Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman: Neighbors

Besides the death of a 17 year old, perhaps the saddest part of all this is that it shows us how debased our sense of community has become. Even worse, this has deepened the rifts that divide us as a nation.

George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin. He was found not guilty on all counts by a jury of his peers. Martin was black. Zimmerman wasn’t—he was mixed race but decidedly not black. When police arrived at the scene, Zimmerman’s nose was broken, and he was bleeding from the head. He claimed he had been attacked, and after a struggle for his gun (during which he said it became simply “the gun”), he shot Martin in self-defense. Police handcuffed him, confiscated his weapon, and took him to the station. After a few hours, they decided there was no evidence to contradict his story and released him.

Justice is an intrinsic good, something with which our God concerns himself deeply. Paul tells the Galatians, “Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap.” The way I read it, the Apostle is relating a divine guarantee that justice will be met. God’s minister for justice is the political state. God’s people are right to be deeply concerned with its administration, and we are right to oppose miscarriages by our political leaders. After all, in our government, the people are sovereign, so injustices on the part of the state are in some way our fault. We, the sovereign people, have developed a system of procedures and rights for those accused of crimes, concerned that the power we concentrate in the hands of the state is subject to abuse.

These rules will sometimes result in injustice: Guilty men will go free, and innocent men will suffer. We have adopted Blackstone’s formulation that “the law holds it better that ten guilty persons escape, than that one innocent party suffer.” Recognizing this, we should avoid deferring to juries as many want to do in this and other cases (I still hear people solemnly repeat the jury verdict when discussing the O. J. trial as if this ends the conversation). Rather, we should acknowledge that it is possible justice has been denied but that we count that cost as worth the way of life our system provides.

Justice is not God’s only attribute, though—and a good thing too, or we’d all be rightly condemned. It is His love that spares us now, a love that evokes an unspeakable grace by which God forbears from giving us our due. Jesus calls our attention to His Father’s proclamation, “I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” Our hearts should delight more at redemption than punishment.

God created us to be in community with Him and with one another. Even those outside of Christ are creatures of community. This is the basis of all human society. It should not surprise us that God commands the Israelites to love their neighbors as themselves, nor that the Lord Jesus ranks this as one of the two great commandments.

When we talk about Sanford, Florida, we usually have in mind a kind of human storage area where many individuals reside. But that town should be a community. When the story blew up, the first reaction (in no small part due to instigators) was to organize along political or racial lines. Some African American leaders encouraged African Americans to see this as yet another example of white dominance destroying a young black life. Some reacted by pointing out that Zimmerman isn’t white and that he doesn’t really seem like your typical racist—he’s Hispanic, has black family members and friends, and voted for Obama.

Still, maybe Martin’s blackness triggered his suspicions subconsciously. Or maybe the police would have looked a little harder if Martin were white. I really don’t know enough about Sanford, Florida, to argue with that, so maybe it’s true. But even that reaction played into the distortion of community. Zimmerman wasn’t a member of the Hispanic, or White-Hispanic, or whatever, community living in Sanford. Trayvon was not a member of the black community living in Sanford. These two men lived blocks away from each other, a concept you may recognize as the colloquial definition of neighbor. They were part of the Sanford, Florida, community.

It was that community whose police responded to the scene, whose court tried the case, whose citizens sat on the jury. Yet the state insisted on bringing in a prosecutor from another jurisdiction, not because they thought the county couldn’t handle it, but because we have absolutely no respect for community. The hotshot prosecutor overcharged, and then—in a move offensive to our common law heritage—tried to add a new charge at the very end when it looked like the jury wasn’t buying the state’s story. The jury acquitted Zimmerman on second-degree murder (calling this charge a stretch is being charitable) and manslaughter (this is where the case should have been focused—reckless disregard for life), the announcement of which caused an explosion on the social networks.

Everyone acted as if they were both a) there that night and b) experts on Florida criminal law. The amount of thoughtless, hurtful talk on both sides of this case is spiritually depressing, the kind of thing one loses sleep over.

President Obama hasn’t been able to resist commenting on this case. Despite his understandably high profile in racial politics, this was a state law matter being prosecuted in a county court, and he risked tainting a pending trial at the very least. Where do you find a juror in Sanford that hasn’t heard the President say his son would look like Trayvon Martin?

The media pushed the race angle relentlessly, even to the point of editing part of a recorded call to make it sound like Zimmerman volunteered Martin’s race (the dispatcher asked first; the news editor was later fired).

Those pushing back on the race narrative have been just as deplorable, for example by using a photo of a (not dead) thugged-out black guy whose name happened to be Trayvon Martin to push their own story that Martin was a bad apple. The idea is that blacks form their own subculture that is separate from our main culture—just look at him! Nevermind where he goes to school or votes—no, the important thing is he’s wearing his pants low.

Here in Austin, some people held signs at the capitol that read, “I am Trayvon Martin” and “Walking while Black Is Not a Crime.” Martin wasn’t apprehended for walking in the neighborhood, nor did anyone suggest he committed a crime by walking. It isn’t at all clear how these people were identifying with Martin. Austin, Texas, is 1,150 miles away from Sanford, Florida, yet these people spent their Sunday afternoon relating to Trayvon Martin rather than whoever lives across the street from them.

Martin was Zimmerman’s neighbor. Maybe Zimmerman had a duty not to carry his pistol when out running personal errands, just in case he got into fisticuffs and the weapon could turn the fight into something much more than it would be otherwise. Even if Martin threatened Zimmerman’s life, I doubt anyone would have died without the gun there (I gather it takes a lot to literally beat someone to death, and the police were on their way). But we can imagine a thousand other situations in which the gun prevented a crime or saved a life.

Alas, Trayvon Martin is dead. It hurts a community in a unique way to lose a 17 year old, a fact that must make the national scrutiny on this case even harder to bear. Issues of privilege and discriminatory justice will be addressed by writers far more talented than me. I only humbly suggest we imagine: What if our cities, towns, and neighborhoods were places where people thought of themselves as neighbors living in community with one another? What if we were just as enthusiastic about the city council as we are about the U.S. Senate? What if people were proud to list their Ward or housing area on their Facebook page alongside their religious denomination, job, and education?

What if we were serious about Jesus’ commandments?

About S. L. Whitesell

Lee studies law at the University of Pennsylvania. He and his wife Joanna live in Philadelphia.

  • Esther O’Reilly

    “Even if Martin threatened Zimmerman’s life, I doubt anyone would have died without the gun there (I gather it takes a lot to literally beat someone to death, and the police were on their way).”

    I just wanted to press a little on this bit—were you trying to imply something specific here about whether Zimmerman should or shouldn’t have pulled the gun? I think we should try to put ourselves in his shoes. I wouldn’t presume to say he had a moral obligation not to defend himself, or that he should have just lain there and let Trayvon continue hammering him. (Not saying this is what you actually think, I’m just trying to point out that your words might give that impression. And a lot of other people have in fact said really misleading stuff—like that Zimmerman “gunned him down” or what have you.)

  • S. L. Whitesell

    Esther, no, I am not saying that. The right of self-defense is both a natural right and an important part of our heritage. I was considering what duties Zimmerman might have had to his neighbors – maybe not to go about armed. If he had been out shopping like most of us and this exact same scenario had occurred, Martin would probably not have killed him by pummeling him on the ground. My conclusion is that he did not have this duty. We can always come up with scenarios where a person’s choices cause something terrible to happen. Sadly, that scenario happens to be the one that played out in this case.

  • Esther O’Reilly

    I’m not sure I’d go so far as to say Zimmerman owed it to the community to not be armed while on parole, but I agree he should have acted more responsibly given that he was. When you’re armed, you should try as hard as possible to avoid a confrontation where you may need to use deadly force. It sounds like Zimmerman was definitely a little over-hyper, which led to the arguably unnecessary and practically unwise choice to follow Trayvon on foot. I understand why he did and that he was enthusiastic about keeping the community protected (particularly since they’d recently had a rash of crimes), but the fact that he was armed was a factor he should have taken into consideration. I think it was a tragic situation that just spiraled out of control. Martin paid for his violence with his life, and Zimmerman’s going to pay for his foolishness for the rest of his life.

  • Esther O’Reilly

    This NRO piece seems to sum things up perfectly:

    http://www.nationalreview.com/article/353389/just-verdict-editors

    “We wish the purveyors of perpetual outrage would pause from saying stupid and inflammatory things about the Zimmerman case long enough to consider how wrong they were about it all along. But we are realists.”

  • Susan_G1

    “Everyone acted as if they were both a) there that night and b) experts on Florida criminal law. The amount of thoughtless, hurtful talk on both sides of this case is spiritually depressing, the kind of thing one loses sleep over.”

    I love these words. I wish we all would lose sleep over this; we should. But while we may well ponder this in our waking hours, I don’t think we will lose sleep over it. Much to my regret, I don’t think we will come together in community to grieve over this death, or the others that will follow because of our lack of participation in our own day to day governance. I do not know who my jurisdiction’s district attorney is. I don’t know if he was elected or appointed, and if so, by whom or why. But I will start to wonder about this and other things. So, thank you for this.


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