I believe the jury in the George Zimmerman case (its “not guilty” verdict having been rendered a few days ago) did have a choice. They didn’t have to adhere to the judge’s restriction to only regard the immediate confrontation between Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin as the basis for their deliberation. Had they wanted to, the jury could have a returned a manslaughter verdict, rejecting Zimmerman’s plea of self-defense as inadequate when it was Zimmerman himself who started the confrontation.
How then to account for the “not guilty” verdict? I would suggest that group-think set in after many hours of jury deliberation. The jury seems to have concluded that Zimmerman was reasonable to suspect (and confront) a black teenager with a hoodie walking in an upscale neighborhood. Trayvon fit a racial profile, a very negatively charged one. And he paid the ultimate price.
Although a manslaughter or 2nd degree murder conviction may have been overturned by the appellate court, such a verdict would have sent an important message. If you “start it,” if you stalk somebody, whether your gun is displayed or not, you don’t have a defense if the person being stalked “stands their ground” and resists you.
Such a conclusion is grounded in the common sense we all developed in grade school, in the playground.
Why didn’t Zimmerman just walk away if Trayvon resisted him in a physical and perhaps threatening manner? My guess is that Zimmerman saw Trayvon, not as an individual, not as an equal, but as a stereotype: As a young black male who, despite his innocent behavior, had to be up to no good in a place (an affluent gated community) where he didn’t “belong.”
Verifying these suppositions for Zimmerman would impede his agency. So he acted without thinking, as a vigilante cop. Presumably, Zimmerman believed if he didn’t act, which included in this case the possibility of using deadly force, the “suspect” would get away.
If you carry with you strong racial stereotypes, together with a wannabe cop mentality, it’s relatively easy to justify vigilante-style action, since a person of color doesn’t count for much anyway in the eyes of a racist.
That said, Zimmerman is neither a sadistic killer nor a psychopath. Nor is he a person who killed out of passion or some deep-seated emotional reason that only a psychoanalyst can ferret out. Rather, he is just an ordinary guy who saw, maybe still sees, his mission in life as going after punk-looking, usually black, teenagers because they are the ones allegedly threatening our neighborhoods and communities.
The question to be asked by sociologists and psychologists is what kind of upbringing, what kind of primary and secondary school education, and what elements in the popular culture are conducive to the development of the Zimmerman mindset?
The George Zimmermans of this world are certainly not the consequence of aberrant genes or hormones gone awry. They may not even enjoy what they do. They may actually have a sense of obligation to their communities and society in general. For George Zimmerman, racially profiling and stalking Trayvon was all in a day’s work, albeit unpaid work.
But for Trayvon, the target of a mindset that sees black teenagers as at best dangerous suspects and at worse armed and dangerous hoodlums, it was literally his last day on earth.
How do we save the Trayvons of the world from being treated as guilty until proven innocent? From being shot to death while trying to escape from harm?
After all, didn’t Trayvon have a right to life? Didn’t he have a right to stand his ground after being confronted by a larger, and most definitely armed and dangerous, man?
And shouldn’t someone be held accountable for his death?
Richard Sahn is a professor of sociology and an at-large contributor to The Contrary Perspective.