In the past three or four years, there have been somewhere between 12,000 and 14,000 murders in America each year. That averages about 36 each day. Yes, you read or hear about them in your local news, usually without much thought of what is a common event – but rarely do you see all the major cable channels devote virtually their entire programming with gavel to gavel coverage of what was a rather conventional murder trial. The question is: why? Why was the Zimmerman/Martin trial so eventful that is demanded such coverage?
The obvious response is that it involved “race” – with the victim black and the defendant (in this case) Zimmerman an Hispanic white. That explains part of the phenomenon, because of the 12,664 murders in 2011 (the last compete figures) only 193 were white on black killings – or about 1.5 percent. Yet, even with that tiny amount of involvement, this case rose to the top of the list for coverage. But this case had far more moving parts.
At the top it exposed the residual fear and suspicion the black community retains for the judicial system – and the verdict likely validates that fear. The Emancipation Proclamation was signed 150 years ago this year; and the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery two year later. Yet, the wounds have healed very slowly, and the scars obviously remain. Ironically, when the Emancipation Proclamation was invoked, there was no violent reaction on the part of the former slaves or their owners; but since then there have been historical reasons to be suspicious of white justice and the nation watched intensely. Thus the reaction when a white perpetrator is exonerated. Zimmerman is a metaphor for white justice, even if that justice was properly delivered.
A second issue “on trial” is the Florida’s liberal gun owner laws; and “Stand your ground” laws — along with its attendant vigilantism. To begin with, Florida’s gun ownership statutes simply note that no permit is required to possess or purchase a handgun, rifle or shotgun. A permit to carry a concealed handgun is done by applying to the Department of Agriculture and, “The application shall be completed, under oath, on a form promulgated by the Department of Agriculture and shall include the applicant’s name, address, place and date of birth, race, and occupation”. That’s it. Regarding the “Stand your ground” laws: Chapter 776 of the state’s code states: “…that a person has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force if that force is necessary to prevent death, great bodily harm or the commission of a forcible felony”. It further states that: “A person who uses force as permitted…is justified in using such force and is immune from criminal prosecution and civil action for the use of such force.” The statues are obviously more extensive, but the ease of gun ownership and the tacit allowance of firearm use, creates a lethal combination.
Several studies of states which adopted such laws show a statistically significant increase in the raw homicide rate, with only a very small positive effect on deterrence of crime. In an interesting irony, data from U.S. Vital Statistics, found a significant increase in homicide and injury among whites in these states, especially white males. Further, data from the Health Care Utilization Project, revealed significantly increased rates of emergency room visits and hospital discharges related to gun injuries in states which enacted these laws. These laws might well be also on trial in the Zimmerman incident.
A third component in imbedded in this trial is the role of the media itself. With hundreds of cable stations, radio stations and other media, the demand for content is voracious. Given hours of “free” content, it is easy for the cable news stations to simply turn on the court cameras and let them roll. And that is precisely what they have done. For hours on end; interspersed with endless (mostly inane) commentary from visiting attorneys, legal experts, or whatever.
A fourth phenomenon is the way the trial polarized liberals and conservatives. It is rare for these groups to disagree on a strictly non-political event, but the differences could be seen daily in the reporting on MSNBC and Fox News. Fox tilted heavily toward “self defense”; MSNBC saw it as “profiling”. The genesis harks back to the lingering suspicion of white justice in a southern state as previously noted.
Finally, there is the “prurient interest” factor, kind of like watching a bad car accident, or hearing about some lurid crime. Though not in that category, this did have some common elements: a young unarmed black teenager goes to the store…buys some Skittles… is innocently on his way home to watch a basketball game…and dies! But, he dies in a state with a “Southern” mentality, along with liberal concealed weapon laws, where armed self defense is encouraged, where a white man is the killer, and a national media hungry for a story. Thus we have the unique ramifications of the Zimmerman incident – and ones that set it apart from the other 12,664 murders that occurred during the year.