It’s been five minutes so I feel the need to make somebody angry again. Here I go.
It’s been a year and change since George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin had their fateful confrontation, and it’s been a hell of a ride since then. The New Black Panther Party (not to be mistaken for a BET take on “Cougar Town”) offered a bounty on Zimmerman’s head, Obama claiming if he had a son he’d look like Trayvon, bonds posted and revoked for fraudulent statements…well, if New Orleans, a “chocolate city,” ever needs some nuts to go with that, Florida might be willing to spare a few!
The legal battle’s still ongoing, with the most recent developments being Zimmerman not using the “stand your ground” defense, hissing and pissing by attorneys on both sides, and the occasional sound bite on TV. I’m going to eschew any in-depth legal analysis and I’m not going to comment on the court proceedings. I’m going to place what little faith I have left in the judicial system on the judge and jury and hope they find the correct solution to all this and I’ll keep my fingers crossed that, if Zimmerman’s found not guilty, the world can behave itself and abstain from any rioting.
No, what I’m going to do here is take a look at the night in question and offer my two cents at the end. We all know the basics: neighborhood watch security guy sees unfamiliar kid, calls 911, follows and confronts kid, fight ensues, kid dies. There’s a lot of blame being cast about and some of it’s even justified. Some fault Zimmerman, some fault Martin. My take is about 70% Zimmerman’s fault, 30% Martin’s. You could probably make the argument for a 60/40 split, but I still contend the majority of the blame is on Zimmerman. Here’s why.
First, he was a “neighborhood watch captain.” That’s not a real law enforcement position. He was a security guard, a private citizen who walked around a housing community. While he was a security guard and authorized to speak in a limited manner on behalf of the community that had retained him, he was still a civilian. No badge, no oath of office, nothing.
Second, he apparently had a “cozy” working relationship with the local police, or so says Huffington Post. There were even accusations that he wanted to be a cop some day and was styling himself as a pseudo-police officer with his position.
Third, he called 911 to deal with Martin without having contacted him first or observing Martin doing anything other than walking back and forth.
Finally, when he was told he didn’t need to continue to pursue or interact with Martin, he chose to do so anyway. And there’s the kicker.
For Martin, up until he was confronted, he wasn’t doing anything more harmful than apparently talking on his cell phone. He was apparently in his dad’s neighborhood and wanted to talk to his girlfriend. When Zimmerman confronted him—and I use “confronted” purposefully, rather than “spoke to” or “questioned”—something happened to anger Martin sufficiently that he laid hands on Zimmerman. There’s no question that Zimmerman was attacked; mugshots and released photos show he’d been knocked around. Calm down, though, because I’ll tie this up in a moment or three. Now after having attacked Zimmerman, Martin was shot, apparently because Zimmerman felt threatened and feared for his life, or so Zimmerman claims.
What went wrong? A couple of things, and I’ll go with a sequential list as much as I can. The first thing that went wrong was Zimmerman lost sight of who he was and what his function as a “neighborhood watchman” entailed. A security guard, or any civilian acting in a similar capacity, has very, very limited powers and authority. If a security guard arrests you, it’s only a citizen’s arrest. It’s legal and binding, but he can only execute it under very narrow circumstances. As a representative of his employer, he can ask you who you are and what your business is. You don’t have to answer, though. He can even ask you to leave the premises, but if you resist, generally he can’t lay hands on you to physically remove you. (I worked as one in college many moons ago and even trained a few, so I do know a bit about what I’m saying.) A bouncer could physically remove you from a bar, possibly, but it’s doubtful a neighborhood watchman could run you out of an entire neighborhood without cause.
The second thing was that Zimmerman called 911 to have cops come deal with Martin. Right there he should have just sat back and kept tabs on Martin. Real cops were on the way to handle it; they’d just be delayed. Following that, Zimmerman chose to leave his vehicle and confront Martin. Now this is a “two-for-one” failure. When you call 911, you’ve admitted the situation is beyond your control and that you need the cops to help you. This does not give you carte blanche to dual-wield your .50AE Desert Eagles, holler “Yippee-ki-yay, motherfuckers!” and charge into battle so that you can stand tall amid the carnage when the police arrive. What you do is back off and wait for the cops. Withdraw from the situation if you can and defend yourself if you must. That’s it.
The second part of his failure was after the 911 dispatcher flatly tells him the police do not need him to continue to pursue Martin, but he did more than just pursue. He got out of his vehicle and approached Martin, instigating the ultimately fatal confrontation. I have no idea why he did this. Maybe he was emboldened by the knowledge that the cops would arrive and wanted to play hero. Maybe he was just tired of sitting in his car. All I do know is that he did it.
The third problem I can only assume had occurred based on what followed. In this, something was said or was said in such a way as to indicate Martin was being pursued, profiled, singled out, or otherwise messed with. There’s only one person alive who knows for certain and while he may tell the truth in court, you can almost certainly assume some kind of bias.
Fourth, after the confrontation, Martin was evidently angered by whatever Zimmerman had said and what he had done or was doing. Rather than taking the smart way out and calling the cops from his father’s home, Martin took matters into his own hands and got physical with Zimmerman. Maybe Zimmerman laid hands on Martin first, but I doubt it. Call it a hunch, but he doesn’t strike me as a physical bully. More on that later. In the middle of the dustup, Martin gets shot.
You may be asking yourself now why I’ve listed so many things wrong on Zimmerman’s account than on Martin’s. It’s simple: he did more wrong than Martin. While it’s not illegal to call 911 then play cop yourself, it’s highly inadvisable and unwise. Like I said, you called for the cops to handle it, so there’s obviously something going on you can’t handle. You should step back and let them handle it. Further, when the cops tell you that you don’t need to do something, listen to them. He was still on the phone with them giving them useless updates, and since he had implicitly yielded control to the cops by calling them in, they were calling the shots. But no. Rentacop has to play Robocop, either to bust a suspicious character on his own and snuggle up to the cops or to look good to the community that hired him on. Third, remember your place. If you’re a security guard, you’re just a security guard. You’re not a one-man incarnation of the 75th Ranger Regiment, SEAL Team 6, and the Boy Scouts. Know your job. Know your rights, responsibilities, and limitations and stick to them. Finally, shooting someone in self-defense, at least in my book, isn’t justifiable if you started the fight. If your mouth writes a check your ass can’t cash, that’s your problem. You can’t “stand your ground” by getting in someone’s face and provoking them, but maybe Florida law disagrees with me.
The final part I listed, where I fault Martin for following Zimmerman and escalating the confrontation, isn’t necessarily a criminal offense, although battery certainly is. Remember, Martin was 17. In most teenagers’ eyes, “seventeen” is synonymous with “bulletproof” and “immortal.” Yes, a lot of his posts on Facebook have him showing off his little gangsta grill and are full of boasts about how tough he is and so on and so forth. So what? Maybe he was a punk. Maybe he wasn’t. Grills, trash talk, and punkishness aren’t crimes and are certainly not capital offenses. What Martin’s big failing here was being a teenager and full of his own sense of self, maybe with a too-hefty dose of hot-headedness. Most clear-headed individuals in his place would have gone to Dad’s house and called the cops themselves, or complained to Dad to let him handle it. But teenagers are rarely clear-headed, especially if they’re pushed.
No, Martin does not get a free pass for assaulting Zimmerman. What he did was wrong, but when you were 17, did you always let logic rule the day? Were you always rational and analytical. Hell, no. Neither was I. It comes with the territory. Still, Martin was old enough to know better. Besides, if he was as much a thug as everyone claims, wouldn’t you think he’d know enough to think twice about jumping some crazy little mother who just jumps up and gets in his face in the middle of the night? Common sense would tell you the crazy one’s armed or flat-out legitimately nuts. But now we’re back to square one. Teenagers with common sense? Hm. That’s kind of an oxy-something, I think…
This is why I make the 70/30 split in assigning Zimmerman the lion’s share of the blame. He did not pay attention to his situation, he was not aware of or was willfully ignoring the strictures of his position and duties, he disregarded the police, and he initiated the conflict. Martin responded very foolishly and unknowingly contributed to his own shooting.
Earlier I said I’d speak more about why I don’t think Zimmerman was a physical bully and likely didn’t swing first. I’ve met people with similar mindsets (Rentacops wanting to be Robocops) where the line between good guy and asshole is the addition of a badge. Power corrupts, and false power is no exception. With his actions, he strikes me as the type who would hide either behind a real cop’s badge or use the limited authority of his own coupled with the public’s seeming ignorance of security guards’ duties and powers to intimidate or bluff people who trespassed on his turf. Witness the chain of events: he doesn’t confront Martin right off. He calls 911, an emergency number for a non-emergency situation. A black kid walking around talking on his cell phone is hardly life-threatening. There was no need for that, but he wants the cops there ASAP. After playing recon ranger and giving his little tactical updates to the dispatcher—a time in which Martin does nothing but continue to walk around—he decides to saddle up and confront Martin. By then, he knows the cops are closer to arriving, so maybe that boosted the testosterone levels a bit.
How would I have handled it? The same way I’ve handled similar situations before. Introduce yourself, making yourself plainly visible well in advance. “Hi, I’m so-and-so. I’m the security guard around here. I don’t recall having seen you here before. Are you new here? Oh, okay. Just checking.” Exchange minimal pleasantries and go on your way. That way you establish your presence and the new guy in town knows he’s being watched (if he’s a bad guy) or he knows he won’t have any more harassment from you if he’s a good guy. I’ve only called the cops if the situation warranted it and if the other guy wanted to push it. If they wouldn’t listen to me, I’d find someone they would listen to. Nothing is worth escalating a situation over.
That’s just my two cents’ worth. For all we know, the case may come out in any one of different ways. Zimmerman could be acquitted, he could be convicted on second degree murder, or he could be convicted on any one of a number of lesser included charges. I might be proven wrong on everything I said here or I may be proven right. Still, I’m convinced that had Zimmerman acted appropriately from the start, this whole affair wouldn’t have snowballed from some wanna-be strutting up and down the street to some kid being killed for nothing.