The Local Lens
Published• Wed, Jul 31, 2013
By Thom Nickels
Two weeks ago, the name Trayvon Martin was repeated so often I was seeing the hooded seventeen year old in my sleep. Then, when the jury of eight women acquitted George Zimmermann of second degree manslaughter, the names of both men became an incessant buzz. The only way to escape the loud chorus would have been to leave the country or hide out in the mountains, but even then you probably would have heard violent echoes.
While very much aware of Zimmermann’s violent past, I also know that even "violent" people can walk into dangerous situations and become "victims" themselves. Then there’s this question: What happens when violent people meet other violent people? Or, more importantly: What happens when two violent jackasses collide?
The polarizing racial nature of this case (trumped up by the media and by our own president) compels people to take one side or another. On one hand, you have those who swear that racial profiling and racism motivated Zimmermann to follow and/or shoot Martin. Conversely, there are those who see Zimmermann as just a town watch guy doing his job. Both views have lost touch with the fact that Martin never did have a "sanitized’ image (or record), and Zimmermann, at least according to his police record, can never be described as reasonable and just.
Polarization like this begs the question: Who’s your bogeyman, Martin or Zimmermann? Of course, since Martin is dead, shot by Zimmermann, much of the emotional empathy (in the quest for justice) rests with the victim. Still, this does not necessarily mean that Zimmermann is a monstrous Cyclops, if only because he could have been acting in self defense.
Let’s back up a moment, please.
At the conclusion of the OJ Simpson trial I happened to be with a friend in his place of employment, when the jury’s verdict was announced. My friend, who is white, worked with 30 African American women who had been following the case so closely there was a television in the workroom. Based on the evidence, my friend and I were convinced that OJ was guilty. Not because he was a black man but because he appeared to be a scoundrel and was on record as having previously abused Nicole Simpson. (OJ could have been Irish, Scotch, or of Lapland descent, it didn’t matter to me.) Throughout the trial, it was obvious that there was a big racial divide among Americans: blacks siding with OJ either because he was black or because the LAPD had a terrible record on race relations.
When the jury announced OJ’s acquittal, the women in that Verizon room stood and cheered. The cheering went on for a long time. The sporting event nature of the reaction was disturbing. It was as if the women in the room had willfully refused to look at the evidence. It was, as one might say today, a quintessential Al Sharpton moment.
In the Zimmermann case, the protests focused on the fact that Martin was unarmed and that an armed, much older Zimmermann, shot and killed him. The extenuating circumstances and findings of the chief investigator didn’t seem to matter: if you have a gun and you shoot, you are automatically guilty.
There will always be those who will say that Zimmermann had no choice but to shoot Martin in order to save his life—just as there will always be people who will say that Zimmermann, the Cyclops, attacked Martin, an angelic teen boy who was mistaken for a thug.
Zimmermann was a short and overweight man—soft and spongy like a gingerbread man, as some have remarked-- not strong by any means, while Martin was his physical opposite. Zimmermann, in fact, suffered a broken nose, two black eyes and deep lacerations on the back of his head. Investigators were able to determine that he shot Martin from a distance of eighteen inches, which suggests that he did not shoot Martin after he was able to free himself from the younger man’s hold. It was also concluded that the screams heard on that pivotal phone call were, in fact, Zimmermann crying for help.
This does not change the fact that what is said before a fight is of great importance when discussing guilt or innocence. Some people commit murder every time they open their mouths: they can slash their victim with words that cut like a sword; they can demolish character, issue insults, and otherwise reduce their verbal victim to pitiful mincemeat, but if the victim of their taunts happens to be mentally fragile, unhinged, or a person of little self discipline when it comes to controlling their temper, there can be ugly consequences. A streetwise youth of seventeen is unlikely to take insults of this caliber like an understanding Mother Teresa but in fact is more likely to start throwing punches.
This is what seventeen year olds do, unless they are what some call advanced old souls.
Was Zimmermann cocky and mouthy? Did he tell Martin to take a hike, but in not such nice language?
Or did Martin begin the exchange by throwing out a nasty word or two of his own?
Somebody started the first verbal altercation, which in turn mushroomed into the beating on the sidewalk and finally, into a gunshot killing.
It was an awful tragedy, one that perhaps could have been avoided if somebody had taken the high road and walked away. What we have here, I think, is a case of two hot headed jackasses with a penchant for violence who crossed paths…and collided.
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