects of the trial were fairly obvious, two more elements played a crucial role here. The third elephant in the room is a fear that is both palpable even as it is largely denied in our culture. Our daily news is filled with leaked reports that our government may be – probably is – spying on us. The government, in turn, reminds us that they do so to keep terrorists at bay. 

Many Americans are in precarious places economically with houses under water in their mortgages and down-sized jobs at big box stores and fast food joints which no longer require or compensate the training and experience laid off workers have obtained and don’t pay them enough to make a living. For many Americans, life is, indeed, frightful.

Thus it is not surprising that fear is rampant in our culture. It is palpable in the many conspiratorial accounts of 9-11 one can find all over the internet. The flames of fear are regularly fanned by talking heads of both left and right on our nightly television. Even the fear we are able to temporarily repress into our unconscious minds bubbles up in our celluloid ghost stories featuring mindless zombies wandering aimlessly without life or purpose, post-apocalyptic worlds devoid of anything remotely approaching civilization and bold terrorists able to destroy the symbols of American heritage while taking even our highest governmental officials captive.

“Be afraid, be very afraid,” they tell us. And we are. Little wonder we are willing to let a wannabe cop with little to no training, a chip on his shoulder the size of Peru and a gun in his pocket his Neighborhood Watch authorization exprohibits to patrol our streets at night and shoot down hooded teenagers armed only with a pack of candy and a can of tea with impunity. 

Inflated Individualism, Impoverished Social Responsibility

The final elephant lumbering around the back of Judge Nelson’s courtroom was the American obsession with the self-reliant individual. Forged in the fires of evangelical Protestantism, America’s Free Market Fundamentalism and refined by the constant siren calls to understand oneself only through the lens of consumerism, Americans simultaneously operate out of highly inflated notions of the importance of the individual and sorely impoverished notions of social responsibility.

The notion of duties to others is largely lost on most Americans. The rugged individual sees others as either means or obstacles to what they want. “It’s all about me” is not simply the mantra from Madison Avenue we’ve bought into, it’s the primary means of self-understanding we default to as consumers, not citizens. Given this starting place, the right of self-defense becomes central to the ability to define and defend one’s own individual interests regardless of the context in which those interests are pursued and the impact they might have on others.

These six jurors and many of their fellow Americans has been well trained to focus on the bloody scars on George Zimmerman’s head even as they have been trained to ignore most if not all of his own conduct prior to and resulting in the infliction of the same. “A man’s got a right to defend himself,” became the mantra of the talking heads -  except, of course, when that man is a black teenager wearing a hooded sweatshirt armed only with his wits, a pack of candy and a can of tea.

All Are Punish-ed

When one examines all of the events that occurred that dark night in Sanford, Florida in its larger context and consider the underlying subtext by which we make sense of them, it becomes not only possible to fully understand the events of that night. It also becomes imperative to come to a different conclusion than that which the Zimmerman jury’s narrow considerations arrived at. A true concern for justice rather than mere legality demands it.

But this jury is hardly unusual in its inabilities or unwillingness to do so. It is the rule in the American legal system, not the exception. It’s how we end up with verdicts that are legally sound but lacking in justice. And, until Americans become willing to consider the elephants lumbering in the background of this and many other trials across this nation, it will continue to be the rule.

My heart grieves for the lost hopes, dreams and contributions that Trayvon Martin’s life could have made in our world. I feel only slightly less sorry for his young killer who avoided prison but whose life, even as heretofore unimpressive as it has been, will never be the same. Saddest of all, I lament the myopia and the mean-spiritedness of my fellow Floridians which have allowed the state this native son once deeply loved to devolve into this absolute cesspool of ongoing injustice. We have become the laughing stock of a nation which simply can’t figure out what possesses us to be so consistently stupid. Flori-duh, indeed.

As William Shakespeare’s Bishop of Verona so succinctly pronounced at the conclusion of Romeo and Juliet, “All are punish-ed.”


As I have worked through my grief over the Zimmerman verdict by writing this blog and examined the many aspects which contributed to it, I find myself glad for the time I spent in Florida’s legal system as an advocate. It has provided me with insights that I do not think would be possible from merely looking in from the outside or studying this matter in an academic manner. But this trial also readily reminds me why the happiest day of my life was the day I stopped practicing law. On that day, I refused to continue serving as a means for a dysfunctional  and unjust system to operate and legitimate itself. It is one of the few decisions I have made in my life for which I have had absolutely no second thoughts ever since. And on days like Saturday, I remember why.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

 If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

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