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“Legal System Doesn’t Always Deliver Justice”: George Zimmerman Found Not Guilty, But Florida Sure Is

It feels wrong, this verdict of not guilty for George Zimmerman. It feels wrong to say that Zimmerman is guilty of no crime. If he hadn’t approached 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, if he hadn’t pulled his gun, Martin would be alive.

But that doesn’t mean Zimmerman was guilty of murder, not in the state of Florida. It doesn’t even mean he was guilty of manslaughter, though that was the middle ground I hoped the jury would find its way toward. (And in fact, the jurors asked for a clarification on the manslaughter charge during its 16½ hours of deliberation.) Here’s the problem: To convict Zimmerman of murder, the six women of the jury had to find that he killed Martin out of ill will, hatred, or spite, or with a depraved mind. The law didn’t account Zimmerman’s fear or feeling of being physically threatened.

But the physical evidence suggested that in the heat of the moment, Zimmerman could have felt both of those things. A forensics expert testified that from the angle of his wounds, it appeared that Martin was on top of Zimmerman when he was shot. The neighbor who came closest to being an eyewitness—there were none—said it looked to him like he saw a fight in which the person on top, straddling the person below, was wearing a red or a light-colored shirt. That, too, suggested Martin was on top. Zimmerman did have injuries: lacerations to the back of his head from the pavement and a swollen bloody nose.

It’s true that there was also evidence on the other side: None of Zimmerman’s DNA was found under Martin’s fingernails. None of Martin’s DNA was found on the gun. These facts contradict key aspects of the account Zimmerman gave police. Why believe him about the rest of his account? And even if you do give him the benefit of that doubt, why did Zimmerman feel so very threatened? Why did he pull his gun and shoot to kill?

I don’t know. I don’t think we ever will. Zimmerman didn’t testify; he was never cross-examined. “Zimmerman the man may remain as much an enigma as the events of the night in question,” Jelani Cobb wrote in the New Yorker earlier this week. And all of this focus on the moment of the shooting telescopes this story in a way that feels misleading. It leaves out Zimmerman’s history of calling the cops on black people and his decision that night to follow Martin. It leaves out his excruciatingly terrible, patently racist judgment.

But that doesn’t mean the jury’s verdict was racist. In Florida, a person “who is not engaged in an unlawful activity and who is attacked” has no duty to retreat. He or she has the right to “meet force with force, including deadly force if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself.” The jury could have faulted Zimmerman for starting the altercation with Martin and still believed him not guilty of murder, or even of manslaughter, which in Florida is a killing that has no legal justification. If the jury believed that once the physical fight began, Zimmerman reasonably feared he would suffer a grave bodily injury, then he gets off for self-defense.

Maybe that is the wrong rule. Maybe people like George Zimmerman should be held responsible for provoking the fight that they then fear they’ll lose. And maybe cuts to the back of the head and a bloody nose aren’t enough to show reasonable fear of grave bodily harm. After all, as Adam Weinstein points out, the lesson right now for Floridians is this: “in any altercation, however minor, the easiest way to avoid criminal liability is to kill the counterparty.” But you can see the box the jurors might have felt they were in. Even if they didn’t like George Zimmerman—even if they believed only part of what he told the police—they didn’t have a charge under Florida law that was a clear fit for what he did that night.

This is what Slate’s Justin Peters meant when he reminded us earlier this week that the state has to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt. “That hasn’t happened,” he wrote. “And if the prosecution can’t prove its case, then Zimmerman should walk.” This is our legal system. It doesn’t always deliver justice, and this case surely points to several ways in which Florida’s version of law and police work should change. It may demonstrate that Zimmerman should face federal civil rights charges.

But what matters most is that Zimmerman was charged with Martin’s killing, even if he wasn’t convicted. The state was late to indict him, yes, and acted only after a sorry spell of botched police work that may have affected the evidence presented at trial. But Florida did try to hold George Zimmerman liable for Trayvon Martin’s death. Martin’s family and all his supporters get most of the credit. His father, Tracy Martin, wrote on Twitter tonight, “God blessed Me & Sybrina with Tray and even in his death I know my baby proud of the FIGHT we along with all of you put up for him GOD BLESS.” Yes, they did fight, and their battle meant something—meant a great deal—to so many parents of black boys in hoodies, and to the rest of the country, too. Tracy Martin is right to stress that fight for justice at this sorrowful, painful moment. No ill-conceived law, and no verdict, can take that away.


By: Emily Bazelon, Slate, July 14, 2013

July 14, 2013 Posted by | Zimmerman Trial | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Individual Activists, Not Just Organizations”: The Social Network Behind Wendy Davis

It had to be orange. Pink is overused, green is for environmentalists, and purple isn’t a Texas kind of color. But orange is Texas, it’s the color of the UT Longhorns, and it’s gender neutral. Months before the special session of the Texas legislature was called, the main organizers of the pro-choice protests had already decided that their t-shirts were going to be orange.

By the end of the special session of the Texas State Senate on June 25th, a sea of orange t-shirted pro-choice supporters in the capital’s rotunda were capping off Wendy Davis’ filibuster with fifteen minutes of raucous cheering.

Davis became an overnight sensation because of her singular feat of courage and stamina. But her effort was the last piece of tile fitted into a much larger mosaic of people and actions that brought Texas progressives back to life. The success of the effort hinged on not just the existence of outstanding grassroots organizing and social media activism, but their integration.

Grassroots organizations playing in the same sandbox often behave like rivalrous siblings clamoring for the same donors and public recognition for their efforts. But for the first time in recent memory, according to several activists I spoke with, the local pro-choice groups in Austin played nicely with one another. Their guess is that the threat to access to reproductive health was great enough to put aside their usual differences.

Even with the advanced planning, there weren’t enough orange-shirted protesters to make a difference when the special legislative session began in late May of this year. The protester’s efforts were listless. Something was missing. Every energetic protest effort needs a spark, something personal that makes ordinary people go extraordinary lengths to make their voices heard. The Texas House Committee on Public Affairs’ decision to cut off public testimony with over 700 people in attendance at 4 am on June 21st was the needed catalyst. Word spread locally and online that women were being muzzled on a critically important piece of legislation just four days before the special session was due to end.

But the reach of traditional organizations online tends to be limited to their current supporters. The protest needed more than the usual suspects to grow significantly. And that’s where the secret ingredient came in: free agent activists. Free agents are individual activists who are savvy using social media and able to accelerate the spread of social protests and movements very quickly. Every successful protest movement over the past five years, from Wall Street to Cairo to Brazil, has had free agents stirring the social media waters and turning local events into national and international conversations.

Jessica Luther is an individual activist, unaffiliated with any particular organization, but adept at using her multiple social media platforms as vehicles for communicating with and organizing large numbers of people, and in this case, many who had never been involved in Texas politics before. Organizations were asking her for help in spreading the word about the special session and Jessica was tweeting as fast as she could. Her followers on Twitter increased by over 3,000 people from around 5,000 followers before the special session to over 8,000 afterwards.

Virginia Pickel was another critically important free agent. She lives in San Marcos, 30 minutes south of Austin, but the trip to the capital is often too much for her as she suffers from fibromyalgia. She posted contact information for reporters on her blog for other activists to use to send emails, Facebook messages and tweets. She also created a private Facebook group to orchestrate rides to the capital. Virginia administered the Facebook group but no one owned what happened on it or needed to take credit for organizing rides.

Moving large numbers of people to the capital, making sure they knew where to go and had food and water in the brutal heat required the online/on land nexus to work extremely well. And it did. The local ACLU created the hashtag #standwithwendy and others followed suit to create one narrative stream on Twitter and Facebook rather than multiple messages on multiple platforms. Facebook groups were created to organize rides, deliver foods and drinks to protesters and update people on the legislative process (critical with a Senate that does not have a formal schedule.)

The protest effort was like a fireman’s brigade, everyone pitching in and coordinating with one another in an emergency without asking for permission. This is in contrast to general grassroots organizing, when too many groups are rowing in different directions.

The final piece of the mosaic was Senator Wendy Davis. She fit the role perfectly with her pink running shoes, compelling personal story and incredible endurance. Again, the individual activists I spoke with said that they heard through the grapevine that Davis was going to filibuster beginning on Sunday afternoon, but there was no direct involvement between her efforts and the organizing efforts of the free agents and grassroots organizations. When she stood up on Tuesday morning for the first of her thirteen hours on her feet, she didn’t start a movement, she brought one home.

Jessica Luther said in reflection of the events of the first special session, “I’ve always believed a lot that Texans want to be politically engaged but don’t know how because it feels so stacked against us.” It is difficult to sustain the level of energy and enthusiasm the filibuster created. The job of organizations is to fill the quieter times with more field building and relationship building online in order to turn once again into a well-organized crowd seemingly spontaneously again.


By: Allison Fine, The American Prospect, July 10, 2013

July 14, 2013 Posted by | Reproductive Rights, Womens Rights | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Political Regression”: 40 Years After Roe, Reproductive Rights Are In Grave Danger

Dr. John J. Sciarra remembers his time as a young doctor in New York City nearly half a century ago. He remembers watching young women die from botched, illegal abortions because they had no safe options. At the time, he felt powerless to help them, and that fact haunted him.

That’s why he decided to join 99 of his fellow OB-GYNs to express his support for legal abortion. In 1972, that group of doctors published a statement in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology to make the case that giving women the means to end their pregnancies is a public health issue. Their timing was prescient; Roe v. Wade ended up legalizing abortion just one year later.

But, in the 40 years since, Sciarra has been surprised to see the state of reproductive rights moving backward instead of forward. “We did not anticipate the backlash that has turned abortion into an ideological battleground,” the retired doctor writes in a op-ed published in the Chicago Tribune on Friday. “So I have again joined 99 of my fellow professors of obstetrics and gynecology in another statement on the issue, published earlier this year, in the very same American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology.”

In the new statement, Sciarra and 99 of his colleagues point out that even though abortion has been legalized and medical practice has evolved to accommodate a new range of reproductive care, the politicization of the issue still threatens to derail women’s reproductive rights. When Sciarra first advocated for abortion rights back in the 1970s, he and his fellow OB-GYNs imagined that the “increasingly liberal course of events” in the U.S. would create a rising demand for abortion care. They thought the biggest problem facing the country would be a shortage of doctors available to perform abortions. It turns out they were wrong — the biggest problem is actually the web of state-level abortion restrictions that come between women and their doctors.

“We have had 40 years of medical progress but have witnessed political regression that the 100 professors did not anticipate,” their official statement noted. “Forty years later, the change is not liberal. Its effects will threaten, not improve, women’s health and already obstruct physicians’ evidence-based and patient-centered practices.”

Sciarra is just one of two OB-GYNs who signed both statements — the original one before Roe v. Wade, and the new one earlier this year — because most of the doctors who signed on four decades ago have since passed away. Sciarra notes that none of the doctors who signed the 1972 statement ever changed their minds and rescinded their support for legal abortion rights. And now, a new generation of medical professionals is reaffirming that position with the 2013 statement.

The doctors’ new statement is well-timed. Despite the fact that Roe marked its 40th anniversary recently, reproductive rights are being chipped away from every angle. And 2013 is shaping up to be one of the worst years for reproductive freedom since abortion was first legalized. State legislatures have enacted a record-breaking number of new abortion restrictions this year, including some of the harshest bans ever seen in the past four decades.

Sciarra and his colleagues aren’t the only medical professionals coming out against the mounting pile of politically-motivated abortion restrictions. The nation’s largest group of OB-GYNs, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, also recently condemned anti-abortion laws for “imposing a political agenda on medical practice.”

By: Tara Culp-Ressler, Think Progress, July 11, 2013

July 14, 2013 Posted by | Abortion, Reproductive Rights | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Just A Bunch Of Nativists”: Making Laws No Longer Part Of The Lawmaking Process

Reading through some headlines today, I came across one link that began, “House Votes To…” and I realized that no matter what the end of the headline was, you can almost always insert, “…Make Pointless Statement As Sop to Conservative Base” and you’ll be on target. In this case it happened to be a vote to block energy-efficiency standards for light bulbs, but it could have been any of a thousand things. You could argue, as Jonathan Chait does, that Republican lawmakers have basically given up on lawmaking altogether, and you wouldn’t be far off. But it’s more than that. They’ve reimagined the lawmaking process as a kind of extended ideological performance art piece, one that no longer has anything to do with laws in the “I’m Just a Bill” sense. It’s not as though they aren’t legislating, it’s just that laws have become beside the point.

Granted, the lawmaking process has always involved a lot of grandstanding and occasional votes taken more to make a statement than to alter the rules under which American society operates. Congress passes plenty of resolutions that do nothing more than express its sentiments, like saluting the patriotism of the East Burp High students who raised money to buy a new flag for their school, or declaring August to be Plantar Fasciitis Awareness Month. But those things always went alongside with actual lawmaking.

We’re now in a situation where the lawmaking process—you know, bills being written, introduced, voted on, that sort of thing—has, in the House at least, been given over almost entirely to this legislative kabuki, where the point of the exercise isn’t passing laws but making statements and taking positions. The current Congress is on pace to be the least productive in history when you measure by actual laws passed.

And it is really all about the House. Whenever you see someone say that “Congress” or “Washington” is stuck in gridlock or can’t get its act together, the underlying truth is almost always that it’s the Republican House gumming things up. There are more than a few crazy Republicans in the Senate, but as a group they’re willing to legislate, and sometimes even compromise with Democrats. Not so in the House. I think this reached its apogee when they took their 37th vote to repeal Obamacare a couple months back, in part because freshman Tea Party members hadn’t had the chance to perform the ritual. “The guys who’ve been up here the last year, we can go home and say listen, we voted 36 different times to repeal or replace Obamacare,” said South Carolina Representative Mick Mulvaney, with a touching compassion for his colleagues. “Tell me what the new guys are supposed to say.” There was a time when members of Congress would want to go to their constituents and tell them about funding they’d obtained for projects in the district or reforms they’d fought for and passed. These days, Republicans in the House know that none of what they vote for with such enthusiasm will ever even be considered in the Senate, much less voted on, passed, and sent to the president for his signature. But they don’t seem to care.

The kicker to this is that it’s only going to get worse, because the GOP is poised to erect a giant wall around the House of Representatives as its last redoubt of national power. As we’ve been discussing, the party is split between those who worry about their prospects in future presidential elections and therefore want to reach out to growing minority populations and soften the GOP’s hard-earned image as a bunch of nativists, and those who not only can’t stand the immigration reform currently on offer but fear only threats from their right in primary campaigns, since they’re in safe Republican districts. Most everyone in Washington now believes that immigration reform is all but dead, which is bad for the party’s next presidential nominee, but perfectly fine with House Republicans.

Although I’m always wary of assuming that the way things are in politics is the way they’ll remain for too long, we could well see an extended period in which a Democratic president is stymied by a Republican House dominated by legislators who couldn’t care less about legislating. It’s almost enough to make you cynical about politics.


By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect, July 10, 2013

July 14, 2013 Posted by | GOP, Ideologues | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Let’s Get Real”: Because It Happened In America, The Zimmerman Saga Was All About Race

Because it happened in America, the trial of George Zimmerman for shooting and killing Trayvon Martin was all about race. And because it happened in America, the people who benefit politically from the same invidious forces that led both to Trayvon Martin’s killing, and the acquittal of his killer, will deny that race had anything to do with either the killing or the verdict.

Suppose Trayvon Martin had been a 230-pound 30-year-old black man, with a loaded gun in his jacket. Suppose Zimmerman had been a 150-pound 17-year-old white kid, who was doing nothing more threatening than walking back from a convenience store to his father’s condo.

Suppose Martin had stalked Zimmerman in his car, until Zimmerman became afraid and tried to elude him. Suppose Martin had gotten out of his car and pursued Zimmerman. Suppose this led to some sort of altercation in which the big scary black man ended up with a bloody nose and some scratches on the back of his head, and the scared skinny (and unarmed) white kid had ended up with a bullet in his heart.

How do you suppose the big scary black man’s claim of “self-defense” would have gone over with a jury made up almost entirely of white women?  But of course this is America, which means that the scary figure in this story is the skinny unarmed teenager, because in America pretty much any black male over the age of 12 in this sort of situation is going to be presumed  to be the ”aggressor,” the “thug” – in short,” the real criminal,” until he’s proved innocent, which he won’t be, even if he’s now a dead, still unarmed teenager. And his killer is a grown man who provokes a fight with an otherwise harmless kid, starts losing it, and then shoots the kid dead.

Because this is America, pointing out that a black boy can be shot with impunity by a more or less white man because many white Americans are terrified by black boys and men is called “playing the race card.”  The race card is what the people who benefit politically from the fact that many white Americans are terrified by black boys and men call any reference to the fact that race continues to play an overwhelmingly important, and overwhelmingly invidious, role in American culture in general. And in the criminal justice system in particular.

Trayvon Martin was stalked by George Zimmerman because he was black. Trayvon Martin is dead because he was black. George Zimmerman was acquitted of killing Trayvon Martin because the boy Zimmerman killed was black.

If you deny these things, you are either a liar or an idiot, or possibly both.


By: Paul Campos, Professor of Law, University of Colorado at Boulder, Salon, July 14, 2013

July 14, 2013 Posted by | Racism, Zimmerman Trial | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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