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 reporting for the New Statesman from the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

REBECCA CONWAY/AFP/Getty Image
Show Hide image

What will it take for people to care about climate change?

A record-breaking heat wave in Rajasthan reveals how badly we lack the necessary infrastructure to cope with the human suffering climate change is already causing.

The question of whether or not climate change is real is rapidly becoming less urgent than what can be done to alleviate the human suffering it is causing. In Rajasthan, north-west India this week, the mercury hit 51 degrees celsius (123°F). That’s the hottest temperature on record in the country. Hospitals are swamped with patients suffering heatstroke and dehydration. The year’s harvest is shrivelling in the ground. People are cooking to death on public transport. Yesterday, a camel left alone in the sun went mad and chewed its owner’s head off. That’s how hot it is in Rajasthan right now. 

In rural areas, where there is no electricity, no fresh water, nothing to cool you but the breeze, citizens are demanding that the government take responsibility and offer relief, provide shelter, water and basic cooling facilities. That’s the sort of heroism that should be unnecessary in the middle of a heatwave: it takes enough energy to lobby local bureaucracy at the best of times, let alone when it’s hot enough that livestock have become homicidal. 

I’ve been obsessed with this story for days, because it’s my personal nightmare. I loathe the heat. The cold, at least, can usually be escaped; heat leaves me drained and frightened. I can’t sleep under duvets. I become a limp dishrag in summer, and temperatures of over thirty degrees celsius regularly see me with my head in an open refrigerator, cursing my grandparents’ decision to become citizens of a country that does not consider air conditioning a necessary artefact of civilisation. But air conditioning is also upsetting: when the merciful roar of the high-energy unit kicks in, you can practically hear the sizzling fossil fuels soothing you with the cool breeze of complicity. In the heat, all I can do is overthink. I would not cope in Rajasthan. I can barely cope with Brighton in July.

The British national sport of complaining about the weather is becoming increasingly insensitive. After three centuries of merrily conquering other nations and building bonfires out of their resources to light our way to a place of power in a burning world, we are still inhabiting one of the only landmasses where the weather isn't actively trying to kill us all the time. Pleasant as it is to carp and moan every time the temperature moves outside the ten-degree range I happen to find comfortable, the temperate, drizzle-through-the-sunshine British climate is pretty much as good as it gets, on a global scale. In fact, on that same global scale, Britain has some claim for having had the most benefit out of fossil fuels for the least climate cost. If we’re not going to cough up reparations, the least we can do is stop whining.

I mention all this for two reasons. Firstly, because the manifestations and implications of climate change are frightening wherever you happen to live, and I find sprinkle of weak humour makes the whole thing bearable, makes me less likely to panic and tap out of the entire discussion as something that's not relevant to me right now because for the meantime, at least, I’m comfy indoors and it’s raining outside.

Secondly, because when the lives and livelihoods of so many are at stake – when the topic for discussion is not tens or thousands but millions of people actually cooking in the unnatural heat – you run into a phenomenon that rationalists call “scope insensitivity”. Let’s say that my nightmare is overwhelming, inescapable heat. I can imagine, viscerally, physically, how it might feel to be trapped in a 51 degree outdoor oven. I can be scared and outraged that there are no emergency shelters being built, no cool water on offer, that so little is being done to alleviate that suffering, when I picture one, or two, or ten strangers sweltering through it. 

But the knowledge that the population of Rajasthan is 73.5 million does not make me 73.5 million times as frightened outraged. My heart cannot hold that much heat-terror. That’s not how the human heart is designed. And that’s what scope insensitivity is: on a species level, it is psychologically extremely difficult to summon the appropriate level of empathy and translate that empathy into action.

That doesn’t mean it’s not useful – vital – to try. Our understanding of urgency has got to scale up. Any useful response to the growing climate crisis will require precisely the sort of collective action on a global, state and local level that neoliberal governments around the world have turned their faces from, either actively destroying the necessary infrastructure to cope with human suffering or refusing to build it in the first place. In a burning world, the time has surely come for lifesaving infrastructure in which everyone is invested. 

As climate change becomes a reality for billions of people all over the world, what are the demands going to be? In Rajasthan, the immediate need is obvious: for tents, cold water, more reliable electricity, contingency plans to deal with coming food shortages, and better provision of amenities for rural communities. The longer-term need is much like everyone else’s: for the governments of the world to earmark enough resources to tackle the human effects of the inhuman weather we’re all going to be suffering through in the decades to come.

The question is no longer whether man-made climate change is actually a thing that’s happening. That’s not because the issue has been resolved in the minds of evangelical naysayers and their fuel tycoon besties. It’s because if you're standing in front of a burning house, the issue of who lit the match can be tabled for the meantime, while we decide how to get the kids out. 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.