“Helping people? That’s crazy! That’s what nuns and Red Cross workers are for!” –George Costansa
This past week the nation has been up at arms. And for once, there seems to be a seriously good reason to be concerned. Nobody’s wardrobe malfunctioned, nobody had any apparent contact with Snookie, and the Kardashians didn’t make any news. The outrage this time is over matters of life, death, and justice. And the debate rages on over the mistreatment of large sections of our society. Comparisons have been made to Emmett Till, and the President himself has recently made a statement comparing himself with a young black man that has been killed without justice being done in his name. Of course we are referring to the “Not-Guilty” verdict that the jury returned in the George Zimmerman trial, for the murder of Trayvon Martin. The jury failed to convict on the counts of second-degree murder, as well as manslaughter. As we have all no doubt heard by now, Zimmerman’s defense was based on the so-called “stand your ground” law in the state of Florida. Outside the inordinate amount of time I have spent watching Law & Order episodes, my legal knowledge is fairly limited, but by use of the powerful internet tool I have mastered known as “google search,” I have stumbled upon a copy of this Florida law. The gist is that, so long as you have “reason to believe” that somebody is trespassing and there comes a physical altercation (the aggressor is not so important), you have every right to “stand your ground.” Now, over this past year–and especially this past week–every racial aspect of this case seems to have had some light shed on it. The details of the case have been rehashed from the hoodie Trayvon wore to Zimmerman’s stalking that led to this mess (as Jack McCoy would say, “these are the facts of the case”). So this blog will not be about racism, or the gap between justice for people of color and people who, like me, go from ghostly pale to lobster-red, then back to pale again. Instead, it will be about what it means to do the absolute bare-minimum for the good of other people. So let’s all pretend to be George Zimmerman for a minute, driving around our neighborhoods, on neighborhood watch. We see a suspicious dude. We call the police. They tell us to chill out. What do we do next? Follow the suspicious dude for another hour or so? Of course. And what if, at some point said suspicious dude turns around and yells something at us like, say, “Why are you following me?” Another decision presents itself. Come to our senses, realizing that this suspicious dude is, himself, frightened? Ask him what he’s up to? Remember the kindly woman at the police station who told us an hour ago to leave the dude alone? All of these decisions would have led to a different outcome. All of them. The only decision that would lead to a different outcome would be to park the car and come out swinging. And what a shame that there came a physical altercation! At least for the guy without the gun. Because at that point, the law says that criminal justice has reverted back to the olden days when the quickest hand settled the dispute in Old Loredo. A year and a half after the dispute that turned into a murder that turned into a not-guilty verdict that turned into an outcry for justice, we can hang our hats on any number of reasons we are in this mess. We could go back to the slave trade, the plantations, the Reconstruction, Jim Crow, or the inherent violence in owning a gun, along with the NRA’s influence in stand your ground laws. All of these reasons may have varying degrees of pertinence. The most immediate cause, however, to Trayvon Martin being shot by George Zimmerman is that the later made a series of choices that led to the death of the former. Just like the Seinfeld bunch, he saw no obligation to act for the good of “the other.” He found himself in a fight that he was (somehow) not expecting and made one last fateful decision. Whatever other factors were at play, this is a story about somebody who made one (legal or not) decision after another that led to a bloody nose and a dead man at the other end of his gun. In the midst of such an important and emotionally charged episode in our history, let’s not miss the fact that this tragedy would not have taken place if Zimmerman had paused for a minute to consider his actions. Maybe we could trade “stand your ground” for Good Samaritan laws. Make it a rule that shooting somebody from point-blank range is something that is only acceptable in a moment of life and death–and not a moment brought about by decisions that could have easily been avoided. And I wonder, in all of this, what would have happed if Martin would have “won” the shootout.