The test of Communitarianism is what does it do to the community? The shooting death of teenager Trayvon Martin and verdict in the trial of killer George Zimmerman has brought out hard differences between Americans, but what does it do to community?
I wish I could come to some answers without naming the specific individuals involved and looking into the details of their actions and reactions. But communitarian thought has too long been stuck in the hypothetical in which academics ponder principles, but keep their hands free of the dirty details that are left to politicians. This was a failed approach. Achieving a balance of rights and responsibilities requires real detailed solutions based on real-world events. Nowhere is this more important than in matters of life and death.
It is interesting that the Sanford, FL gated community (Twin Lakes) in which George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin encountered each other was a place in which safety was emphasized, but in which many of the residents had their privacy invaded by thieves. You can put a gate around some houses, but that doesn't make them a community or make them safe.
17-year-old Trayvon Martin was a B student who majored in cheerfulness, according to his English teacher. He was a part-time student at a Miami aviation school, studying to be a pilot. He'd been suspended from school recently for truancy, tardiness and a graffiti incident at school, but had no juvenile record. He was no stranger to Twin Lakes. He'd been there several times before and had not encountered George Zimmerman. Trayvon was there with his father at his father's fiancé’s house. He belonged there.
29-year-old George Zimmerman was working as an insurance underwriter and working on an associate degree in Criminal Justice. He was a neighborhood watchman and resident of the 260 unit gated community. He had a history of run-ins with police, charged with assault of a police officer and resisting arrest in 2001 (charges were later dropped). In 2005 Zimmerman and his-then fiancé obtained mutual restraining orders on one another after his fiancé alleged domestic violence. Zimmerman had demonstrated a past tendency for physical confrontations and blatant disrespect for law enforcement. However, many have given supportive affirmations of his character and contribution to the community, particularly mentoring young people.
On February 26, 2012 in the rain and darkness their paths collided in a most terrible way. What happened?
As seen in the timeline of the event on Wikipedia, Trayvon Martin had gone to a nearby store and was captured on camera there at 6: 24 PM buying a snack and drink. Then Trayvon walked back to Twin Lakes while talking on his cell phone to his girlfriend. Zimmerman called the police non-emergency line at 7:09 about an unknown "suspicious guy" while following Trayvon on his way back from the nearby 7-Eleven. Trayvon got nervous about this unknown person tracking him in an SUV and attempted to run towards his father's fiancé’s house. Zimmerman tells the police dispatcher he's chasing Trayvon and is told not to follow him, that police are on the way. Zimmerman chases Trayvon in the rain and darkness for at least a full minute and then mentions that he's lost sight of him at 7:13. A gunshot was heard and recorded in the background of another 911 call at about 7:16 and the first police officer arrived at 7:17.
What we know:
- Trayvon belonged in that community through his presence with his father and had been there several times before.
- Zimmerman jumped to the conclusion about Trayvon’s presence there that he did not belong in the gated community.
- Taking on a chase, Zimmerman creates an encounter from his distorted perception, since police were on their way and he had observed Trayvon going into Twin Lakes, not fleeing (with stolen objects).
Here is an example of how suspicion breeds more suspicion. "Suspicious" is not a description of another or their behavior, but a depiction from a suspicious mind. For a personality prone to jumping into physical confrontation the result looks so predictable in hindsight.
The urgency to stop the break-ins plus a lack of understanding of who Trayvon was and that he belonged there created what is termed 'illusory threat' -- in Zimmerman's mind only, which was triggered by his impatience. He first called the police non-emergency line, indicating there was no threat, before chasing Trayvon. What happens in the animal world when a larger animal chases a smaller one? The predatory animal takes on an aggressive posture or lunges at the prey, which predictably begins to flee. This happens even with normally peaceful, domesticated dogs when they do not have this predatory instinct trained out of them.
We tell youngsters to beware of strangers and when a stranger follows this 17-year-old black kid and he sticks up for himself after fleeing doesn't work, we get a result quite opposite from what is normally intended here. No presumption of innocence. No individual rights and respect.
Communities are colored strongly by the mentality and social cohesion of the people, who are considered members as opposed to 'stranger' or villain. This is mostly determined not by affirmative knowledge, but by ignorance guided by presumption and prejudice. Gated communities too easily emphasize safety over community, exclusion over inclusion. This tends to amplify suspicion too easily.
Important: Adults, protect the children of a community! Every child deserves the right to be protected until they grow up (and presumably can protect themselves).
The Zimmerman Second-degree Murder Trial and its Verdict
"The verdict is a privileging of perception over reality. Just because a person feels afraid doesn't mean they are in danger. In fact, their perception may be so pathological that it puts OTHER people in danger. In this extreme case, taking a young man's life for no reason. The perpetrator claims to be the victim, and believes that s/he is the victim. And then when the "community" re-enforces the right to false perception regardless of how much pain it causes, the "community" (or state apparatus) becomes an enforcer of injustice."In order for the jury to conclude Zimmerman was "not guilty", they had to be confused by the very capable defense team and helped (or confused) by Florida's law. Zimmerman's legal defense first planned to use the stand-your-ground defense, but abandoned this. Why? Zimmerman clearly did no standing at all, but chased Trayvon Martin down. He was a predator if the whole timeline of the event is viewed. The defense team could not bring attention to this. They knew that they had to keep the jury's focus on the obscured confrontation in the dark that triggered the 911 calls and produced mixed testimony as to who did what. So by using a kind of conceptual legal lens focused on the events after Zimmerman turned that blind corner in the rain and dark, Zimmerman's lawyers distracted the jury from the facts about the call made to the police non-emergency dispatch (i.e., no threat), who initiated the chase, who was armed, etc. They had to emphasize the recent break-ins as justification for Zimmerman going off half-cocked. In this way the legal team avoided culpability for Zimmerman. This was necessary for their successful defense because in normal circumstances no one believes it is right to go chasing after someone in a non-emergency situation in which one has suffered no attack and initiate a physical confrontation.
-- Sarah Schulman, Distinguished Professor of the Humanities, CUNY, CSI at College of Staten Island (from her Facebook, 7/13/2013)
I believe the Golden Rule is the great mitigator of situations involving unclear, confusing laws. If a law is poorly written and unclear what can always be brought into focus are the people involved. Use the Golden Rule to fill the gaps. It should be the guiding principle for all our laws anyway.
However, an all-white jury who is either unable to or refuses to put themselves in the place of a black victim cannot apply the Golden Rule. By not recognizing his humanity - and only the humanity of the still living, breathing person before them - they continue the mistakes of past bigotry.
The verdict in the Zimmerman trial communicated a few things, among which are:
- A neighborhood watchman is apparently not required to defer to professionals and behave as instructed by police.
- An armed adult is allowed to initiate predatory pursuit of an unarmed child in a non-emergency situation in which no crime has been observed.
- Fear not facts allows one to use disproportionate force without legal consequence.
- A young black man's life has less value than another citizen's, even no worth at all.
How can any of these possibly bring confidence and security to a community? It doesn't. It injures trust and creates division and fear and pollutes it with an air of suspicion and aggression.
These events and this verdict are examples of things destructive to community. The laws and prejudices that allowed them need to be addressed.
Whatever kills community kills democracy.
ADDRESSING SELF-DEFENSE & GUN LAWS
The 'illusory threat' defense needs to go. This is what allows gun-toters claiming self-defense to get away with murder simply because they jumped the gun, reached for their weapon and gave no one any time to inform themselves or withdraw from a heated misunderstanding. Self-defense against an illusory threat should not be recognized by law. It gives a fear-licensed insurance policy to gun-toters that is not funded nor approved of by any community. No one really wants 'shoot first, ask questions later', which is what legal allowance for 'illusory threat' really is.
If a conflict is only a heated argument, one or both parties have a duty to withdraw, to retreat to prevent violence.
However, we should never be legally obligated to retreat from an actual attack. We should not be legally bound to retreat from criminal activity. To do so gives over the community to those who intimidate and ruin our communities with threats of violence. Individuals differ widely in their confidence in dealing with both verbal disputes and physical attack. Some will want to retreat from an attack and not use violence, but if everyone did this, only the violent would feel free. What we need is self-defense empowerment, which I address below.
Right to Self-defense Does Not Include the Right to Be Dead Wrong
The castle doctrine (one's home is one's castle and can be defended with force) should be firmly established everywhere so that anyone who wants to keep a gun can do so legally without a permit. A person has the right to defend themselves and their families from intruders -- even to the death. The presumption of innocence should prevail in the absence of contrary evidence.
However, as soon as a citizen armed with a gun steps outside the boundaries of their home they induce greater responsibilities. Normally, there are by-standers who could be injured more easily as well as witnesses who might give an objective account of the incident.
The legal principle in this area of the commons that balances rights and responsibilities is that force should be met only with equal force and if overwhelmed by numerous attackers only the force needed to stop the attack should be used.
The room for the 'illusory threat' defense should be stripped from the law so that no one gets away with murder just because they jumped to conclusions about someone based on their appearance. In any homicide investigation, once it is discovered the victim was unarmed or was not actually an aggressor (attacker) the killing should be considered a homicide instead of self-defense and charges should be brought as appropriate to the behavior (manslaughter at minimum, first- or second-degree murder for cases of active pursuit or premeditation).
Many laws in different states may be named after the 'stand your ground' principle, but in fact leave room for illusory threats and give no clear-cut grades of differing responsibility for actions in public versus self-defense at home.
Balancing Gun Rights with Clear Responsibilities
Our self-defense laws need to recognize a heavier weight of responsibility for using a deadly weapon or gun and especially for carrying one outside the home. Heavy responsibilities always call for proactive empowerment. No one is in better position to lead this than local law enforcement.
Community Policing That Empowers Self-defense
Permits should be granted to legally carry a gun outside the home (for those at least 21 years of age) only after a three-phase community-based, police/expert run course has been completed. The clearly stated goal of the course should be that students are empowered and confident in self-defense methods, with or without a gun. Classes should be mixtures of all types and ages of people and should extend over many weeks (6+) and be participatory in a way that requires recognition of other students by name (name tags), eye contact, partnered interaction, teamwork and role playing exercises.
The three phases of the gun carrying permit are:
(1) physical self-defense without a weapon (violence avoidance);
(2) conflict resolution basics;
(3) gun handling and practice hours.
Some students may want only the first two parts without seeking a gun permit. This kind of mixed involvement is good for the class. Only after all aspects of the course are completed in good standing with classmates and facilitators with full attendance (or appropriate make-up work) is the student's permit granted. Permits should be granted to everyone who finishes the work in good standing with class members without regard to race, color, creed or background.
At the end of these classes, before graduation, the class should be questioned by facilitators on their confidence in each classmate, affirming their confidence vocally in that person. If there is lack of confidence in a particular person, it is time for the facilitators to address the concerns and display leadership in conflict resolution. In this way group affirmation, leadership and free voice to concerns about anyone's readiness can be addressed in a positive, empowering way.
These steps are important for group confidence and for filtering mechanisms for police and class facilitators. A permit should be denied or delayed to someone who shows they are not ready with extra classes or practice prescribed.
The carry permit should be valid for at least as long as a Driver's License is valid (up to 10 years). Refresher classes can be offered periodically to inform students of changes in the law or advances in self-defense . Carry permits should be immediately suspended when they expire, and carrying a gun with an expired permit should have a heavier penalty than a minor traffic citation. It should be far more costly than the self-defense and gun safety course.
These courses can be offered for free or at low cost with scholarships for low-income persons (as is happening here in Portland, Oregon for Women’s Strength self-defense classes put on by the Portland Police).
The results of such programs in communities all over the nation will be a population who see the police as helping them be empowered, stay safe and recognize fully their second-amendment rights. Working with police in this fashion could change the relationships of communities with police forces everywhere. Police forces have earned a negative reputation in many ways. This is one way of redeeming those reputations by direct assistance to members of their community.
Trayvon Martin is a symbol of American community in its budding potential. He was well-loved, creative, talented with a great future ahead of him. His encounter with George Zimmerman on February 26, 2012 was a test of how much we value our young people - at least our black young people. It was a test of whether we as a nation will look further at how our lives in our own communities affects the social cohesion and political tone of the nation overall. It was a legal test for whether we will adjudicate based on established facts or fall back on old, unspoken preferences and prejudices.
We had our bigotry button pushed and struck back with bigotry. That button needs its circuit disconnected from our hearts and it just has not happened yet. It exposed the still festering division that runs through the blood of the nation.
We must first protect our children until they learn to stand up for themselves. We are a rights-based culture and always will be, but Trayvon Martin's right to presumption of innocence and security were trampled.
We must repair our self-defense laws and gun laws so that they do not allow predatory fears and fantasies to justify inappropriate use of force, but clearly empower people and promote self-defense and proactive involvement.
We need police to directly empower self-defense. This creates trust in law enforcement that they are interested in our right and ability to defend ourselves and creates confidence in law enforcement that we are prepared to do so.
We need to realign ourselves and our communities with the Golden Rule. After all, the only way individual rights build a truly free society is if we understand that my freedom is everyone's freedom.