The latest news has George Zimmerman completely flipping out and ditching his lawyers, putting together a poorly-designed website1, and talking to the media without clearing it with his legal team. I'm surprised only to the extent that this sort of thing doesn't happen more often when people find themselves, whether by their own fault or not, placed under an intense media spotlight. I mean jeez, I'm on the verge of a mental health breakdown over just some stupid medical bills and back property taxes that, if I had my shit together, should be easy for me to take care of with my salary. I can't imagine what it would be like to be subject to that kind of scrutiny, to have real problems.
And to be honest, I really do feel kinda bad for George Zimmerman. Before going further I must point out that, as should be clear from my previous writing on the topic, I think that a crime was committed here, and that the way people are parsing the story is being tremendously influenced by race in a manner that is downright disgraceful. Reverse the races of the participants, and this is a non-story, because Zimmerman is sitting comfortably in jail (and possibly in better mental health, for what it's worth...).
But Zimmerman is still a human being, the media treatment of him has not been entirely fair, and I do believe that he was most likely trying (though failing) to do the right thing when this terrible tragedy took place.
I find it unlikely that Zimmerman is what I would call an "explicit racist", i.e. although it is clear that, like of all us, his thoughts on race are subconsciously influenced by the context of institutionalized racism in which he finds himself (and Zimmerman probably more than most), still I tend to seriously doubt that he's the kind of guy who would explicitly talk about the inferiority of people of different races or explicit disparage African-Americans without using "dog whistle" language. Zimmerman is probably baffled at the accusations that he was behaving in a racist fashion. He does not have the framework to be able to recognize that one (and even oneself) can behave in a racist manner without explicit racist intent. While there's little doubt that Zimmerman was engaging in a shameful and deadly display of racial profiling, I think it's unlikely he sees it that way, and since (I imagine) he lacks the tools to be able to confront this about himself, it is probably very painful for him.
Moreover, I'm not even sure I would call Zimmerman a "murderer" per se. There are some important details that we just don't know yet, of course, but there are a lot of plausible narratives in which this would be (in common law; I must ignore Florida's absurd "stand your ground" law here) manslaughter rather than murder.
One such narrative that I find particularly plausible: Zimmerman is following Trayvon -- which nobody denies -- and both men are getting increasingly worked up. Zimmerman is angry because he feels like he is going to once again fail to "defeat the bad guy" in his quest to be neighborhood superhero; and Trayvon is angry because he is once again being reminded that he's a black kid in a hoodie, and is being shamed into shuffling his feet lest he face imminent danger. After this goes on for a while and both mens' nerves are at the breaking point, Zimmerman gets out of the car to confront Trayvon face-to-face. It almost immediately erupts into a scuffle, and even if there were witnesses it would not be clear who threw the first punch -- I'm sure we've all seen a fight erupt just like this, with the antagonists so wound up that something as simple as a slight twitch of the arm causes a confrontation to explode into fisticuffs before anybody even knows what happened.
This next part of my "imagined" narrative is somewhat called into question by recent vocal analysis suggesting it was in fact Trayvon who was screaming on the 911 tapes, but nevertheless, given the reports of injuries, etc., I don't find it implausible that Trayvon was "winning" the resulting brawl. Much has been made of Zimmerman's size and age advantage, but I'm not so sure about that. I'm built about like Zimmerman, and although admittedly I'm five years older than he is, if I got in a fistfight with a wiry 17-year-old football player, I'm pretty sure I'd get my ass kicked. Zimmerman panics, pulls a gun, he shoots.
Again remembering that I am referring to common law rather than Florida's screwed up gun laws, a story like that is what we would call manslaughter: Zimmerman provoked the fight but did not necessarily throw the first punch, and in the ensuing brawl he escalated to lethal force. Think of two guys (white guys let's say, just to separate it from the racial politics) who are arguing inside a biker bar. They take it outside, nobody's sure who threw the first punch, one dude gets stabbed to death. That's manslaughter.
Now I filled in a lot of details there that we simply don't know. It's quite possible that Zimmerman unambiguously jumped Trayvon, or Trayvon unambiguously jumped Zimmerman, and in either case that changes the common law implications a lot. And we don't know that Trayvon was "winning" the fight; as I mentioned, it does appear pretty conclusive at this point that it was the kid and not the shooter who was yelling for help on the 911 tape. If it was Zimmerman who was kicking Trayvon's ass at the time he pulled the gun, and assuming Trayvon did not unambiguously start the fight, it is much harder to frame it as anything less than murder.
My point is simply that it might not be full-on murder. The narrative I constructed doesn't contradict any of the details we know. Some of the details it fills in may be unknowable, e.g. we don't appear to have any witnesses to the start of the fight. (With that in mind, if Zimmerman is ever charged, the prosecutors may have a better chance of making a manslaughter charge stick for exactly this reason.)
So yeah, I feel a lot of pity for Zimmerman. I don't think he was a sadistic murder, I think he was more likely a racially-ignorant dumb-ass with a hero complex. And as harsh as that sounds, many people are dumb-asses, and I would say most people are probably fairly ignorant about race issues, so aside from the hero complex this doesn't exactly distinguish him from your average Joe (or George).
Zimmerman is less evil, and more average. If/when he is brought to justice, it will be a good thing, since it seems fairly clear a crime was committed here (at least under common law). But it's still a tragedy on both sides. One life was extinguished, another it seems now may be largely wasted. All because of some racial ignorance and some dumb decision-making. I'm sad for everybody in this.
1The gratuitous and terribly-placed American flag on his website partially negates the sentiment I express in the title to this post, but only partially.
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