Last updateWed, 18 Oct 2017 10am

Neither guilty nor innocent: No Shoes, Please

I didn’t follow the George Zimmerman trial carefully; for the most part, I listened to summaries developed by legal analysts and journalists who were watching the proceedings like hawks. When the verdict was announced, however, I wasn’t surprised, and believe it’s probably the correct one. But I likewise believe the exonerated man is far from innocent.

There’s a lot to unpack in the analysis of this situation in which Zimmerman stalked, then fatally shot Trayvon Martin. For example, the Stand Your Ground law is something worth rethinking, considering the consequences of not obligating people to walk away from violence when a legitimate opportunity to do so exists. Self-defense is one matter, but untrained, self-appointed vigilantes are another, and the mingling of the two issues in this one case proved tragic.

The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) also needs scrutiny. ALEC is a nonprofit organization that unites legislators and multinational corporations in closed-door environments, and is inexplicably allowed to author many state laws, including Stand Your Ground legislation. With little oversight, the most powerful corporations in our country together with members of Congress submit pre-written laws – not mere ideas, but actual statutes that are voted on – to legislative bodies with no mention that they are ALEC-sponsored or ALEC-affiliated.

ALEC corporate members represent a wide range of industries: AT&T, Pfizer, Koch Industries and Farmers Insurance among them. After Martin’s death had become headline news, companies such as Coca-Cola, McDonald’s and Amazon pulled out of ALEC to avoid being affiliated with the NRA-backed, ALEC-authored Stand Your Ground law in Florida that was the legal justification for Zimmerman’s actions. To be clear, none of ALEC’s individual or corporate members are doing anything illegal. But I believe that’s part of the problem.

The other problem is the kryptonite of our national discourse – race. In a post-verdict press conference, defense attorney Mark O’Mara stated that had Zimmerman been a black man, he never would have been charged with a crime.

That pronouncement illustrates the great divide between the perceptions and experiences of white America and people of color, particularly around the subject of racial profiling. I think O’Mara is wrong, and incarceration rates of blacks versus those of whites certainly bear this out. However, O’Mara has probably never been stopped and questioned for simply walking down a sidewalk, or pulled over in his car just because. Black and brown men, on the other hand, face a lifetime of being targeted in this manner from an early age. O’Mara isn’t racist when he fails to recognize this chasm between white and black experiences in America, but I think he represents why our country remains defensive.

If George Zimmerman had been a 29-year-old black man, and Trayvon Martin a barely 17-year-old unarmed white boy, the verdict in that trial might have been the same because of Stand Your Ground. But the emotional response to the tragedy would differ person to person, community to community. Maybe that’s human nature, maybe that’s bigotry. But let’s start the conversation there. We can honor Trayvon’s memory by first being honest with ourselves.

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