Mar. 24th, 2012

hradzka: (plane)
I tend to be very cautious in following the news stories of major shootings, because you have to watch out for 1) information changing and 2) narratives getting locked. The shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin by neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman is heading into the narrative lock stage. It's not just our conjectures that crystallize, but the *stories* we believe the event is telling. And Martin's death involves dueling narratives, not just about the meaning of his death, but about the legal circumstances. But the meaning and the circumstances have very little to do with each other at this point, because Trayvon Martin isn't just Trayvon Martin anymore. People aren't just pissed off about his death, they're pissed off over a *lot* of deaths, and about stuff that doesn't just involve death, but being hassled due to walking while black. For the folks who have these stories it's a major point of identification.

The legal issues at hand are 1) the actual shooting and 2) the performance of the police department. This is where the narrative can get thorny. Both legal issues have the same political narrative: Zimmermann is racist. The police department is racist. This conflates the two problems into one, which is compelling, but mechanically and from the POV of our institutions -- and for me, as a civilian with a carry permit -- these are two distinct problems. The Sanford PD has handled the case appallingly, but at the moment the state of Florida and the city of Sanford seem to be responding to the political pressure in appropriate ways, with the appointment of a special prosecutor and a vote of no confidence in the police chief. It is important that the politicos recognize the seriousness of this situation; at the same time, just because the public *thinks* Zimmerman guilty does not automatically mean that he *is,* and not only due to Florida's "stand your ground" law. There was a hell of a compelling narrative in the Duke lacrosse case, after all, and that didn't exactly turn out as everybody thought.

That said, looking at the evidence available, my most charitable assessment of Zimmerman (which is difficult to make) is that he is almost certainly criminally liable. (I will explain the "almost certainly" shortly.) It's surprising he wasn't arrested that night, though the initial police report makes it clear he was cuffed and the case was investigated as potential manslaughter. It's also worth noting that the most damning facts (Martin had left home on a brief errand to get some snacks) didn't come out till later, though they bloody well should have come out that night, because *Martin had his cell phone on him* and the cops still took three inexcusable days to notify his family. To me, that is item number one on the police malfeasance list.

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