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Trayvon Martin and the Irony of American Justice

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A photograph that appeared in a chain e-mail about Trayvon Martin. In fact, the man in the photo is a 32-year-old rapper considerably larger than the slain 16-year-old.

In trying to assess the the killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman, two seemingly conflicting conflicted truths emerge for me. The first is that is that based on the case presented by the state, and based on Florida law, George Zimmerman should not have been convicted of second degree murder or manslaughter. The second is that the killing of Trayvon Martin is a profound injustice. In examining the first conclusion, I think it's important to take a very hard look at the qualifications allowed for aggressors by Florida's self-defense statute:

Use of force by aggressor.--The justification described in the preceding sections of this chapter is not available to a person who:

(1) Is attempting to commit, committing, or escaping after the commission of, a forcible felony; or

(2) Initially provokes the use of force against himself or herself, unless: (a) Such force is so great that the person reasonably believes that he or she is in imminent danger of death or great bodily harm and that he or she has exhausted every reasonable means to escape such danger other than the use of force which is likely to cause death or great bodily harm to the assailant; or (b) In good faith, the person withdraws from physical contact with the assailant and indicates clearly to the assailant that he or she desires to withdraw and terminate the use of force, but the assailant continues or resumes the use of force.

I don't think the import of this is being appreciated. Effectively, I can bait you into a fight and if I start losing I can can legally kill you, provided I "believe" myself to be subject to "great bodily harm." It is then the state's job to prove -- beyond a reasonable doubt -- that prove--beyond a reasonable doubt--that I either did not actually fear for my life, or my fear was unreasonable. In the case of George Zimmerman, even if the state proved that he baited an encounter (and I am not sure they did) they still must prove that he had no reasonable justification to fear for his life. You see very similar language in the actual instructions given to the jury:

In deciding whether George Zimmerman was justified in the use of deadly force, you must judge him by the circumstances by which he was surrounded at the time the force was used. The danger facing George Zimmerman need not have been actual; however, to justify the use of deadly force, the appearance of danger must have been so real that a reasonably cautious and prudent person under the same circumstances would have believed that the danger could be avoided only through the use of that force. Based upon appearances, George Zimmerman must have actually believed that the danger was real.

If George Zimmerman was not engaged in an unlawful activity and was attacked in any place where he had a right to be, he had no duty to retreat and had the right to stand his ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he reasonably believed that it was necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.

There has been a lot of complaint that "stand your ground" has nothing to do with this case. That contention is contravened by the fact that it is cited in the instructions to the jury. Taken together, it is important to understand that it is not enough for the state to prove that George Zimmerman acted unwisely in following Martin. Under Florida law, George Zimmerman had no responsibility to -- at any point -- retreat. to--at any point--retreat. The state must prove that Zimmerman had no reasonable fear for his life. Moreover, it is not enough for the jury to find Zimmerman's story fishy. Again the jury instructions:

George Zimmerman has entered a plea of not guilty. This means you must presume or believe George Zimmerman is innocent. The presumption stays with George Zimmerman as to each material allegation in the Information through each stage of the trial unless it has been overcome by the evidence to the exclusion of and beyond a reasonable doubt. To overcome George Zimmerman's presumption of innocence, the State has the burden of proving the crime with which George Zimmerman is charged was committed and George Zimmerman is the person who committed the crime.

George Zimmerman is not required to present evidence or prove anything.

Whenever the words "reasonable doubt" are used you must consider the following: A reasonable doubt is not a mere possible doubt, a speculative, imaginary or forced doubt. Such a doubt must not influence you to return a verdict of not guilty if you have an abiding conviction of guilt. On the other hand if, after carefully considering, comparing and weighing all the evidence, there is not an abiding conviction of guilt, or, if having a conviction, it is one which is not stable but one which wavers and vacillates, then the charge is not proved beyond every reasonable doubt and you must find George Zimmerman not guilty because the doubt is reasonable.

It is to the evidence introduced in this trial, and to it alone, that you are to look for that proof.

A reasonable doubt as to the guilt of George Zimmerman may arise from the evidence, conflict in the evidence, or the lack of evidence.

If you have a reasonable doubt, you should find George Zimmerman not guilty. If you have no reasonable doubt, you should find George Zimmerman guilty.

This was the job given to the state of Florida. I have seen nothing within the actual case presented by the prosecution that would allow for a stable and unvacillating belief that George Zimmerman was guilty.

That conclusion should not offer you security or comfort. It should not leave you secure in the wisdom of our laws. On the contrary, it should greatly trouble you. But if you are simply focusing on what happened in the court-room, then you have been head-faked by history and bought into a idea of fairness which can not possibly exist.

The injustice inherent in the killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman was not authored by a jury given a weak case. The jury's performance may be the least disturbing aspect of this entire affair. The injustice was authored by a country which has taken as its policy, for the lionshare of its history, to erect a pariah class. The killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman is not an error in programming. It is the correct result of forces we set in motion years ago and have done very little to arrest.

One need only look the criminalization of Martin across the country. Perhaps you have been lucky enough to not receive the above "portrait" of Trayvon Martin and its accompanying text. tex. The portrait is actually of a 32-year old man. Perhaps you your were lucky enough to not see the Trayvon Martin imagery used for target practice (by law enforcement, no less.) Perhaps you did not see the iPhone games. Or maybe you missed the theory presently being floated by Zimmerman's family that Martin was a gun-runner and drug-dealer in training, that texts and tweets he sent mark him as a criminal in waiting. Or the theory floated that the mere donning of a hoodie marks you a thug, leaving one wondering why this guy is a criminal and this oneis not. was one is not.

We have spent much of this year outlining the ways in which American policy has placed black people outside of the law. We are now being told that after having pursued such policies for 200 years, after codifying violence in slavery, after a a people conceived in mass rape, after permitting the disenfranchisement of black people through violence, after Draft riots, after white-lines, white leagues, and red shirts, after terrorism, after standing aside for the better reduction of Rosewood and the improvement of Tulsa, after the coup d'etat in Wilmington, after Airport Homes and Cicero, after Ossian Sweet, after Arthur Lee McDuffie, after Anthony Baez, Amadou Diallo and Eleanor Bumpers, after Kathryn Johnston and the Danziger Bridge, that there are no ill effects, that we are pure, that we are just, that we are clean. Our sense of self is incredible. We believe ourselves to have inherited all of Jefferson's love of freedom, but none of his affection for white supremacy. dependence on slavery.

You should not be troubled that George Zimmerman "got away" with the killing of Trayvon Martin, you should be troubled that you live in a country that ensures that Trayvon Martin will happen. Trayvon Martin is happening again in Florida. Right now:

In November, black youth Jordan Davis, a 17-year-old Jacksonville resident, was the only person murdered after Michael Dunn, 46, allegedly shot into the SUV Davis was inside several times after an argument about the volume of music playing.

According to Dunn's girlfriend, Rhonda Rouer, Dunn had three rum and cokes at a wedding reception. She felt secure enough for him to drive and thought that he was in a good mood. On the drive back to the hotel they were residing at, they made a pit stop at the convenience store where the murder occurred. At the Gate Station, Rouer said Dunn told her that he hated "thug music." Rouer then went inside the store to make purchases and heard several gunshots while she was still within the building.

Upon returning and seeing Dunn put his gun back into the glove compartment, Rouer asked why he had shot at the car playing music and Dunn claimed that he feared for his life and that "they threatened to kill me." The couple drove back to their hotel, and claim they did not realize anyone had died until the story appeared on the news the next day.

After killing Jordan Davis, Michael Dunn ordered a pizza.

When you have a society that society which takes at its founding the hatred and degradation of a people, when that society inscribes that degradation in its most hallowed document, and continues to inscribe hatred in its laws and policies, it is fantastic to believe that its citizens will derive no ill messaging.

It is painful to say this: Trayvon Martin is not a miscarriage of American justice, but American justice itself. This is not our system malfunctioning. It is our system working as intended. exactly as it should, given all of its programming. To expect our juries, courts, our schools, our police to single-handedly correct for this, is to look at the final play in the final minute of the final quarter and wonder why we couldn't come back from twenty-four down.

To paraphrase a great man: We man--We are what our record says we are. How can we sensibly expect different?

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3267 days ago
3268 days ago
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9 public comments
3262 days ago
“We believe ourselves to have inherited all of Jefferson's love of freedom, but none of his affection for white supremacy.”
Washington, DC
3268 days ago
This is all true.
3268 days ago
Nicely written analysis of why the Zimmerman verdict was inevitable.
3268 days ago
Read this
3268 days ago
The verdict is a travesty. That is all.
Baltimore, Maryland
3268 days ago
Did you actualy read the article above? To paraphrase, the verdict is exactly what you should have expected, considering the way America treats and has treated black people its entire history.
3268 days ago
"We believe ourselves to have inherited all of Jefferson's love of freedom, but none of his dependence on slavery."
Brooklyn, NY
3269 days ago
Coates, as always, is fantastic.
Orange County, California
3269 days ago
"[I]f you are simply focusing on what happened in the court-room, then you have been head-faked by history and bought into a idea of fairness which can not possibly exist.

The injustice inherent in the killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman was not authored by jury given a weak case. The jury's performance may be the least disturbing aspect of this entire affair. The injustice was authored by a country which has taken as its policy, for lionshare of its history, to erect a pariah class. The killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman is not an error in programming. It is the correct result of forces we set in motion years ago and have done very little to arrest."
3269 days ago
Mandatory reading of the day.
Portland, OR

Just When You Think You Are Out...

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I'd estimate that about half of the questions I get over at Ye Olde Advice Smackdown these days are about sleep. Sleep and babies, that is, as in how to get them to go the fuck to it.

I'm (obviously) no expert here — I've read maybe two whole books on the subject and probably not all the way through because they have hardly any zombies in them — but I guess people figure that after three babies who were all over the sleep map I MUST have done something right in order to get them all to the point we're at now: Three mostly non-damaged children who sleep through the night. In their own beds! At a regular bedtime, even! 

It is a glorious thing, to no longer feel so singularly consumed by the Pursuit Of More Sleep, or to worry that you're doing something wrong and not instilling the right boundaries or self-soothing skills. The sense that you COULD be getting more sleep than you are if you just did CIO or co-slept or breastfed or formula-fed or added solids or listened to whatever crackpot theory your mother-in-law is talking about.

I read those long, detailed emails from new parents and remember what that feels like: an ever-darkening, non-linear tunnel of brain fog, one that you KNOW is supposed to end at some point but every time you take a few steps forward you smack facefirst into a wall. Sleep regressions! Growth spurts! Teething! Weaning! Night terrors! Confusional arousals! STOP CHANGING ALL THE RULES, YOU DUMB BABY.

And so I do my very best to diagnose what's going on with their baby (which is quite often nothing more than a baby being a goddamn baby, I'm sorry), and take very extra special care to not tell them the real actual truth: IT. NEVER. ENDS.

Oh, it gets better. Worlds better! Believe me, I do not take my children's sleep habits for granted. Ike's self-soothing skills are now so advanced that our "pre-nap routine" basically consists of me dumping him into his crib at some vague afternoonish point and being like, "Welp. This was fun. We'll talk later." And then I leave him to sort the rest out. Everybody heads to their room around 8 p.m. for bedtime and I frankly have little to no idea what happens after that. They go to sleep at some point and...I dunno. Conspire. Plot. Recharge. 

But it's not like "uninterrupted sleep" is a badge you unlock once and then get to move on to the next mission without ever thinking about it again. (NEXT UP: THE POOP ON POTTY ACHIEVEMENT.) For the rest of your life, your sleep can be fucked with, at any point, on any night.

In a way, this can feel even WORSE, because you're not expecting it. Because you've become soft and spoiled, because you're now like, I DGAF that I have to work tomorrow, Imma stay up late and watch the shit out of A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas because I am the boss of me. And then you drag your ass to bed at one in the morning only to be woken an hour later because:

  • Someone had a bad dream.
  • Someone's ear hurts.
  • Someone's tummy hurts.
  • Someone threw up.
  • Someone's diaper leaked.
  • Someone has a very important question about where weather comes from.
  • Someone's scared of the thunder.
  • Someone's scared of their closet.
  • Someone's foot is stuck in the crib slats.
  • Someone's thirsty.
  • Someone's hungry.
  • Someone can't find their blankie.
  • Someone can't find their other blankie.
  • Someone can feel their bones.
  • Someone cannot feel their bones.
  • Can your brain leak out of your ears, Mom? 
  • Can it, Mom?
  • Mom?

(I'm sure down the road this list will change and expand to include all manner of super-fun teenage hijinks, like "oh hey I just remembered I have a project due in five hours, do we have any posterboard?" and "oh hey I burned down the Christmas tree with a comically oversized joint and have to embark on a magical 3D quest to replace it, can I borrow the car?")

And sometimes Mercury goes retrograde and you get a string of wakings a few nights in a row. We're currently on night NUMBER FOUR.

On Friday, Ezra showed up at my bedside around two in the morning (clutching his blankie, his other blankie and a framed photo of Noah's first grade class), claiming to be "scared of the scary things." He climbed into bed and proceeded to thrash around and spoon with a neck-gripping vengeance for the rest of the night. 

On Saturday, Ike's diaper leaked. And then he continued to loudly protest even after I changed him and the crib sheet, because everyone knows that once a diaper hits capacity you're totally done sleeping for the night. FACT. 

On Sunday, Noah decided that 1 a.m. was the perfect time to have a discussion about how much he dislikes his current summer camp and how he planned to refuse to go the next day, just a heads up, something to look forward to in a couple hours. 

Last night, it was Ike's turn again. This time there wasn't really a reason; he seemed just as annoyed to be awake as I was. But whereas he settled back down within 10 minutes, I spent the next four or five hours wide awake, brain fully engaged in the art of Finding New Things To Worry About. I eventually gave up and went downstairs to sit on the couch and play with my phone. (So to everybody woke up this morning with a lot of new lives from me in Candy Crush Saga: YOU'RE WELCOME.) 

In other words, I am so tired right now I can't even see straight. I don't know how you people with little babies do this every night. Someone give me my Sleeping Through The Night badge back; I'm too old for this shit. 

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3274 days ago
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The cost of pregnancy and childbirth


Holy cow is a lot, according to this New York Times feature. In fact, it’s more than any other nation in the world, but our health outcomes aren’t substantially better.

From 2004 to 2010, the prices that insurers paid for childbirth — one of the most universal medical encounters — rose 49 percent for vaginal births and 41 percent for Caesarean sections in the United States, with average out-of-pocket costs rising fourfold, according to a recent report by Truven that was commissioned by three health care groups. The average total price charged for pregnancy and newborn care was about $30,000 for a vaginal delivery and $50,000 for a C-section, with commercial insurers paying out an average of $18,329 and $27,866, the report found.

The entire article is well worth a read, but this deserves emphasizing: “In most other developed countries, comprehensive maternity care is free or cheap for all, considered vital to ensuring the health of future generations.”

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3276 days ago
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Boys Will Be Boys Because We Want Them to Be

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Source: Getty ImagesBoys will always be boys. What kind of boys they are, is up to us parents. Unfortunately, most boys and girls are exactly the types of children our society wants them to be. As brave as we need our children to be, that example must be set by us. Society as a whole, however, still encourages the “Boys will be boys, and girls will be girls” mentality.
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