Sunday, July 14, 2013
Blaming the jury is misguided. So how are you?
So far, anger is prevailing in the "morning after" comments I read on Facebook.
They are responding to the "not guilty" verdict in the trial of George Zimmerman. That's the neighborhood watch guy who pursued a kid on a rainy night in Sanford, Florida in February of last year. He got into a personal confrontation with the kid even after 9-1-1 told him to stay put, and ended up in a physical fight that ended with Zimmerman shooting the kid in the chest. The kid was armed with a snack and a soft drink he had bought at a convenience store.
The trial was televised and the story behind it is upsetting. The verdict was also disappointing to many. Unfortunately, the sampling represented by my Facebook feed suggests an awful lot of people are confusing the verdict with the root causes of the situation.
There is a widespread assumption that a "not guilty" verdict in the case could only be a miscarriage of justice. The possibility that the state did not make its case, did not reach the threshold of "beyond a reasonable doubt," that the jury may well have considered Zimmerman at fault but could not convict him on the basis of the prosecution, are not popular. Indeed, I'm seeing ugly personal accusations fly around in the heat of people's anger or disappointment; and angry indictment over the supposed inability of jury trials to convict people we think are obviously guilty. Weirdly, I'm even seeing instances of homophobic language being used to express disdain for the verdict (like the man who claimed that justice had been "ass raped").
In the end, I'm still happiest with the presumption of innocence and the higher threshold of "beyond a reasonable doubt" in a criminal trial. Even though it means that a person who is at fault may go free if the prosecution does not prove the case.
This is not naive. The system certainly has biases based on race and economic status. Even in this particular case, social inequality expressed itself. There was Zimmerman's decision that this kid was suspicious looking in the first place, and his judgment that he was justified in pursuing the kid even after he made his 9-1-1 call. There was the police, who initially let Zimmerman go. In order for there to be an arrest and charges, so we could even have a trial, there was a public campaign that led to the appointment of a special prosecutor. Economic status is also a major factor: those who can afford an expensive legal defense stand a better chance of walking away free, whereas those without resources have a harder time defending their liberty.
There is injustice all over this story and this trial, but it is not this jury's fault.
A better place to focus would be the root causes of the situation. What happened in George Zimmerman's mind that night, when he saw a kid walking home in the rain and decided this was such a threat he had to take his weapon out and pursue the kid even after calling the police to report a suspicious person? What makes a kid with dark skin wearing a hoodie more of a threat than someone who looks different? Why was the impulse to chase him down and detain him rather than than greet him and ask him if he was lost, if he had far to walk in the rain? Why were the police initially so quick to clear this shooter?
This person's state of mind led to the death of a young man, but it also led to a decision that has arguably ruined his own life, and once again divided friends and neighbors against each other and their society.
We can accept the verdict of the jury in this criminal process, even if it means Zimmerman gets away with killing a fellow human being. How pre-meditated the confrontation or the shooting was, we can never know with certainty. And it probably isn't even the most important thing to focus on.
How do we take responsibility for this story? For the story we are making out of it? What is the most helpful way to respond?
Shall we start to address, wherever we find ourselves in society, the biases that determine how we perceive things? Shall we address forthrightly the inequalities that allow some to enjoy privileged status while others are dealt injustice?
And in particular, can we begin to address racial bias as a natural phenomenon, being a product of conditioning? Can we do this with compassion? Racial bias ties minds into knots and interrupts lives. Everyone suffers.
Let it not go unsaid that the process begins with our own selves: owning our own knots and untying them with compassion, for ourselves and our world. Our problems originate in mind, and our minds express themselves in our actions.
Then, sharing the process.
Not everyone will recognize it or respect it right away. This is not going to satisfy a desire for quick and visible changes in the world. Indeed, the sentiment of this post would likely arouse derision in many. The ways of peace, reconciliation, and healing are frankly unpopular in the United States; they are scorned and laughed at.
If we insist on seeing the world change in our own lifetime, maybe we're still doing this for our own selves and not for all of us. Cultural change takes many generations. And it's not guaranteed to go the way we think it should.
So how about this: let's start with our own healing and awakening, and do it openly. Others will take from it what they will. And to blazes with the scorn and laughter. Let that strengthen our vow to grow up.