Here we go again…crowds are hitting the streets with rocks and rants of protest against the verdict in the Trayvon Martin murder.
The underdogs are shouting for an equal playing field.
The big dogs are shaking their heads and shrugging their shoulders because the standing state law, backed by the NRA and other gun enthusiasts, supports the decision.
Frustrated, frightened and angry people are behaving badly all over the country in the name of Trayvon Martin and the media is stoking the fire.
Black folks are shouting about racism.
White folks are on the defensive trying to either explain their fear of black boys in hoodies or prove their innocence of such knee-jerk racial profiling.
But the problem here isn’t black and white.
Most of us from both races are shouting foul about the verdict that let Zimmerman have his gun, his freedom and his swagger back while the mother of a dead 17 year old boy cries herself to sleep at night.
But the verdict isn’t the problem, either.
In fact, the verdict is an example of our system of justice at work.
A jury reviewed the evidence, examined the law and then followed it to the letter.
In our country, which is still a pretty great place despite its glaringly obvious flaws, a person is presumed innocent until he is proven guilty, beyond any reasonable doubt, of violating the law.
The question put to the jurors wasn’t if Zimmerman was a racist. It wasn’t who was a better quality of person – though both parties had their dirty laundry aired in order to stir the fear pot on both sides.
It wasn’t even if Zimmerman deserved to be punished.
The question was whether or not he violated the law when he shot and killed Trayvon.
In Florida – he did not. The law says if you are afraid for your life you can use lethal force. There is no caveat for whether or not you created the situation.
I served for jury duty here in Baltimore. The defendant was a black man facing his third strike on a drugs and weapons charge. He was guilty. The evidence was irrefutable.
But every person on the jury liked the guy. We all understood that what he was doing wrong was the result of his background, his living conditions, his lack of education and advantage and, yes, his poor choices but he wasn’t actively hurting anyone but himself.
None of us wanted him to go to jail for any serious length of time. We sat in that room for two days stressing over it.
We weren’t talking about is guilt or innocence but how we could get him out of the consequences of our harsh, expensive and ineffective three strike rule.
We couldn’t. I don’t know how long he was sentenced for but I know that I hated the verdict that we had to send down to the bailiff.
The problem with what happened to Trayvon Martin is not the fact that the jury acquitted Zimmerman in his murder.
The problem here is the law, itself, which the jury was duty-bound to uphold.
The law allows an individual to feel bold enough to follow and to confront a “suspicious” looking character.
The initial law, commonly referred to as the Castle Doctrine, was established long before we colonized in America.
It essentially states that a “man’s home is his castle” and that if someone should intrude in a person’s home with the intent to do harm then the person can do whatever is necessary to stop the intruder without legal or civil consequence.
I think most of us feel that this law is reasonable. It was established under English Law in the 17th century but there is mention of the concept in the Bible and the Torah, too.
So there is a long precedent to argue the point that, in a civilized society, boundaries are necessary and a person’s home should be a safety zone from the madness of the world.
Sometime in the 80’s, there was an adaptation to the law known as Stand your Ground. The key distinctions to this law are that a person feeling threatened has no obligation to retreat and the threat can be perceived anywhere that a person is legally allowed to be.
There was a time when police and parents and community representatives taught us that if someone was acting in an intimidating or unreasonable way we should walk away from them to avoid escalating the situation and we should contact the authorities.
But avoiding confrontation is out of fashion.
We have popular reality shows depicting bitch fights in every area of life. We have musical celebrities getting famous not for their mediocre talent but for their thug like behavior. Even cooking shows won’t air unless there is some element of in-your-face hostility involved.
And now, in at least 22 states of this great nation, the law encourages us to stand our ground rather than avoiding a fight. It promises that if things get ugly we can always use our weapons.
I don’t believe Zimmerman woke up that morning thinking he was going to kill someone.
He was a concerned citizen getting involved and trying to solve the problems that face all our neighborhoods.
If I stretch, I can imagine he might have been trying to help Trayvon. Stay with me here. If he did suspect that Trayvon was a kid in trouble he might have wanted to stop him as a sort of intervention. I know I have done that a time or two.
I can’t make a judgment about what happened because I don’t know for sure. I wasn’t there. Any judgment I make will be based on my own bias and isn’t that what we’re mad at Zimmerman for doing?
I do believe Zimmerman genuinely thought he was keeping the streets safe from the criminals that have been plaguing the community.
I also believe that Trayvon was not one of those criminals and that Zimmerman did not give him the benefit of the doubt that all people deserve.
As a result he got his ass kicked and Trayvon is now dead.
If Zimmerman wasn’t fully aware of the fact that he had a loaded gun in his possession, I imagine he would have made much different choices when he saw a young black boy that, in his own personally biased opinion, didn’t belong in “his” neighborhood.
He would not have been so bold as to ignore the instruction of the real officers of the law who told him to stay in his car. He would not have been so brave as to intrude upon this kid and cause Trayvon to lash out.
And now, he feels righteous and exonerated. He believes God planned for him to gun down a seventeen year old boy.
Well I don’t believe in that kind of God.
I don’t believe in the kind of justice system that condones territorial machismo and encourages us to respond to our fears with violence.
The rash of gun violence in Baltimore could all be explained away with this Stand your Ground rule if Maryland allowed that adaptation to the Castle Doctrine.
Thankfully, we don’t.
But the states that do are sending a message to all of our disenfranchised youth about the value of certain people’s life.
That message will have wide reaching consequences like the one that was imposed on Trayvon and his family.
And now, outraged citizens are taking to the streets to clamor about how unfair it all is.
Let me say this about that:
I believe that racism still exists. I believe that our system has poison in it and that poison needs to be extracted for all of our sakes.
I believe that our punitive system is dysfunctional and failing.
But, if racism is getting worse in this country, it’s not because the system is set up the way it is. It’s getting worse because we, collectively, do not know how to respond to and diffuse a threat.
We point fingers. We complain. We fight. We shoot people. And our system stays the same.
We need to come together – all of the people who don’t want to live in a world that looks like Thunder dome – and we need to extract the poison from our system of government that keeps some of us at higher risk than others.
Poor people think they can’t do anything about it because they have no money or power. But I keep saying that people are like dollar bills. If you get enough of them together you can generate more influence than you ever dreamed.
According to Forbes, the reason the Gun Control lobby failed is not because of politics or racism or anything like that. They failed because they didn’t have enough passionate volunteers standing up and making their case.
The death of Trayvon Martin can be a catalyst for violence, increased racial tension, and any number of other hurtful things but that would be a terrible tribute.
Instead, let’s make it a catalyst for organization, mobilization and positive growth for this country.
As the saying goes, we need to make the hate motivate.
We need to go up against the NRA and gun lobbyists to change these laws that only serve a few privileged, short sighted, individuals at the risk and expense of the rest of us.
When they try to intimidate us into giving up we need to gather together and stand our ground.
Nancy Murray is pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing and the Publishing Arts at University of Baltimore. She is a playwright who as enjoyed full productions of her work at Fells Point Corner Theater, Silver Spring Stage and the Montgomery County One Act Festival where it was selected as The Best of Festival. Most recently she has been enjoying participating in the Submit 10 Series as both a playwright and as a performer.