I’d say the chances of George Zimmerman spending time behind bars for killing Trayvon Martin are about the same as Sergeant Robert Bales doing time for killing those 16 Afghan villagers the night of March 11. Zero.
Like most things that happen in America these days, the Trayvon Martin case is turning into yet another hearse trundling the Republican Party to its doom in November.
A brief outline of the facts. It’s February 26. Trayvon Martin is a 17-year old black kid watching a big basketball game in the home of his father’s fiancée in Sanford, a small-town outlier of Orlando, Florida. Sanford has a population of 55,000, about a third black. The fiancée lives in a mixed-race, gated community. At halftime Martin goes to the corner store and buys an iced tea and a bag of Skittles.
It’s raining and Martin has his hoodie up over his head and is talking to his girlfriend on his cell phone. On his way back he is spotted by 28-year old George Zimmerman, a cop wannabe, self-appointed neighborhood crime watcher. Apparently he has pestered the police station for months with reports of “suspicious 12-year-olds” walking through the neighborhood. Zimmerman — white dad, Latina mother — is wearing a red jacket and blue jeans. In his pocket is a Kel-Tec 9mm automatic pistol.
Zimmerman calls the local station and says he’s following a suspicious character. He describes Martin as black and says he’s acting strangely and could be on drugs. The teenager starts to run, Zimmerman says. A 911 dispatcher asks Zimmerman whether he’s following Martin, and Zimmerman says he is. The dispatcher says clearly that Zimmerman doesn’t need to do that.
There’s a lull in the transmission and you can hear Zimmerman mutter clearly to himself, “These assholes … They always get away.” On other calls between Zimmerman and the 9/11 dispatcher he refers to “fucking coons.” CNN says the words are indistinct, which they aren’t. CNN also says the case is “complicated,” which it isn’t.
Later the Martin family lawyer relays Trayvon’s girlfriend’s account of her last call with him. She says he told her that he was being followed. She says: “Run.” He says, “I’m not going to run, I’m just going to walk fast.” The girl later heard Martin say, “Why are you following me?” and then another man — Zimmmerman — saying, “What are you doing around here?” The girl thinks she heard a scuffle because his voice changes like something interrupted his speech.
Mary Cutcher was in her kitchen making coffee that night with her roommate, Selma Mora Lamilla. The window was open, she said. “We heard a whining. Not like a crying, boohoo, but like a whining, someone in distress, and then the gunshot,” she tells Anderson Cooper on CNN’s 360.
They looked out the window but saw nothing. It was dark.
They ran out the sliding glass door, and within seconds, they saw Zimmerman.
“Zimmerman was standing over the body with — basically straddling the body with his hands on Trayvon’s back,” Cutcher said. “And it didn’t seem to me that he was trying to help him in any way. I didn’t hear any struggle prior to the gunshot. And I feel like it was Trayvon Martin that was crying out, because the minute that the gunshot went off, the whining stopped.”
The two women said they could not see whether Zimmerman was bruised or hurt. It was too dark.
“Selma asked him three times, ‘What’s going on over there?’” Cutcher said. “He looks back and doesn’t say anything. She asks him again, “’Everything OK? What’s going on?’ Same thing: looked at us, looked back. Finally, the third time, he said, ‘Just call the police’.”
The women, one white and one Latina, tell Anderson Cooper flatly they don’t believe Zimmerman’s story of how Martin had suddenly attacked him, punched him in the face, broke his nose — and that when Zimmerman — larger than Martin — feels he’s being overpowered he pulls out the gun and shoots Martin through the chest. (Later Zimmerman declined medical attention.)
Zimmerman stakes his defense on Chapter 7776.013 of the Florida criminal statute on home protection and the use of deadline force. Paragraph 3 states, “A person who is not engaged in an unlawful activity and who is attacked in any other place where he or she has a right to be has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and 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 or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.”
This is what’s colloquially known as the Stand Your Ground law. Thirty states, including my own state of California, have versions of this old English legal concept of My Home is My Castle. Since I live in a remote rural area inhabited by well-armed people, not all of them on the side of the angels, I’ve read our statute from time to time trying to determine what exactly would be the circumstances under which — if an armed individual was heading for my house, 10 yards from the deck and showing no signs of slowing after my challenges — I could justifiably shoot him with my 12-gauge shotgun. It’s always struck me as a really hard call. The state may have a Stand Your Ground law, but it really doesn’t want people using it as legal shelter.
Not so in Sanford, Florida. Zimmerman, the son of a former local magistrate judge, is not charged and walks away free. Though the Sanford cops leak to the press the news that he was once suspended from school as having been in possession of an empty bag that had once contained marijuana, Trayvon Martin had a clean record. On the other hand, Zimmerman was arrested in 2005 for battery on a cop. A former co-worker tells the New York Daily News that Zimmerman was fired in 2005 from his job as an under-the-table security guard for “being too aggressive…. Usually he was just a cool guy. He liked to drink and hang with the women like the rest of us. But it was like Jekyll and Hyde. When the dude snapped, he snapped.” In 2007 an injunction was issued as a result of a domestic battery complaint by Zimmerman’s then girlfriend. He files a similar injunction against her.
Outrage about the case built across the first two weeks of March. By the third week it was a national scandal. Black columnists described how they warn their sons not to run in any crisis situation, always be polite to the cops no matter how provoked. The Rev Al Sharpton covers the case full volume on MSNBC. The usual litter of deadly cop shootings of blacks are exhumed from recent Florida police records. Protest demonstrations are held in Sanford.
There are the obvious questions. If Martin had wrestled the gun away from Zimmerman and shot him, would he have been allowed to walk away free? No, Sir. Political pressure forces the appointment of Special Prosecutor Angela Corey, to determine whether to charge Zimmerman. If she does so, it will probably be for second-degree manslaughter.
President Obama speaks on March 23 about the killing of Trayvon, saying, “If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon… I think [Trayvon's parents] are right to expect that all of us as Americans are going to take this with the seriousness it deserves, and we are going to get to the bottom of exactly what happened.”
Two Republican candidates for their party’s nomination to the presidency promptly bring out the hearse, most recently deployed to freight denounciations of women’s right to birth control. Newt Gingrich states that Obama’s comments are “disgraceful” and that “Any young American of any ethnic background should be safe, period. We should all be horrified, no matter what the ethnic background. Is the president suggesting that, if it had been a white who’d been shot, that would be OK, because it wouldn’t look like him? That’s just nonsense.”
Then Rick Santorum chimes in, stating that Obama should “not use these types of horrible and tragic individual cases to try to drive a wedge in America.” This unleashes Rush Limbaugh who says that Obama is using the case as a “political opportunity.” Geraldo Rivera suggests Martin brought it on himself by wearing a hoodie. At which point the conservative columnist William Tucker has had enough.
In the hard-right American Spectator, under the headline: “Count Me Out On Trayvon Martin: Why Gingrich, Santorum, and many conservatives are dead wrong on this one” Tucker writes, “Republicans have no reason to intervene in this fight. Seventy-five percent of the public thinks Zimmerman should be charged with something…. Personally, I can’t wait until Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum get offstage so we can start running a presidential campaign that isn’t based on trying to alienate the vast majority of Americans over irrelevant issues.”
What is it that prompts Republicans to try so hard to alienate women, blacks, Hispanics, independents and all those millions and millions of Americans to the left of the Tea Party they’ll need to beat Obama? Maybe they feel it’s their last throw. All the demographics look unfavorable for any future Republican majority. So there is a desperate effort to get everything they can right now. Conning working class whites with racism, sexism, anti-gay/anti-immigrant rhetoric, etc. has worked so well since Nixon that it’s become an addiction.
As for Sergeant Bales, now the official story of the US military is that Bales walked back to the base after his first round of killing, then went out again to kill some more, while his fellow soldiers slumbered on, presumably undisturbed by Bales’ fusillades from the nearby villages of Alkozai and Najiban , 20 kilometers south west of Kandahar. Alkozai is less a kilometer from The Special Forces Base of Camp Belambai and Najiban only a little further off.
Here are some extracts from a report by a journalist who actually interviewed Afghan survivors of the slaughter the night of March 11. Yalda Yakim is an Afghan woman who works for Australia’s Special Broadcasting Service. She and cameraman Ryan Sheridan reached the village where the killings occurred. They were the first reporters to do so. This ran on SBS’s Dateline program.
YAKIM: Suspicion that there was more than one killer is now a view widely held in Afghanistan, spurred by comments from the President himself.
HAMID KARZAI: In four rooms, people were killed — children and women were killed — and then they were all brought together in one room, and then put on fire. That, one man cannot do.
YAKIM: Hamid Karzai’s personally appointed chief investigator, General Karimi, tells me that village elders claim several soldiers took part and they’ve told him there’s evidence to prove it.
GENERAL KARIMI: What the claim is that there were boot prints in the area. In some area, they say a kneeling position of three or four individuals. And also they claim that the helicopters were there to support the operations. Of course, I told them that helicopters — when the guy was started missing, to search [for] him. They said, “No. The noise of the helicopters were there from the very beginning, when the shooting started.” That means there were many Americans that were supporting this issue, that were doing this deliberately — it’s not one individual. That’s the claim of the people.
YAKIM: I wanted to ask survivors of the attack what they had seen, but I was blocked by the US military. The survivors were children, I was told, and the Americans now treating them said they didn’t want them traumatized by my questions. It was only after personal intervention by President Karzai himself that I was finally granted permission to see the survivors, and to hear the chilling accounts of what they’d been through.
SEDIQULLAH (Translation): The bullet hit my ear like this and went through here, scraped here and came out here. When my father came out, he shot my father and then he entered our room. We ran from that room to the other room — he came and shot us in that room and then he left.
NOORBINAK (Translation): He was shooting, he shot my father’s dog first, and then he shot my father in the foot, then he dragged my mother by the hair. My mother was screaming and he held a gun to her and my father said, “Leave her alone” and then he shot him right there.
YAKIM: As 8-year-old Noorbinak watched her parents desperately trying to fend off the intruder, he turned his gun on her and shot her in the leg.
NOORBINAK (Translation): One entered the room and the others were standing in the yard, holding lights.
YAKIM: I’m struck by her reference to more than one soldier being involved — a claim repeated by the brother of one of the victims…. Staff Sergeant Bales left the scene of the killings in Alkozai village and walked in the darkness back to the base… At 2:30am, he left Camp Belambai a second time. He headed to the village of Najiban to the south, about 1.5km from the base. He was spotted by another Afghan guard as he walked into the night. The soldier entered the house of this farmer, Mohammed Wazir — 11 family members were asleep inside.
MOHAMMAD WAZIR (Translation): They attacked during the night. They knocked on the door. When they knocked on the door my elderly mother, who opened the door, was shot and killed right there and then they entered the inside — they went in to my room and killed my family in that room. And then they brought all the bodies and put them into one room and then they took all the linen and the blankets from the cupboard and covered them and set them on fire.
A tumbril (n.) a dung cart used for carrying manure, now associated with the transport of prisoners to the guillotine during the French Revolution.
First up in front of the revolutionary tribunal: “this is not who were are,” the denunciation lodged by Geoff Gray: “From Obama after the Bales butchery in Afghanistan: ‘The killing of innocent civilians is outrageous and it’s unacceptable. It’s not who we are as a country, and it does not represent our military.’ On why Obama wouldn’t release photos of the dead Bin Laden: ‘We don’t need to spike the football…that’s not who we are.’ From Hillary at the UN, post-Bales: ‘We send our condolences to families who have lost their loved ones and to the people of Afghanistan…This is not who we are.’ Another from Hillary commenting on the behavior of the audience at the Republican debate that booed a gay soldier: ‘That’s not reflective of who we are.’”
Phrase duly condemned and dispatched to the implacable blade.
Clancy Sigal, citoyen actif, hales a worthy duo in front of the tribunal: arguably and hardscrabble. There’s a roar of approval from the sans-culottes, as prosecutor Fouquier-Tinville demolishes a rambling speech of self-exculpation from “arguably.” Hardscrabble is already half dead from overuse, even before sentence is pronounced and carried out.
From Helmut Wallenfels a plump candidate for the tumbril: existential threat: “This phrase is guilty of the capital crimes of pretentiousness, pomposity and trying to hitch a free ride on the coat tails of Heidegger, Sartre and Camus.”
Finally, a plea for summary justice from Lester Shepherd of Roanoke, Alabama: “oeuvre: No normal person can spell it, no normal person can pronounce it and it is surely, solely, used to impress.” Fouquier-Tinville, scrupulous as ever in his fairness, says the case needs further investigation.
Alexander Cockburn can be reached at email@example.com