I must admit that I was very surprised -- shocked -- by the verdict. I expected that anyone who followed an unarmed kid in a car and then got out to track him down with a gun would be convicted of at least manslaughter. The legal experts that I know tell me that the prosecutors over-reached, that they over-charged George Zimmerman, and that Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law tied the hands of both judge and jury. It seems to me that the defense attorneys very brilliantly played the old game of turning the proceedings around and put the victim on trial, both in the court room and in the media. This is a tactic very familiar to gay men. The defense attorneys for Matthew Shepard's murderers attempted to do the same thing, but with a lot less success. Zimmerman's attorneys successfully planted the idea into the minds of the public (if not the jury) that Martin somehow had it coming by being, well, a teenager, and not a terribly exceptional or saintly one.
But all this legal priest-craft does nothing to address the vast difference between black and white Americans when it comes to experience with the legal system. How many white parents have to give their adolescent sons "the talk" about how to act around the cops? (Never run, never carry anything in your hands, always be polite no matter how rude the cops are, etc.). This issue remains at the heart of this trial. The cops' motto may be "serve and protect" but the experience of a lot of Americans is of an occupying army there to keep them quiet.
The Gospel reading for this Sunday was the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus' answer to a lawyer's question, "who is my neighbor?"
The world today is as thoroughly riven by tribal conflict as 2000 years ago when this Gospel was written. All that's changed is that the world is so much bigger now, and the technology tribes use to kill each other is so much more powerful and efficient. The conflict between black and white in this country is ultimately a tribal conflict; a very old, bitter, and personal conflict. As in so many tribal conflicts, one tribe has all the advantages of numbers, wealth, and power, and the other finds itself feared and despised despite so much struggle and progress to claim its rightful place in the nation's life. In the face of this miscarriage of justice, we must answer again that lawyer's question, "who is my neighbor?" Jesus' answer in the parable was everyone including those beyond our tribe and against our tribe, including those we fear and despise.
Rembrandt, The Good Samaritan, ink drawing
And on this Bastille Day, I sadly reflect that La Republique des Amis is as remote from us as The Celestial Jerusalem, and that Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite elude our grasp as much as Agape.
As passions cool a little, it appears that the real culprit in all this is not the jury or the judge or the prosecutors, or even Zimmerman's defense team, but Florida's "Stand Your Ground" laws which effectively legalize vigilantism.
Ta-Nehisi Coates has some very sober reflections on the verdict.
...what caused a national outcry was not the possibility of George Zimmerman being found innocent, but that there would be no trial at all. This case was really unique because of what happened with the Sanford police. If you doubt this, ask yourself if you know the name "Jordan Davis." Then ask yourself how many protests and national media reports you've seen about him.
Andrew Cohen reminds us that criminal court is not necessarily the place to resolve issues of social justice, that the real offense is not in the courtroom but in the legislative chamber.
What the verdict says, to the astonishment of tens of millions of us, is that you can go looking for trouble in Florida, with a gun and a great deal of racial bias, and you can find that trouble, and you can act upon that trouble in a way that leaves a young man dead, and none of it guarantees that you will be convicted of a crime. But this curious result says as much about Florida's judicial and legislative sensibilities as it does about Zimmerman's conduct that night. This verdict would not have occurred in every state. It might not even have occurred in any other state. But it occurred here, a tragic confluence that leaves a young man's untimely death unrequited under state law. Don't like it? Lobby to change Florida's laws.