Thursday, April 12, 2012

Trayvon Martin case is going to court

The Florida special prosecutor has brought charges against George Zimmerman, the confessed
of Trayvon Martin: Jeff Weiner and Rene Stutzman, George Zimmerman jailed on second-degree murder in Trayvon Martin shooting Orlando Sentinel 04/12/2012; Arelis R. Hernández and Susan Jacobson, George Zimmerman first appearance ends, judge agrees to seal witness information Orlando Sentinel 04/12/2012.

Charlie Pierce in You Want a Trial? You Got a Trial. Don't Make It a Show. Esquire Politics Blog 04/12/2012 has an interesting reflection on how George Zimmerman's trial is already taking on aspects of "a ceremony of public expiation" for the Sanford community in particular. He notes that if the Sanford police hadn't managed to appear like they were treating the shooting of an unarmed 17-year-old black kid lightly, then a deal on a manslaughter charge would probably look like a good outcome from both the defense and prosecution side. "A conviction for manslaughter-with-a-gun in Florida is no field of buttercups. You can do 30 years. You have to do at last 15, and the Florida penal system is not exactly noted for its advanced approach to rehabilitation rather than punishment." But he thinks the circumstances make it unlikely that the prosecutor will settle for such a deal. (All of this, of course, is predicated on what is currently in the public record.)

Pierce also defines the larger problem with "public expiation" trials:

But there is something that rings for caution in me about his dynamic. Trials are not supposed to be public rituals of expiation. (Sentences are, but that's another discussion.) They are not vehicles for forgiveness, or mechanisms by which a town or a city "gets past" something. (Neither, it should be said, are they supposed to throw a body to an angry crowd just because it demands one.) To turn this trial into a public ceremony by which Sanford absolves itself for the nearly criminal stupidity with which is has handled this case from jump is to substitute boosterism for justice, George Babbitt for Blackstone. It also is to invite the people who were going to treat this whole thing as Angela Corey's bending to the will of an angry mob if she did anything except run George Zimmerman for mayor to sharpen their arguments. I hope this whole thing doesn't turn into that. I have no doubts that it will. Sanford needs to acquit itself too badly. I wish it were possible to cut that deal. I have no doubts that it is not. [my emphasis]
Very worthwhile thoughts. But I don't feel comfortable with the general formulation that trials "are not vehicles for forgiveness, or mechanisms by which a town or a city 'gets past' something." It's true in the sense that, in this case, if white racism in the police department and the county prosecutor's office is a substantial problem there, this trial in itself will not solve it. That would require addressing those problems directly. But prosecuting people for crimes on a consistent basis is a a way to get past any sense that people in that county may have that a white person can shoot an African-American and suffer no legal consequences for it. And that in itself is an important thing.

The recent Tulsa murders, in which race is even a more blatant factor than it looks to be in the Trayvon Martin case, is a reminder of the presence of real, murderous white racism in the US today. But it's unlikely to become a national controversy in the way Trayvon's case did, in no small part because the Tulsa police didn't let the killers go once they were in custody. If the justice system is visibly functioning in racial murders like those, that dampens the sense among whites inclined to such a thing that racial murder is something they are likely to get away with.

Steve M at No More Mister Nice Blog in Remember the Good Old Days When Respecting Law Enforcement Was a Right-Wing Thing? anticipates the kind of racial demagoguery we are likely to hear from Zimmerman's defenders in FOXLand:

I hope Florida special prosecutor Angela Corey doesn't have a fifth cousin once removed who once met a '60s black radical or took a course with a black law professor. I hope she never gave money to a Democrat, ever, or posed for a picture with one (God help us if she ever posed, smiling, with Janet Reno). I hope she's never said an appreciative word about Rosie O'Donnell or Barbra Streisand. I hope there isn't a picture of the president of the United States in her office, or the U.S. attorney general, because both of those guys are, y'know, black.
Steve's ironic title is a reference to the standard rightwing reverence for law-enforcement, at least in the abstract. Actually, the civil rights movement and other movements for democratic rights generally focused on demanding that the law enforcement and court systems work fairly and according to the law. Demanding that law enforcement and prosecutors do their jobs right is nothing new for civil rights advocates.

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