Yet another chapter in the seemingly endless epic of how we deal with guns in this country is being written as this is written, down in Florida where George Zimmerman is being tried for murder in the death of Trayvon Martin.
As happens with many things in today’s super-hyper mediaverse, the trial is being dissected and analyzed in real time and has had all sorts of meaning put upon it, some of it obvious and much of it less so. It’s been a fascinating window into a lot of issues and the numerous racial and cultural disconnects our modern society labors under. Rachel Jeantel’s testimony was a vivid example of the different perspectives and manners of white lawyers and black teenagers. (Not to mention a wakeup call to those who want to preserve the art of reading cursive writing, as well as an education for some on the names black people call white people when white people are not around.) We learned that medical examiners don’t remember every autopsy they perform, lawyer’s jokes often fall flat and that mothers seem programmed to recognize the sounds of their own child’s screams, even when one of them must be wrong. As the trial proceeds this week, we’ll probably learn even more. I’m no attorney and I haven’t watched all the proceedings, but it doesn’t look like a sure thing Zimmerman will be convicted of anything, much less the second-degree murder with which he’s charged.
A few larger issues leap out. One, obviously, is that of race and how perceptions of it influence what we do and how we think. No one has the ability to look into Zimmerman’s head and know for sure what he was thinking or how his mind precisely worked on that fatal evening, but it’s certainly reasonable to assume that if Trayvon Martin was a white kid walking down that street in Sanford, he would not have evoked the same reaction that drove the pistol-packing Zimmerman to defy a police dispatcher and start following him. We like to delude ourselves in this country, and in this region of the country especially, into thinking that somehow Martin Luther King chased away racism and that we are color-blind. But on that night, the color of Trayvon Martin’s skin was the most relevant fact of that kid’s life, and set off a chain of events that led to his death. You’ve probably heard the crack about getting arrested for “driving while black” but for Martin, “walking while black” was no joke and he got the death penalty for it.
Another larger issue is that of guns in general and how their presence in a situation can shape that situation’s outcome. Would Zimmerman have gone after Martin if Zimmerman wasn’t packing? Did the handgun he had (legally, according to Florida law) lend to him a sense of bravery he might not have ordinarily had? Maybe not, but it’s reasonable to assume yes. So, he gets out of his vehicle, starts following the kid in the hoodie, who may or may not have been a little stoned and thus a little paranoid, and gets into it with the guy following him. It’s been a while since I’ve been in a fight, but when you’re in a fight, reason gets overpowered by instinct and judgment goes out the window. If there’s no gun involved, the fight probably ends when someone pulls one of the combatants off the other. Bruises, maybe something broken, low-level criminal charges, but nothing that can’t heal. But there was a gun, it got pulled. Trayvon Martin got shot and he’s dead. Forever. Maybe Zimmerman was right, and he thought Martin was going to kill him and was thus justified in taking the life of a teenager that had hardly even begun. Zimmerman was probably wrong to start following Martin in the first place. But the gun is what is making this a nationwide issue, rather than a matter confined to the Sanford newspaper’s police blotter. If you’re Zimmerman, maybe you’re glad you had the gun. After all, it’s better to be judged by 12 than carried by six, right? (Yes, we know: the Florida jury hearing the case only has six people on it.) If you’re Martin, or to be precise, those who mourn Martin’s death, you’re maybe wishing that Zimmerman never had a gun in the first place and will spend a lifetime wondering how a kid’s walking from the store to his dad’s house ended up in him bleeding to death on the sidewalk.