Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The Bonfire of the Vanities - Florida Flavoured

The Zimmerman legal saga would be as close as you can get to a perfect farce if it were not so tragic.  No matter how one looks at it there was a young life lost in the incident, and lost totally needlessly. The greater tragedy is what the incident bespeaks of:  the wide gulf that separates American communities, by their race or ethnicity, by wealth, by cultural values. The trial and the immediate aftermath of the trial serves also as a great exhibit of the seemingly irreconcilable left-right political chasm that makes it hard and sometimes impossible to have an intelligent discussion. What I mean by ‘intelligent discussion’ is one in which both sides have the capacity to understand the other side’s point of view and the ability to reflect on one’s own beliefs, not to say have a firm rein on one’s own passions and preoccupations.  

 Observed from the relatively benign, boring Canadian North, all this looks like reports from another planet. Mind you, there are Trayvon Martin T-shirts worn here also, and bumper stickers proclaiming that guns are feared only by the criminals. All the same, we have been blissfully spared the sharp edges of the inequalities, and racially motivated nastiness. They exist here also, but they are much more subdued and truly on the fringe. Canadians know the meaning and value of compromise.  It appears, the Americans these days do not.   Apparently, there are only two ways to see the fatal incident in which Trevor Martin was killed. One, he was a victim of a stalking racist vigilante who set upon him without a cause as he was ambulating peaceably home from a convenience store. Two, he was a punk (never mind of which race) who got what was coming to him after bashing the head of a blameless citizen, protecting the property of his neighbours against the depredations of hooded hoods such as himself.  There seems an absolute disconnect between these two narratives. No possibility of a compromise. A verdict that favours one side of the divide will immediately spark a mass outrage on the other. There has been from the start an attempt to portray the incident and its handling by the authorities as having deep racial undertones.

         At the outset, I was entirely on side with Trayvon Martin family’s and the African-American community outrage at the police letting George Zimmerman simply walk out.  This certainly did not feel right, and the assurances of the police that there were no grounds to detain the shooter since he was battered and claimed self-defence ring hollow to our Canadian multi-cultural sense of fairness.  How could the police be sure at that time that George did not, as Tom Mesereau, formerly  Michael Jackson’s defense lawyer, put it later, bring a gun to a fist fight ?  Of course they could not be sure.  Zimmermann should have been detained automatically, and subjected to thorough medical examination i.e. an assessment of his injuries and state of mind. Since he seemed eager to cooperate, a lie detector test should have been administered, or at least suggested. I understand and share in the bitterness and outrage which was entirely in place, and well in advance of any outside political agitation and far-flung political theories of how to read the incident.  A routine investigative detention (up to what Florida habeas corpus statute allows) should be de rigeur.  There is no other way to demonstrate law enforcement is serious about enforcing the law. Not just to the African American community; to everone !  It make sense not just politically, not just procedurally, but - I pray you - humanly. You don’t want to hurt the family further in their grief, by putting in question the value of the life of their tragically lost son.   

         I am led to believe it was this act of stupidity prefigured and poisoned the whole process as it unfolded.  It is clear that the Florida state officials felt deeply embarrassed and resolved to make up for the dreadful gaffe of not detaining the shooter  and examining immediately his physical and mental state. The problem of course is the remedy  they cooked up was far worse than the ill it was to cure:  indict Zimmerman without grand jury, on the basis of the worst possible conjecture we can make about his motive, and let the jury chill this down to a compromise solution. Surely, they will assume that George must be guilty of something. (Just look at the pics of him : does this spooked guy look innocent to you ?)   If the jury doesn’t buy the sordid vilification of Zimmerman, they will still shudder to let him go free, and give us manslaughter as a way to equity. And so it went, surely one of the ugliest prosecutions in American legal history.  I hope it is long remembered that the special prosecutor in the case called Zimmerman a murderer after the trial's verdict, when he was acquitted of the charges against him by the jury of his peers. Disgraceful and impeachable ! 

     One of the saddest roles in this melodrama must go to the media, and more specifically to the TV networks and even more specifically, to CNN (which I have watched the most), although , the first prize for yellow journalism will be claimed by NBC for the doctored tape GZ made to the police dispatch!  It is not just that the pundits failed to halt (or thoroughly embarrass) the attempted railroading of George Zimmermann by the state. They helped to set up the farce and collaborated with this cynical abuse of process, right down to a staged rehearsal of the jury verdict. I certainly was not surprised the overwhelming majority of the studio guests “voted” manslaughter on Piers Morgan's show - so as to suggest that this is how most Americans felt about it.  (Most post-verdict polls, even from liberal strongholds such as HuffPost, show the "not guilty" verdict being supported by the majority of Americans who have an opinion).   Similarly, the legal experts called to comment seemed to be open to embrace the manslaughter compromise.  It was shocking to see bright, accomplished, lawyers by and large conniving in this ludicrously improvised state's case against George Zimmerman, and often witless when it came the flagrantly underhanded tactics the prosecution used.

      Just one example that somehow did not get commented on (TMK) by the bright legal minds:   a seventeen-year old is not usually refered to as a child in the legal contexts of proceedings that took place in Sanford (as it would be for the puposes of a family court) where the shooting victim was six-foot-one and 140-150 lbs high-school footbal player. It would have been far more appropriate to call him adolescent or minor but the sleazy misnomer seemed to have been deployed to argue that Trayvon Martin could not pose a real physical threat to George Zimmerman, and to disqualify the evidence of battery the latter suffered at his hands in advance of shooting him dead.  Not being a lawyer myself, and not knowing the procedural tolerance stateside for prosecutotrial rhetoric, I can only observe that in Canada the opening statement by Bernie de la Rionda would likely have been followed not by the defense's rebuttal but by a motion for a mistrial on grounds that the prosecution was inflaming the jury against the accused

   The badgering and scapegoating of George Zimmerman was constant and vociferous. In my reckoning, the worst offender was Piers Morgan. I have lost whatever respect I had for the man for the revolting animus he showed toward George Zimmerman, repeating ad nauseam the preposterous prosecutorial description of Trayvon Martin as a child "armed with Skittles and Arizona Tea".  Then there was Anderson Cooper, only slightly better, obviously having a more intelligent and guarded manner than Morgan. Nonetheless, his getting one of the jurors to talk and help her wade into series of statements to be picked apart and outed as racial bias and vile disrespect to a dead teenager was not helpful either. (Incidentally, I thought the interview was very interesting).   Clearly B-37 was over her head with Anderson who repeatedly ambushed her cleverly, in ways she was clueless about.  She had no idea what was going on when Anderson shot : "You really believe that ?" to her stated faith that George was afraid for his life. She thought Anderson was asking a question. 

       And then there is Sunny Hostin, a former federal prosecutor, now a legal analyst, who professed to have been stunned by the verdict and offered that justice took a day off.   She is alone among the CNN panelists who feels very passionately that Zimmermann should have been found guilty of a second-degree murder. She feels that the state proved beyond reasonable doubt that the act was one that manifested a depraved mind.  Ok, I guess it's a minority view. Problem is, she finds nothing wrong with Angela Corey's describing GZ as a murderer two days after the verdict that freed him while also believing that removing "Stand Your Ground" from the books would bring more civility to America.   But may I ask : what good are rules of law if we feel they are there only to advance our interests and aspirations ?  How can one speak of civility if one does not understand the idea of decency

   Is it decent for a major television network to fan the flames of racial hatred by pouring scorn and degrading comments on a pathetic figure who unwittingly, by not more than his lack of judgment and common sense, destroyed one life outright and brought terrible insecurity into his own life and the lives of those dearest to him ?  Does this make the country better ?  You really believe that Sunny, Anderson, Piers ?  

  Is it decent to deny the public the facts of the case and the relevant background, or to scatter them so they become meaningless, instead of serving a factually correct, balanced, judicious view of what happened ?  Why could it not have been what it was, right from the beginning...a stupid, violent, avoidable clash of two guys clueless about what the other was really doing ?  How is it possible that after more than a year of CNN (and Reuters) knowing the Zimmerman's family background the question of racial profiling can even be raised ?  George's great maternal grandfather was black; he grew up with two black girls in the house in the care of his grandmother; he had a black business partner; publicly took up the cause of a black homeless man beaten by a police-chief's son.  Is this a profile of a racist, prowling in the night in search of a coon to lynch ?  Is it decent to compare George Zimmerman publicly to a Charles Bronson notorious serial killer vigilante character three days after he was set free and the president called the incident a tragedy ? Is this how Piers Morgan understands calm reflection and widening the circle of compassion and understanding across America's communities ? 

     I have been strongly reminded during the trial and in the wake of the verdict of a brilliant book by Tom Wolfe The Bonfire of the Vanities, a book about America corrupted by insane greed, the rage of the underprivileged preyed upon by corrupt race baiters, unscrupulous operators in the justice system and manipulators in the media (distilled into one character).  More and more, the Zimmerman process seemed like life imitating art. The only thing missing right now is the ending that would match the book's conclusion of the malicious prosecution of Sherman McCoy rendered in the movie by Morgan Freeman. Worth watching, worth reflecting on !

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