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 writer for the Guardian based in the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

Azaz, on Syria's northern border with Turkey. Photo: Getty
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Syria's broken people: how Assad destroyed a nation

 Whoever leads the country after this conflict comes to an end will inherit not just the rubble and ruins, but a ravaged people, too. 

For a moment, the residents of al-Fu’ah and Kafriya dreamed of a better future. After living under siege for more than two years, civilians from these two Shia villages in the rebel-held Idlib province of north-western Syria were finally allowed to leave earlier this month.

Buses arrived to evacuate them to regime-held areas in Aleppo province, snaking through hostile territory. They eventually stopped at an agreed crossover point, between regime- and rebel-held areas in the Rashideen district of western Aleppo.

These journeys are long: it can take hours, sometimes days, to travel just a few miles. Checkpoints, angry negotiations and deep distrust between opposing factions (even when they are apparently on the same side) ensure that such transfers are never as efficient as they should be.

As families waited at the Rashideen checkpoint, with some disembarking to stretch their legs or to let their children play outside, a powerful car bomb exploded. More than 126 civilians were killed in the blast – the deadliest attack of its kind in more than a year.

The fatalities included 60 children. The act was made all the more unconscionable by the way that they were deliberately targeted. A truck ostensibly providing humanitarian relief parked beside the buses and began distributing sweets and ice cream, causing the children to swarm towards it. Then  it exploded.

One of the most striking features of this conflict is its seemingly endless capacity to spiral into greater depravity. Both sides have butchered and brutalised one another in a fashion that would make the Marquis de Sade recoil. At times, it can seem as if each side is competing with the other to adopt more sadistic and cruel methods. When they do, it is ordinary civilians who invariably pay the biggest price.

Even children have not been spared from the privations of this vicious war, as the events in Rashideen demonstrate. Last August, it was the image of Omran Daqneesh, the stunned and bloodied five-year-old boy in the back of an ambulance, which epitomised the suffering of another besieged group: the mainly Sunni residents of eastern Aleppo, encircled by government forces.

To characterise the Syrian conflict as wholly sectarian is reductionist, but factional infighting has become one of its defining elements. The imprimatur of sectarianism is leaving indelible marks across the Levant, tearing the region apart.

Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s embattled president, set the tone for this when the uprising first began in 2011. To undermine the protest movement, he characterised the opposition as Sunni extremists who were driven by sectarian hatred (Assad is from the minority Alawite community; a heterodox Shia sect).

His unaccountable loyalist militia, the shabiha (“ghosts”), brutalised the opposition not just physically but also with sectarian slurs, introducing a caustic and corrosive mood to the uprising. This pathology has continued to metastasise ever since.

The current policy of displacing besieged residents has further enhanced the sectarian aspects of this war. For years, the Syrian regime has used siege warfare to bring rebel areas under control. Once the inhabitants have been worn down, the government moves them to rebel-held areas, away from its sphere of control. In this way, President Assad has consolidated control over important and strategic areas closer to home while edging disloyal elements further away.

Occasionally, new residents are brought in to repopulate evacuated areas, typically from minorities more inclined to support the government. What is taking place is a slow demographic recalibration, in which errant Sunnis are moved to the periphery and loyalist minorities are moved closer to the core.

These transfers are now so common in Syria that a dedicated fleet of green buses is used in the process, and has become an iconic image of this conflict. The buses catch the eye and are used for moving besieged people. Their sanctity is not to be violated. In a conflict that has ignored almost every norm, this one had lasted – albeit with occasional violations – until the assault in Rashideen.

There are moments when important leaders appear to transcend the divide. Moqtada al-Sadr, an Iraqi Shia cleric who rose to prominence after leading a militia against British troops in Basra after the 2003 invasion, recently called for Bashar al-Assad to step aside.

In doing so, Sadr became one of only a few prominent Shia leaders to publicly acknowledge Assad’s bloodshed. His comments came after the chemical weapons attack in Idlib earlier this month, which claimed more than 80 lives.

Statements such as Sadr’s have huge symbolic value, but are easily forgotten in the aftermath of the next atrocity. Speaking to the American broadcaster NBC last October, General David Petraeus summed up the mood of many military planners in Washington when he concluded that Syria may have passed the point of no return. “Syria may not be able to be put back together,” he said. “Humpty Dumpty has fallen and again I’m not sure you can piece it back together.”

His comments came even before the most tumultuous events of the past six months, which have included the fall of Aleppo, the emergence of a more empowered jihadist coalition (composed principally of al-Qaeda members), the use of chemical weapons and now the Rashideen bus bombing.

Petraeus’s remarks were prescient. As a result of the cycle of bitter vengeance and retribution, often fuelled by deep sectarian suspicion, the Syrian Civil War will continue its descent into chaos. When Assad first unleashed the shabiha to quash the protest movement, the militia warned the opposition: “Assad, or we burn the country.”

In this respect, at least, it has kept its word. Whoever leads the country after this conflict finally comes to an end will inherit not just the rubble and ruins but a ravaged people, too. 

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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