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Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The Judge Made Them Do It With Zimmerman, Alexander and CeCe

When we look at the puzzling and disturbing series of recent court decisions, it is tempting to focus on the jury and the possible errors or even biases they might have had. It is tempting because it is the jury that touches the case last. The judge is only following the jury's vote when he/she reads the verdict. However, it is not just the judge's instructions that the jury must follow in reaching a verdict, it is the judge who limits which can be used by the defense and what evidence is allowed in the courtroom.

As the Miami Herald pointed out, Zimmerman's conviction was unlikely because the only eyewitness who could contest Zimmerman's account, Trayvon Martin, was dead (click here for the article). We had no chance to hear the other side regarding who started the altercation and whether Martin had a legitimate reason to feel threatened. We do know that the judge in the case had no problem with Zimmerman's lawyers using the "Stand Your Ground" option though Zimmerman carried a gun into a potentially confrontational setting.

Now compare Zimmerman's case with that of Marissa Alexander who was convicted and sentenced to 20 years in jail for firing a disputed warning shot to fend off an allegedly abusive husband during an argument. The judge prohibited Alexander's lawyer from using the "Stand Your Ground" defense because Alexander, in the judge's opinion, could have fled the house where she was living rather than return from the garage with a gun. We should note that Alexander claimed that the door exiting the garage could not opened but this could not be proved. Here, we can think of what happened to Alexander in this way, if you feel threatened by someone who has entered your house, you are legally obligated to leave the place where you stay to be secure in order to avoid defending yourself. Alexander was convicted on 3 counts of aggravated assault with a firearm and was sentenced to 20 years. She was convicted because the prosecution persuaded the jury and the judge into believing that Alexander fired the shot in anger in order to kill rather than out of fear.

Of course there are some other complications here. Alexander was cited for domestic abuse later on at her husband's house. This incident might have sold the jury on believing that she fired the gun in anger rather than out of fear. But, again, why should a person be legally compelled to hit the streets during a threatening situation when our homes should be considered a safe place?

We could also consider the judge's actions in the case of CeCe McDonald, a Black man who has been undergoing a chemical transgendering process. McDonald accepted a plea bargain in the stabbing death of Dean Schmitz. On June 5th, 2011, McDonald and some friends were involved in an argument in a group of people that resulted in hate speech and then violence.  McDonald was struck in the face and Schmitz was fatally stabbed. And though this case had complications, such as McDonald's changing testimony over who actually stabbed Schmitz, the real concern was over the evidence that the judge prohibited from the hearing. The forbidden evidence included, Schmitz's swastika tatoo (deemed irrelevant because McDonald was unable to see it), Schmitz's record of violence, and questions to an expert witness regarding the rate of crimes being committed against transgendered people which could have proved that McDonald was experiencing fear more than rage (click here for an article). 

So here we see why when the accusation of racism comes into play regarding the Zimmerman case, we cannot be content with just examining Zimmerman himself. What we need to know is whether we have a systemic racism, that is a racism practiced by society's institutions--in this case, the courts. Though no broad statement can be made using a sample of 3 cases, these cases show that different standards can be used by judges possibly depending on the race of either the accused or the victim. And when we consider performances of the judges in these three cases, the incarceration rate of minorities, the race of those targeted by Stop And Frisk procedures, and race of those targeted by voter verification laws, we need to consider whether systemic racism is in play here rather than just personal problems exhibited by some troubled souls?

When we return to the above three cases, we might have a deja vu experience. For with each minority person above, there were problems that could rationalize, in the minds of some, the ends each person suffered. Trayvon Martin allegedly assaulted George Zimmerman. Marissa Alexander attacked her husband. And McDonald gave contradictory reports as to who stabbed Schmitz as well as lived a questionable lifestyle.  

Thus, in the minds of many Americans, Martin, Alexander, and McDonald, might have brought problems on themselves. And the reason for this interpretation could be because many of us White Americans require that any victims of our system qualify for sainthood before we are willing to listen to their grievances. This is why the philosophy and actions of people like Martin Luther King is given lip-service by many Whites who are apathetic about the plight of today's underclass. By requiring that King and his fellow activists remain nonviolent, both externally and internally, we took for granted the Herculean accomplishment they achieved. BTW, please realize that this is in no way a criticism of King. King's approach to overturning unjust laws was both morally and practically correct. What is being pointed out here is that our system and even many of us, make society's victims jump through so many hoops that it becomes nearly impossible for them to gain relief. 

For the most part, King and those with him were relatively without fault so that many of us White Americans felt safe and compelled to acquiesce to some of their demands. Had they failed in remaining nonviolent or had they shown too much anger, we would have concluded that the then current discrimination would be nothing more than Blacks getting what they deserved. However, this requirement for superhuman ethics and the feeling that non-angelic Blacks were getting what they deserved might have been nothing more than camouflage for the guilt we suppress for our active or passive participation in racism and other offenses. Here, we must hide from our consciences otherwise we would have to admit our shame with regard to racism. We would also have to acknowledge that we deserve our victims' wrath. This might be one of the reasons why King's emphasis on love and nonviolence appealed to so many Whites. It allowed many of us to obtain a get out of jail free cad for past sins while giving the appearance that we were addressing current problems.

Unfortunately, much of that racism went into a temporary remission only; it was never eradicated. So what we are seeing today is the reemergence of a cancer that we thought was gone. Though economically speaking, racism in America never took a rest, there occurred important changes in the legal system that told us things were improving though how much things improved is debatable. But now we seem to reverting to a previous state for minorities while we comfortably live in denial of the abuse of others because we can find fault with these victims.

History shows that we find differences to be threatening and thus we seek to suppress them. We want to keep those who are different under our thumbs so that their deviation does not become a communicable virus. That is why we prefer those who are different to have faults. We prefer this because when they become victims, we don't have to care or even listen. After all, beggars can't be choosers and sinners can only beg for mercy. 

But is such an attitude Biblical? Does such a mentality come from the mind of Christ who came to serve not to rule and to give His life for His enemies? Does either persecution of or ignoring the needs of the oppressed imitate Christ in any way? Is pointing to the faults of others an excuse for not caring and what we should have learned from the parable of the two men praying?

For way too long a time period, American Christians have controlled others through laws and punishment and they have done so in the name of love and the other person's best interests. At best, this is called paternalism. And the trouble with paternalism is that the "good intentions" that serves as its basis blind us from our abusive practices and the harm we cause and this occurs while we enjoying the benefits of our domination. And the only way to escape paternalism's siren song is to imitate our Savior who came for those outside of His gang. He came for us who, at the time, were His enemies. And that means we need to investigate and, if necessary, do what we can for the all of the Trayvon Martins, Marissa Alexanders, and CeCe McDonalds whom we come across realizing that helping includes challenging the system.

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