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February 26, 2012, Trayvon Martin, 17 years old, was shot in a Florida suburb by an armed man who had exited his vehicle in order to follow the teen and confront him on the street. George Zimmerman was 28, described in the media as multiracial because his mother is Hispanic. Trayvon Martin was African-American. His race, and the presumptions Zimmerman made based upon it and that we, the audience of Zimmerman's trial and the media blitz that followed Martin's death, also make have been central to the public discussion of this event both before and after Zimmerman's trial began.
I live in Texas, a state that is, in my opinion, over-fond of its guns. However, I have friends who are so anti-gun that they would have them all destroyed and the public unarmed. Living in Texas, I think it is impractical to advocate the removal of guns from the hands of citizens, even if you think that is a good idea that would make for a safer society. My more numerous friends who own guns, and are responsible owners of those weapons, would not give them up easily, and the attempt to strip them of their Second Amendment rights would radicalize them in ways I do not think would benefit either the gun advocates or their opponents. Weapons are linked to freedom in their conception of this country. My discomfort with guns is a product of my upbringing. My father was frightened of them, and my mother was uncomfortable with them. We did not have them in my home, and I have never felt the need for one. I do not own one, but I do not think take this as a moral position making me better than my neighbors. It is one of those distinctions without difference that produce different households able to communicate with one another in a community.
I am in a strange position regarding the Trayvon Martin case. I would not have all guns removed from the hands of citizens, but I think that what George Zimmerman did was not self-defense, but murder. I think this is true even if Trayvon Martin tried to fight him, smoked marijuana, or had fights at school. I think this is true even if Martin described the man following him as a "cracker". The use of a word with negative connotations, under the circumstances, was understandable, and does not contribute a meaningful element to the sequence of events that ended in the death of an unarmed young man.
The meaningful sequence of events creating the context of the crime can be noted without a discussion of race, and the nature of the crime becomes evident if we remove that element.
1. George Zimmerman observed a young man walking in the neighborhood.
2. George Zimmerman decided the young man appeared suspicious, and informed the authorities of the young man's presence from his vehicle.
3. George Zimmerman, armed with a gun, exited his vehicle to follow and confront the young man.
4. George Zimmerman was not known to the young man, nor did he know the young man he was following. He did not know if the young man got in fights at school, smoked marijuana, ditched classes, or had any criminal background at all.
5. Trayvon Martin did not know George Zimmerman. He knew only that an adult male was following him, and that he found this person to be threatening and believed him to be seeking a confrontation.
6. A confrontation between George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin occurred. Did Trayvon fight the man who was stalking him, or did Zimmerman attack Martin first? We do not know for certain, and I do not think it matters. If Trayvon attacked Zimmerman, he was responding to the threat this stranger pursuing him offered.
7. When the confrontation between Zimmerman and Martin occurred, Zimmerman was not acting as a man defending himself. He was pursuing a stranger. He was seeking a conflict. He was behaving as an aggressive individual, and he was an aggressor with a gun.
The question before us is whether self-defense allows a man, or woman, to pursue a person they think suspicious, when that person is engaged in no obviously criminal activity--neither brandishing a weapon nor breaking into a home, neither attacking someone on the street nor entering a vehicle known to belong to someone else--in order to create a confrontation. Does such aggression remain under the umbrella of self-defense, or is it something different? I think it is something different, and self-defense does not protect the pursuer who creates the confrontation.
There were, I am sure, events, judgments, and biases that Zimmerman thought explained and justified his action. Perhaps he was frightened. Perhaps he thought of himself as the savior of his community and neighborhood, protecting it from criminal elements that in his mind looked a lot like Trayvon Martin. However, the ownership and use of a gun is a serious thing. Killing someone is not automatically excused by fear, or by a desire to protect the community from those who do not look as if they belong. The consequences of misusing a weapon, of exercising improper judgment, must also be serious. George Zimmerman did not want to be a criminal. He did not pursue criminality as a career or an entertainment. However, he is still a criminal, and his good intentions, clouded as they were by racism and inappropriate leaps of faith, do not exonerate him.