We Need To Talk About Zimmerman

In reality, nobody alive but George Zimmerman knows exactly what happened the night that Trayvon Martin was shot. In all the speculation, nobody is talking about the real problem: guns.

At Louie's Bar in midtown Miami, about three and a half hours south of the Sanford, Florida courtroom, the verdict in George Zimmerman's trial caused very little storm. As MIA's Paper Planes, with its simulated rhythmic gunfire, played over the bar's sound system, CNN, on silent with subtitles, strove in vain to whip the patrons into a frenzy of something. Outrage, perhaps. Or sadness. Or maybe: excitement. Network news is entertainment, after all. It's a dog-and-pony show.

There have been protests in Sanford, outside the White House in Washington DC, and in Los Angeles, all calling for "justice for Trayvon", the black teenager shot and killed by Zimmerman last February. The Rev Al Sharpton is coordinating around 100 "Justice for Trayvon" marches for this Saturday.

But they all have the wrong word. What they want is something more than mere justice. People want revenge, restitution, closure, and not just for Trayvon, but for the thousands of black kids and young adults killed every year – in 2010 black people constituted 55 per cent of the victims of firearm homicide, according to a recent paper by the PEW Research Center, despite being just 13 percent of the population.

His parents want their son back. They did not get him back this week, and the man who shot him walked free. It is impossible to imagine how that felt for them. But justice, court justice, isn't the opposite of injustice. It is just a process.

After the shooting, campaigners sought their moment in court, and got it. But there simply wasn't enough evidence for a jury to find beyond all reasonable doubt that George Zimmerman had not been acting in self-defence. Witnesses on both sides gave contradictory and confusing testimony, muddying even the shreds of evidence available to the jury. So they did the only thing they could in all conscience do: acquit.

Under Florida's ludicrous Stand Your Ground law, Zimmerman at first was not even charged. A young man lay dead, and Zimmerman had been acquitted without facing trial. But when the – absolutely righteous – outrage at that law, by local civil rights groups and, eventually, even President Obama, led rightfully to a trial, everyone seemed to take the message that it was their right to demand Zimmerman's eventual conviction, too. And it just was not to be.

But the problem is that, in reality, nobody alive but Zimmerman knows exactly what happened that night. He claims to have been acting in self-defence. To assume he is lying is perhaps almost as much an act of prejudice, though of a different sort, as to assume that Martin was attacking him. I am not speculating either way. I do not know. Neither do you. But the burden of proof was not with Zimmerman. He is presumed innocent until proven guilty; and there just wasn't the proof. All else is speculation.

Maybe the jury – on which it is true that no black person sat – acquitted George Zimmerman because they all felt that it is a white man's inalienable right to shoot a black kid. Maybe the system still remains racist to the core.

Maybe. But more likely, faced with the vast responsibility of coming to a decision in full view of the might of the American media, the jury came to the conclusion that there was not enough evidence to convict a man of murder, or even manslaughter, beyond reasonable doubt.

Of course America is a country still riven by racial tension. It would be stupid to pretend otherwise. Perhaps Zimmerman truly was, as many claim, a murderous racist. Perhaps, as his defence claims, he was a scared man under attack. Perhaps the truth lies somewhere inbetween, a man whose racial prejudices led him to read violence and malice into the hooded face of a young black man. But there just wasn't the proof.

The root cause, whether accident or self-defence or racism, is secondary. In the end, Trayvon Martin was killed because Zimmerman had a gun. He had a gun, and he had, as many do, an understanding given of long national experience that the law affords him impunity to use it.

President Obama gave a statement in response to the verdict. He said that people ought to honour Trayvon's memory by asking “if we're doing all we can to stem the tide of gun violence”. The answer is no. The administration's current efforts to impose even small measures of gun control are proving a Sisyphean task, because somehow after each tragic shooting, after a while, America fails to muster the outrage to overcome the gun lobby. Despite the public outcry around the trial, despite the thousands of other shootings this year, and last, and the thousands that there will be next year, few protesting the court's verdict seems to be calling for gun control. Just nebulous "justice".

And at the bar in Miami, the patrons shrugged into their beers. There was baseball on the other screens.

 

A poster about the verdict in midtown Miami. Photograph: Nicky Woolf

Nicky Woolf is a freelance writer based in the US who has formerly worked for the Guardian and the New Statesman. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

Photo: Getty
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How the Saudis are making it almost impossible to report on their war in Yemen

The conflict is not getting anything like the media attention it deserves.

This article has been co-authored by Ahmed Baider, a fixer based in Yemen's capital Sana’a, and Lizzie Porter, a freelance journalist based in Beirut who is still waiting for a chance to report from Yemen.

Ten thousand people have died. The world’s largest cholera epidemic is raging, with more than 530,000 suspected cases and 2,000 related deaths. Millions more people are starving. Yet the lack of press attention on Yemen’s conflict has led it to be described as the “forgotten war”.

The scant media coverage is not without reason, or wholly because the general public is too cold-hearted to care. It is very hard to get into Yemen. The risks for the few foreign journalists who gain access are significant. And the Saudi-led coalition waging war in the country is doing its best to make it difficult, if not impossible, to report from the area.

Working in Sana’a as a fixer for journalists since the start of the uprisings of the so-called Arab Spring in 2011 has sometimes felt like the most difficult job in the world. When a Saudi-led coalition started bombing Yemen in support of its president, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, in March 2015, it became even harder.

With control of the airspace, last summer they closed Sana’a airport. The capital had been the main route into Yemen. Whether deliberately or coincidentally, in doing so, the coalition prevented press access.

The media blackout came to the fore last month, when the Saudi-led coalition turned away an extraordinary, non-commercial UN flight with three BBC journalists on board. The team – including experienced correspondent Orla Guerin – had all the necessary paperwork. Aviation sources told Reuters that the journalists’ presence was the reason the flight was not allowed to land.

The refusal to allow the press to enter Yemen by air forced them to find an alternative route into the country – a 13-hour sea crossing.

After the airport closure in August 2016, an immensely complex set of procedures was created for journalists travelling on the UN flights operating from Djibouti on the Horn of Africa into Sana’a. The level of paperwork required offered only a glimmer of hope that the media would be allowed to highlight the suffering in Yemen. Each journalist’s application required visas, permits, return ticket fees of $1,100 per person (later reduced to $250) and a great deal of bureaucracy.

But there were other issues, too: equipment that all journalists take with them to war zones as standard – flak jackets, helmets and satellite phones – were not allowed on the UN flights, increasing fears about operating in the country.

The new arrangement significantly increased the cost and time involved – two things that most media organisations are short of. A team of two would have to budget for several thousand dollars for a week-long reporting trip. This was limiting for even large media organisations with big budgets.

Still, the system worked. A few journalists started to come and cover the situation from the ground. Yemenis were happy to share their stories. On one assignment to villages on the west coast, people ran to talk to us and show us their malnourished children as soon as we arrived. It was obvious from the look in their eyes that they wanted to tell people what had been happening.

That changed after last October, when three or four large international media teams had reported from Yemen, broadcasting images of starving children and bombed-out homes to TVs around the world. The Saudi-led coalition began refusing to let journalists fly in with the UN. They said that the flights were for humanitarian workers only, or that the safety of journalists could not be guaranteed. Members of the press who had been preparing trips suddenly had their plans quashed. Time assigned to reporting the conflict had to be given to more accessible stories.

Over the next few months, media access was again opened up, only to be followed by U-turns and further paralysis. And when the Saudi-led coalition did grant access, it was only under certain, excruciating conditions.

As well as a press visa granted by the opposition authorities in the capital, from February this year, journalists have required a second visa granted by the Saudi-backed government in Aden.

It felt impossible. Why would they give press visas for journalists to visit opposition territory? The doubts were proved correct when trying to convince Hadi government officials to issue press access. The consular envoy in Cairo refused. A call to their team in London resulted in another “no”. 

This meant applying to the authorities in Aden for secondary visas for the tenacious journalists who hadn’t already been put off by the cost and access hurdles. One example of the petty requirements imposed was that a journalist’s visa could not be on paper: it had to be stamped into his or her passport. Of course, that added a week to the whole affair.

After months of media blockade, journalists were finally able to access Yemen again between March and May this year. At present, members of the media are officially allowed to travel on the UN flights. But how many more times journalists will be refused entry remains unknown. Not all crews will have the resources to make alternative arrangements to enter Yemen.

The New Statesman interviewed one French documentary producer who has reported from Yemen twice but who has not been able to access the country since 2015, despite multiple attempts.

Upon each refusal, the Saudi-led coalition told the journalist, “to take commercial flights – which didn’t exist…” he explained, requesting anonymity. “Saudi Arabia and its coalition are doing everything they can to discourage journalists as well as organisations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.”

He said that blocking media access was part of the Saudi-led coalition’s strategy to “bring [Yemen] to its knees in an atmosphere of silence and indifference.”

Access is not the only problem. Reporting in Yemen carries great risks. The British Foreign Office warns of a “very high threat of kidnap and unlawful detention from militia groups, armed tribes, criminals and terrorists”. It specifically mentions journalists as a group that could be targeted.

Editors are increasingly nervous about sending journalists into war zones where kidnap is a significant danger. The editorial green light for arranging assignments to Yemen is – understandably – ever harder to obtain.

Although they are willing to work with recognised press teams, the Houthis and Saleh loyalists have also been known to be suspicious of journalists.

“Even before the Saudis banned access to Yemen, it is important to remember that Yemen is one of the most difficult countries for journalists to access,” added the anonymous journalist.

The amount of press attention dedicated to Yemen simply does not reflect the extent of country’s suffering and political turmoil. Journalists’ rights groups, international organisations and governments need to step up pressure on Saudi Arabia to ease media access to the country.

The coalition last month proposed that the UN take control of Sana’a airport, which it refused. Whoever runs it, the hub must be opened, so that journalists can get in, and Yemenis desperately needing medical treatment abroad can get out.

Failing this, coupled with the extreme risks and costs of reporting, the world will never see the graves of 10,000 people. Yemenis will continue to die starving and invisible, in destroyed homes.