Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Trayvon Martin Case: Best Outcomes

The Trayvon Martin Case:
Best Outcomes

Few sentient U.S. citizens are currently unaware of the Trayvon Martin case.  It’s been 24/7 news-fodder-of-choice for almost two months.  An avalanche of speculation, leaks, outrage, and counter-outrage has choked not only assessment of facts surrounding the event but also some of the deeper issues this very sad incident reveals.

Not all of the deeper issues, certainly.  The case (it’s not technically a case at this point, as no charges yet have been filed) pries the precariously fastened lid off our country’s sub-rosa racism.  Self-styled neighborhood watchperson shoots an unarmed black teenager because said teenager is . . . climbing over a fence (taking a common shortcut to the housing complex where he’s visiting his father)?  Being ‘suspicious’ because he’s nervous about some unknown adult following him?  ‘Standing His Ground’ by throwing a punch at a menacing stalker?  Wearing a hoodie?  Being African American?  Carrying Skittles that might be micro-grenades and napalm masquerading as iced tea?

Who wouldn’t connect what followed to racial profiling, to fears of being arrested (or worse) for D[W]WB?  There are way too many instances of police and judicial overreaction (or worse) to dismiss what happened to Trayvon Martin as an isolated instance.  As part of this dangerous undercurrent, we can also consider the continuous radical demonization (or worse) of Barack Obama.

At this point, maybe the best thing for most of us is to watch what happens (and whatever that may be, it appears that nothing whatsoever would have happened if the public hadn’t become mobilized quickly, thanks largely to media-savvy activists).  If George Zimmerman finally is arrested, and is charged for manslaughter at the very least, almost everyone hopes that the facts of this case will be revealed and justice will be served, in a fair trial (rather than a trial-by media or a non-trial-by-sloppy-or-biased police work).  This would be the first good outcome.  [Note:  I wrote this entry this past weekend; two hours ago, the Special Prosecutor announced that Zimmerman will be charged, with details coming in a press conference at 6:00p.m.  Thus, half of the first good outcome seems to have happened.]

But that’s not all a trial might do.  Zimmerman’s defense will likely be based, in part, on Florida’s ‘Stand-Your-Ground’ law.  Already, the horror of a seemingly innocent young man’s death has drawn needed attention to this statute – and to the fact that Florida’s law was just the first salvo in a fusillade of similar laws recently enacted by states with newly elected Republican legislators and governors.  Gracias, Jeb Bush, for being the first governor to sign on the dotted line.

This, to me, is the second good outcome.  For reasons I can’t easily fathom (and the fact that I can’t – because I [and I’m presuming most people] didn’t know such laws existed, even in my state, until a month ago – is telling), these ‘stealth laws’ have been passed all over the country with little dissent.  Now their legal murkiness and scary presumptions are coming to light.  We hear increasing calls for review, even repeal, of these laws – laws that skate on or over the edge of sanctioning vigilante justice and, in any deadly confrontation, of giving an overwhelming presumption of innocence to the killer. 

Our legal system does indeed grant a presumption of innocence to an accused. But it hasn’t heretofore granted such presumption to someone involved in a deadly altercation BEFORE official investigations commence and/or an indictment is secured.   Or giving such presumption the weight to bar official investigations altogether.

Which brings up the third good outcome.  The tumult around this killing has roused actual journalists to investigate the forces behind these ‘Stand-Your-Ground’ laws.  These forces seem to be fruits of an orchestrated campaign by ‘ALEC’ (American Legislative Exchang Council), an heretofore under-the-radar conglomeration of interest groups purportedly dedicated to promoting business/legislative cooperation.  And if you believe that’s all it is, I’ve got a few crumbling infrastructure bridges to sell.

ALEC promotes lots of swell initiatives, including voter suppression laws (sorry, that’s how I can’t help but characterize ‘voter identification’ laws), plus anti-union, anti-immigration, and expanded concealed-carry laws.  ALEC actually writes draft versions of such proposed laws. Its present allies include infamous Republican Governors like Scott Walker (Wisconsin) and Rick Scott (Florida), not to mention newly elected Tea Party state legislators who have no earthly idea about how to draft legislation (because who needs legislation when government itself is the enemy?). For those interested, a comprehensive site that includes all the draft bills, plus a lot more, is:  And all you need to do is google ALEC and you’ll find tons of information about this organization, most of it gathered quite recently.

What’s not always clear from a solid Google search re ALEC is its supporters. So have some paranoid guessing fun: what group appears to be a major propulsive force behind ALEC?

The National Rifle Association. 

Blow me over with an AK-47.  Who would have thought that the NRA would be trying to orchestrate nation-wide campaigns to increase our country’s already insatiable appetite for guns and to deep-six issues that might be championed by people who might also want to reconsider our most permissive gun regulations?

(Full disclosure:  The NRA is not ALEC’s only backer.  So are the Koch brothers and remnants of the old ‘Moral Majority.’ So, perplexingly, has been the Gates Foundation, which has subsequently withdrawn its support.)

Evidently, some corporations who supported ALEC didn’t realize what they were allying themselves with.  As of today, Pepsi, Coca-Cola, Intuit, Kraft, and McDonald’s – mega-major corporate ‘partners’ – have disassociated themselves from ALEC.  Might this be the start of the exposure (and dismantling) of ALEC, which in my opinion would be a good outcome indeed?

Looking at even more distant ripples from the initial event:  could there be a fourth good outcome?  That United States politicians might shake off the fear-and-vote-induced sleepy seed of NRA retribution . . . and reconsider legislation about guns? 

Yes, we have an historically embedded 2nd amendment, forged in the crucible of the Revolutionary War.  Our founding documents also sanctioned slavery and second-class citizenship for women. 

Things change.  So should we. 

The Constitution and the Bill of Rights are brilliant, prescient documents, but they are nonetheless products of their times.  Our time is different.  As far as gun rights are concerned, I have never, ever, ever understood how the Second Amendment authorizes people to carry concealed weapons.  Or semi-automatic guns.  Or anti-aircraft shoulder-held missiles.  Or pocket nuclear bombs.

The Second Amendment’s purpose, as far as I remember from Constitutional Law courses, was to enable a citizen militia to defend itself and its community from possible colonial aggression (and, by inverted extension, to defend itself against Indian attacks). And in practical terms, to help far-flung settlers protect themselves and their families from wild animals and wild mauraders in days before 911.   No-holds-barred self-defense against merely ‘suspicious’ neighbors or potentially ‘threatenging’ situations wasn’t the issue (particularly when social ostracism or a punch to the kisser would suffice). Having the ‘right’ to possess infinite numbers of infinite types of lethal weapons wasn’t either.  Somehow, the NRA has convinced many of us to the contrary. 

Which circles back to the fifth possible good outcome of the Trayvon Martin case. Local, regional, even national reportage may be resuscitating itself.  It seems to me that the seriously troubling facts (front and center among which is the NRA’s involvement in ALEC and its legislative program), the ensuing public outcry, and the sobering legislative and lobbying back stories re Trayvon Martin’s death, already have galvanized investigative reporters. They continue trying to bring actual facts to the public’s attention – and exposing connections among previously obscured interests.  In so doing, they’re making a stand for the importance of what they do, rather than going quietly into that not-so-good night of newspaper/news magazine irrelevance, bureau shutdowns, and blogosphere irresponsibility.  In addition, new investigative consortiums, such as ‘Color of Change,’ are trying to expose ALEC’s  (and similar organizations’) agenda.

Ultimately, the revivification of relatively objective investigative journalism might be a truly positive outcome.

This country needs not only a free press but also an emboldened one.  I fear that the understandable national panic following 9/11 gelded our news gatherers, news reporters, and news analysts.  (And economic pressures on traditional news sources have played a huge part as well.)  Media vehicles may have changed in the last two decades, but the need for a vigorous, skeptical press has not. 

It’s up to us – the general public – to be smarter about how we consume and judge so-called news in today’s incredibly noisy ‘news’ environment.  It’s much harder than it was decades ago, when people relied on local papers and three mainstream networks to tell them what’s what – and when the ‘what’ was seen as basically objective.  We’re not now responsible as citizens if all we do is tune into/key up opinion sources that we already know will reinforce our ideological preconceptions. 

If we resist being satisfied with no-brainer, echo-chamber news ‘consumption,’ that would be the sixth positive outcome of the Trayvon Martin case.


  1. Very helpful for establishing the larger context for Stand Your Ground-- aka Shoot Your Gun ( just because you feel like it)-- laws. Thanks!

    1. Did you see that real guns will be allowed (concealed or open) at the Republican convention, whereas water pistols are banned? What if a convention-goer feels threatened because his favorite candidate is booed or something?