I've been reading commentaries (and commenting myself) on George Zimmerman's shooting of Trayvon Martin, and I've discovered folks who believe that that Martin reversed on Zimmerman and attacked him. They make much of a bit of court testimony from Chris Serino, lead investigator for the police on the case.
He also testified that he believed Zimmerman was telling the truth, especially after Serino bluffed that Martin's cell phone may have captured video of the incident.
“I believe [Zimmerman’s] words were, ‘Thank God, I was hoping somebody would videotape it,’ ” said Serino.
I can see how that could seem very convincing ... if you take Zimmerman as fundamentally credible. But I find it very easy to reconcile this statement with the possibility that it was Zimmerman who confronted, even assaulted, Martin.
Let us suppose that Zimmerman is hotheaded, bigoted, self-righteous, and stupid. I'm not saying he is these things, mind you; I'm just a guy who reads the news, so I don't know. But he could be. The evidence in the public record is at least consistent with the possibility, and there are things which hint that he is.
Let us imagine him that way for a minute.
It's easy to imagine that guy going chasing after Martin. Because he'd feel justified in doing it; he's the hero of his own little action movie in his head. It's easy to imagine that guy going up to Martin and confronting him provocatively and seeing Martin's angry response through bigot-o-vision as an unprovoked threat. It's easy to imagine that guy grabbing Martin's arm when Martin tried to walk away — which legally means Zimmerman assaulting Martin — and feeling justified in that. It's easy to imagine that turning into a pushing-and-shoving scuffle from Martin just trying to get away which could put Martin's elbow in Zimmerman's face, costing Zimmerman his footing so he falls and hits his head. It's easy to imagine Zimmerman on the ground and Martin yelling, Zimmerman dazed and panicked and fearing what he perceives as a scary Black thug attacking him. That Zimmerman could have drawn his gun and shot Martin and felt himself completely justified, thinking that his life had depended on it.
That is, it's easy to imagine that Zimmerman confronted Martin, attacked him, escalated the fight, then shot Martin when things didn't go the way he wanted — and thought that he was entirely justified in the eyes of the law, even though under Florida law, having assaulted Martin first he would have been guilty of at least manslaughter for shooting Martin in this hypothetical, even if he had sincerely feared for his life.
Given how little we can confirm about what happened that night, I cannot claim to know that any of this happened. But it's plausible that it did. Which makes it easy for to imagine Zimmerman being guilty but believing that he was acting reasonably and within his rights. He could have sincerely believed that video evidence would vindicate him, as Serino says, when in fact it would do the opposite.
The point here is not the question of Zimmerman per se. Again: I cannot know about him.
The point is that whether or not Zimmerman is the person I described, that guy does exist out there. And we have just demonstrated vividly that the criminal justice system will support him. So even if Zimmerman was right and justice was served in his case, on a broader scale this trial has demonstrated systemic racism and injustice.
Update in November:
I have a commentary from Josh Marshall, Sick To My Stomach, which says exactly what I'm thinking about what we have learned about Zimmerman since I originally wrote this piece.
Now we have him allegedly pointing a loaded weapon at his new girlfriend and apparently barricading himself in the house after police arrived on the scene. Add to this the earlier history of violent incidents including violently resisting arrest in 2005 and the real world verdict is now beyond a reasonable doubt as to this point: Zimmerman is a liar and a habitually violent and frequently out of control man who should never have been allowed to possess a gun.
Given all we know now about Zimmerman and all the additional evidence he's provided us with post-acquittal, there's simply no reason to doubt the worst case scenario of how Trayvon Martin died. The only real question is whether Zimmerman shot him in cold blood or killed him during the confrontation he himself forced to happen.
These revelations make my speculation that his shooting of Trayvon Martin may have come from panic, stupidity, irresponsibility, and semiconscious bigotry not the least generous plausible reading of Zimmerman, but actually the kindest. (Another update: evidence of Zimmerman's character keeps piling up.)
That makes me want to talk about how this post originally came to be. I wrote it as a response to conservatives on an online forum who insisted that Zimmerman's reply to Officer Serino was part of a great pile of evidence which demonstrated that we could be certain that Zimmerman was rightfully defending himself against a fierce, unprovoked attack by Martin. These people were smug about how they were looking at the facts and bravely following them where they led, unclouded by a political agenda.
It is hard not to scent racist bigotry in people who find that absurd image of Martin randomly attacking a stranger not just plausible, not just likely, but certain.
In turn, while I phrased my original post cautiously as a speculation of what might have happened, I imagine that it's obvious that it reflects my intuition about what really did happen. My framing my description as merely a speculation wasn't just in the name of rhetoric in a debate, though; I don't have any special knowledge, and need to be wary of overestimating my knowledge at a distance.
But it is interesting that my intuition is now strongly supported by later evidence, is it not? Why, in this case, was my intuition better than those conservatives’?
This question of intuitions is important. What do we find plausible? Who do we find credible? I don't want a system of justice that simply accepts intuition — not even my own — but the question of intuition matters.
So let me confess where I got my image of Zimmerman. I got it from this softball interview with him on Fox News:
Watching that, to my eye, it's obvious what kind of person Zimmerman is. I know that guy. He has no self-doubt. He could have done what I described and rationalized himself as being in the right, no sweat. And aside from recognizing that guy as as “hotheaded, bigoted, self-righteous, and stupid .... the hero of his own little action movie in his head”, there's one other thing I now about that guy: conservatives are dead suckers for him.
I first learned this watching Oliver North testify in the Iran/Contra hearings, when I was quite young. His earnest self-righteousness gave me the heebie-jeebies but conservatives lapped it up. They always do, when it's a member of their tribe.
I've commented before about how differing responses to earnestness are part of the liberal-conservative culture divide in America. Liberals have a deep-rooted skepticism about it, because we think that one needs self-doubt to check one's self. Cultural liberals' attitude is not entirely a good thing — earnest sincerity can be beautiful and powerful. But conservatives are far too credulous about it, which makes them too supportive of the smug and self-righteous. And they never seem to learn.
This is a culture gap that literally kills.
Update March 2015
“I believe God has his plans, and for me to second-guess them would be hypocritical, almost blasphemous,” he said when asked if the encounter that ended Martin’s life would have turned out differently.
Update August 2015
Was he always a neo-Confederate?
The caption, ‘the 2nd protects the first’ is a double entendre. The first flag I painted on this canvas was an American Flag, but decided to repaint over it with the Confederate Flag when I heard Andy was getting sued by CAIR. The 2nd flag I painted was the Battle Flag — which we need in America in order to protect the first.
Update August 2015
As time passes, ever more smug and transparently racist.
We all know how it ended for the last moron that hit me.