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.

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Putin's vote-winning trick? He makes power personal

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular. Yet President Putin is immune to voter's discontent.

A week before Russia’s parliamentary elections, the central square in Ekaterinburg – the fourth-largest city in Russia, a thousand miles east of Moscow – was packed with people, huddling close on a wet September night. They faced a stage decorated with a poster imploring the crowd to vote for “ours”, meaning United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party.

Yet it wasn’t politics for which thousands of people had braved the rain – it was music. During the perestroika and glasnost years of post-Soviet openness, Ekaterinburg was the cradle of the Russian rock scene. The home-grown bands Nautilus Pompilius, Chaif and Agata Kristi sang about freedom and change. Thus, this free concert to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the legendary Sverdlovsk Rock Club was bound to draw a crowd, and United Russia latched on to that.

A message from Dmitry Medvedev, the United Russia leader, praising local rock bands for their bravery “in those days when freedom was in deficit”, was read to the assembled fans. If freedom was a powerful word thirty years ago it has little impact on Russians today. Turnout in the election on 18 September was less than 50 per cent (and only 41.5 per cent in the Ekaterinburg region), a sign of the general political apathy. Before they went to the polls, it was hard to find anyone who was enthusiastic about voting.

“Why should I bother with voting? The result is clear: United Russia will, as always, win,” says Vyacheslav Bakhtin, who owns a small construction company in Ekaterinburg. He added: “Elections are the last thing on my mind. My business has been suffering for the last two years. We couldn’t even afford to go on a family vacation this summer.”

The Russian economy is struggling because of low oil prices, trade embargoes and geopolitical concerns. There have been public spending cuts, and the free float of the rouble led to currency devaluation and high inflation (7 per cent in August). Unemployment is rising and the base interest rate is 10.5 per cent.

There are many reasons for Russians to want a change in government, yet it appears that people do not see the link between their daily struggles and Putin’s policies.

Anna Mikhailova has recently returned from a tour of the Golden Ring of Russia (a circuit of medieval cities to the north-east of Moscow), where there is a stark contrast between the restored onion-domed churches and the crumbling villages.

“People live in poverty in crammed kummunalki [Soviet-style communal flats with several families sharing one kitchen and bathroom],” she tells me. “But they still talk about Putin the Saviour, standing up for Mother Russia.”

Apart from United Russia, 13 parties were judged eligible to stand, but the range of choice was an illusion. Olga, who requested anonymity for her own safety, explained. “We have one party – United Russia – a few pseudo-opposition parties, the Communists, the LDPR and Fair Russia who support Putin’s cause, and a bunch of nobodies that people don’t care about.”

Indeed, Gennady Zyuganov, who has led the Communist Party since 1993, campaigned under the slogan “Ten Stalinist punches against capitalism”. But although he criticised Medvedev, he didn’t touch Putin. The populist leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Vladimir Zhirinovsky, another political dinosaur, actively endorses Putin’s foreign policy.

If there is discontent among voters, Putin is immune to it. On the eve of the elections, United Russia’s popularity slid to just 30 per cent of total respondents in one poll, though it scored 50 per cent among those who said they were definitely going to vote. Medvedev’s own approval rating fell to 48 per cent. His message to the elderly that state pensions wouldn’t increase, and his advice to teachers to get jobs in the private sector if they weren’t happy with their state salaries, might have had something to do with it. Yet Putin’s popularity remained consistently high, at 82 per cent, according to independent pollsters the Levada Centre.

Alexey Volkov, a 40-year-old business manager, says he voted for the Communists. “I voted against United Russia, the apparatchiks stifling the president,” he explains. “Putin, on the other hand, is the best ruler since Alexander III [Russia’s emperor at the end of the 19th century].”

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular and considered ineffective by the Russian people. Over the past 16 years, presidential power has expanded hugely. Since Russia adopted its new constitution in 1993, successive presidents have introduced legislation to stretch the office’s authority. In his first term as president, Putin acquired 219 new rights and duties, and as his successor Medvedev enjoyed an additional 114 responsibilities. These range from educational appointments to federal government decisions.

As predicted, United Russia topped the ballot with 54 per cent of the vote. Putin’s party claimed 343 of the 450 seats (up from 238 in 2011). The same four parties will form the Duma. The Yabloko and PARNAS parties, seen by voters as a token gesture of protest against the Kremlin, gained negligible support, with 2 per cent and 0.7 per cent, respectively.

It is ultimately Putin’s victory. In the eyes of the majority, he has restored Russia’s strength abroad, revived the defence industry and army, and reinvigorated the country with patriotism. The latter was accomplished via manipulation of the media, which has reinstated the West as the enemy and focused attention on foreign affairs at the expense of the social and economic agenda at home.

Still, with the low turnout, only 26 per cent of eligible Russians voted for Putin’s party. Though that was enough to tighten the president’s grip on the Duma, nationwide the elections paint a picture of a dejected Russia just beginning to feel discontent with the status quo. It is not yet enough to unseat Putin, but as the old Russian saying goes: a drop of water can cut through stone.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times