What the Trayvon Martin Case Says About Public Debate

by Stephen Mills on April 3, 2012

Something around 50 people (round number) are murdered every day in the U.S.  I have a great deal of sympathy for the families involved, but this is not a national tragedy and doesn’t deserve the attention it is getting.  I do have an opinion on a certain aspect of the case that I will share at the end of this article, but before that I want to say something else about the reaction to it and the attention it is getting.

It must be stated that the people protesting in the street, the parents, the media pundits, bloggers, you, me, and everyone else do not really know what happened during the confrontation and probably never will.  Two people were there.  One is dead and the one that is alive has a huge motive to lie about it so it is likely we will never really know.

Despite the complete lack of knowledge of the facts, much of the country believes they are in a position to pontificate loudly about what should be done or not done to George Zimmerman.  I don’t know what should be done.  I don’t know if he broke any laws.  What do Jessie Jackson and Al Sharpton know about this case and exactly how are they helping?

Since blacks and liberals are protesting and talking about guns and racism, the right is shouting back and now they are both yelling at each other and calling each other names.  It’s no longer about Trayvon despite what all these people pretend.  It’s an opportunity to claim to be right about the larger issues which they each hold near and dear.  The dead boy and the shooter are now just vehicles to further their respective causes.  The people who are shouting are far more concerned about winning debating and political points than winning justice in this case.

No matter what the issue is anymore, as soon as somebody lines up on one side somebody else lines up on the other side and it turns into an absurd shouting match with nobody really knowing what they are talking about and with no solution in sight.  Ambiguity, uncertainty, complexity, or grayness are no longer allowed in public debate.  Everything has to be a binary choice between right and wrong or good and evil.  I’m right, you’re wrong.  I’m good, you’re evil.

Please name one important issue anywhere were calm rational discourse occurs in a way that really matters.  We are either shouting at each other or shooting at each other.  (Obama is flying little remote control toy planes all over the world shooting missiles at people he doesn’t like.)  The people who aren’t shooting or shouting have mainly withdrawn from public and just go on about their private lives.  This is the approach I take most of the time.

I don’t expect people to agree, but I do expect them to be reasonable. This case has reminded me that I’ve pretty much concluded that reasonable people are forever more going to be hopelessly drowned in a sea of shouting, name calling, and fear mongering.

I do have an opinion to share on this case and I’ll try not to shout or call people who disagree with me any names.  I don’t know what happened in the confrontation between George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin and I don’t think anyone else does either.  However I think we do know what happened earlier, before that confrontation.  We all have choices to make and by his own voice on his call to 911, George Zimmerman showed he had a fundamental choice to either mind his own business or to poke his nose into someone else’s.  Like many people these days he chose the latter.  That is the real problem here.  People think they have the right to tell other people what to do.

It is not against the law to walk down the street wearing a hoodie.  That’s what ticks me off about the whole thing and is getting lost in the debate about “Standing Your Ground”.  Conservatives and Libertarians should not make George Zimmerman their poster boy for the right to defend yourself with guns.  (btw I believe people have the right to carry a gun and defend their person or property).  George Zimmerman made the choice to confront Trayvon likely knowing full well it could turn into something ugly.  I don’t know what happened when he decided to pull the trigger (and nobody else does either), but George Zimmerman’s choice to confront Trayvon instead of staying safely inside his car was the ultimate cause of all of this.  For that reason I blame him for what happened whether he committed any crime or not by Florida law.

All the talk of cries for help, cuts on the head or broken noses is after the fact rationalization that are not part of that first decision he made.  He may not have committed a crime and he may have, but I believe from his own words that he made made a wrong decision.  That is a tragedy.  George Zimmerman was not protecting his person or property from a threat when he made the decision to engage Trayvon Martin.  So his self-defense claim later rings pretty hollow to me.  Maybe Trayvon felt threatened and was defending himself.  I don’t know.

I have to let the police handle this.  We may not like it, but it’s the only choice we have.  That’s called the rule of law and something we should hold dear.  They may be biased and have an agenda but so does everyone else. What are we supposed to do, let the mobs in the streets make the decision? Do the people protesting in the street really want to go back to that?  I don’t like street justice of either George Zimmerman’s kind or the kind that some people are now calling for.  Al Sharpton and Jessie Jackson need to go home.  I don’t want street protests to decide this case.  Everyone else needs to stop shouting and calling each other nasty names because they happen to be on the other side of some political or cultural divide.  That not only gets us nowhere, it makes the problems worse.

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{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

Sophie April 3, 2012 at 7:25 am

Yes, it’s a mess. The shouting, the name-calling, the political posturing to advance personal agendas is sickening. But the fact is that there is no rule of law anymore in the USA. Look, for instance, how the law is turning a blind eye to a criminal like Jon Corzine, who bilked billions from clients at MF Global. The law works for some and not for others. The Martin case is like a straw on the camel’s back. The black community is tired of burying their own because of racial stereo-typing. This was just one too many and now the community is rising up to make a point – to make an example of George Zimmerman. I am white, by the way.

It would be nice to not have to listen to the hate-mongering and name-calling but what are people supposed to do? Just turn a blind eye? Support the criminal status quo? The USA has become a thug police state. It’s the blacks and hispanics today and the rest of us, tomorrow. The NDAA is trying to put a lid on people’s right to express their displeasure with the government. A government that is supposed to be for the people, by the people. Should anyone with an opinion that runs contrary to the status quo just roll over and hush up so that it doesn’t disturb the so-called peace?

Yes, Obama can run drones all over the world – even in his own country now if he sees fit – to kill whoever is deemed belligerent toward the status quo. Is that okay with you? No, it’s not. But to protest makes one belligerent and possibly on the hit list. What’s wrong with this picture? In a country founded on free speech and the overthrow of tyrants.

The Trayvon Martin outcry is not just about one black kid and one self-appointed executioner. It’s about people having had enough of injustice, bias, and the failure of the rule of law to protect fundamental rights. Jackson and Sharpton are biased – sure. But they are at least representing the voices that otherwise would not be heard at all. America – wake the hell up. Criminals have taken over your government and we should all be screaming out heads off in the absence of rule of law.

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Stephen Mills April 4, 2012 at 5:41 am

Hello Sophie,

No people shouldn’t just be quiet so they don’t disturb anyone. However there are productive ways to do that and counter-productive ways to do that and I think this is an example where it has become counter-productive. The initial attention was good, but it has gone past that point now and become a negative.

The very people in Florida who have the power to change things like laws (e.g. middle class white public) are not going to be inclined to do so as a result of non-stop protests and somebody attacking Zimmerman outside the law (like the panthers want). It will do nothing but deepen stereotypes. Plus as I said the issue is now out of control and no longer about the merits of this case. It’s been politicized beyond solution.

If George Zimmerman broke the law, he should be punished by the law. If he didn’t break the law then maybe the law needs to be changed. In either case I don’t think what is happening now makes the best outcome more likely. I think it makes it less.

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Charmaine April 4, 2012 at 2:47 am

Zimmerman was simply a deluded, overzealous, wannabe cop, with a small man complex, not at all like some members of law enforcement themselves. It is telling that we have not heard a word from the man himself or from some attorney.
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Stephen Mills April 4, 2012 at 5:43 am

Hi Charmaine, maybe so. I don’t know him but I know the type. Cops don’t always do their job but when citizens try to do it for them we don’t necessarily get a better result. We need to have better law enforcement, not more citizen cops.

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Craig April 4, 2012 at 9:09 pm

Unfortunately this event shows that racism in police forces is still very active in the US. How can a man with a gun shoot a 14 year old kid, and not face charges.
You can bet that if the man was black, and the boy white, he’d be locked up straight away (probably facing the death penalty)
That is what the protests are really about.

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Stephen Mills April 4, 2012 at 10:01 pm

Craig,

“There is nothing more painful to me … than to walk down the street and hear footsteps and start thinking about robbery, then look around and see somebody white and feel relieved.”

Reverend Jesse Jackson, as quoted in US News, 3/10/96

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Lionel April 7, 2012 at 8:52 am

Another thought provoking article, Stephen. Thank you.

The case really is the proverbial “straw on the camel’s back” as Sophie says. And it is so in a lot of ways. I agree with your main points about:
- it being impossible to know the facts and yet being “sure”.
- no civil discourse, just shouting about any issue.
- the nagging feeling that Zimmerman went looking for trouble.
- the problem with the law as written, and the writing of the law because of the frustration and fear of people.
- the institutional racism and limited ways to address it.

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Ingrid Kast Fuller (@ingridfuller) April 8, 2012 at 11:37 am

While I agree with most of your article, I have to point out one thing. George Zimmerman was a neighborhood watch person, which in fact he was protecting the property of his fellow neighbors. That position is usually voluntary. I do agree he should have listened to the 911 staff and should have just watched Trayvon and reported back to them if he was in fact doing anything wrong. He may have told Trayvon to leave the area and Trayvon responded negatively and then the whole incident followed downhill from there. Evidently, that neighborhood needs volunteer watch people because it may already have problems of crime and violence. So it could also be the fact that the police can not cover all the areas of that town efficiently and quickly that the people have to watch their own neighborhood. You could even add to the fact that perhaps the demographics of crime in the neighborhood are percentage wise more black young people and that’s why George felt he needed to watch Trayvon closely. Jessie Jackson and Al Sharpton would help black teens by not protesting but teaching them respect for others property, respect of their parents, confidence in themselves to find jobs instead of crime. They are pushing their agenda and in my opinion want to divide the country. I grew up after the racism we had before the 60′s. For the past 50 yrs we have been more tolerant of others, but this administration and their friends (Jessie/Al) have pushed us back to dividing the country again. It is really sad.

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Jen Franklin April 18, 2012 at 3:32 pm

This is a very sad situation and the media is blowing it out of proportion. I was told the pictures shown on tv is when tryvonne was younger. Tryvonne is actually 6 feet, close to 7 feet. They are making it look like he killed an innocent little boy. When he was acttually a very big person.
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debora April 30, 2012 at 7:48 am

This issue has become very controversial and has definitely acquired attention but many people end up fighting instead of just plain debating.
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Frances Boggs May 14, 2012 at 3:43 am

I think it’s just sad that a person like Trayvon got killed because one person judged him based on color.
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Crystal May 19, 2012 at 1:10 am

It may have been at school or work or even at home. Were you prepared for the debate..
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Watcher May 20, 2012 at 8:26 pm

“Two people were there. One is dead and the one that is alive has a huge motive to lie about it so it is likely we will never really know.”

The fact that you stated the above, rather than a less-slanted (and more correct) “…has a huge motive to save his butt from prison…”, made me gloss over the rest of your biased article. Better luck next time.

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