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Blog Entry

March 25, 2012

Trayvon Martin, Prejudice and the Rush to Judgment

The facts were sketchy. Trayvon Martin, 17, left his father’s girlfriend’s house in a gated community and went to the convenience store to pick up some Skittles and iced tea. On his way back, a community watch person named George Zimmerman felt that Martin looked out of place (in his experience) and called the police to report a suspicious person. The police told him that they didn’t need Zimmerman to follow the kid. Then it gets really muddy. Someone yelled for help. Zimmerman said it was him. Others said they thought it was Martin. At some point, Zimmerman, who had a license to carry a firearm, shot and killed Martin.

When the police finally showed up, Zimmerman claimed it was self defense, that he had been attacked by Martin. A police officer noticed that he was wet, as if he had been on the ground, and had injuries. The incident didn’t get noticed by the media for a few weeks, but when it did, it took off mightily. Zimmerman was not arrested, first, because of the claim of self defense, second, because his firearm was carried legally, and third, because of a Florida law that states that no person has any duty to retreat when attacked, so long as the person had a right to be where he or she was when the attack occurred. It’s referred to as the “stand your ground” law. More and more states are passing such laws to protect innocent people from being criminally charged when they are only defending themselves.

The media finally took notice, but the information it spread tended to be very one-sided:

  • George Zimmerman was armed, Martin wasn’t.

  • Zimmerman outweighed Martin by around 100 pounds.

  • Zimmerman had had a run-in with the law a few years earlier.

  • Zimmerman was white, Martin was African-American.

The last was obviously the most important and what started the lynch-mob mentality of people around the country. There were rallies, public statements, people intervening in any capacity they could to defend the poor black kid who was so obviously racially murdered by a white guy. Even President Obama made a statement that, if he’d had a son, the son would look like Martin. The New Black Panthers offer $10,000 bounty for capture of shooter George Zimmerman.

Given the consistent anti-Second Amendment bias of most of the major media, I guess its approach was to be expected. To my view, journalists are supposed to be objective and to suppress their biases, so I found it seriously objectionable. Nevertheless, the media missed emphasizing the other part of the known facts:

Won’t Take Sides

I refuse to take a side in this situation. We do not yet know the facts. I am greatly disturbed by the trend to condemn this guy Zimmerman because some people say that the person he shot was just an innocent kid who did nothing. We don’t know that yet. Both parties should be presumed innocent until proven guilty. There is no doubt that it’s a tragic thing for a kid to get killed, especially if he was doing nothing wrong to begin with. However, as yet, we don’t know what happened throughout the incident. Even though people who knew Martin said that he was a good kid who would never escalate something, strange things can happen.

Security Dilemma

Anyone who has studied political science in international relations will be familiar with what is called the security dilemma. It occurs when country A thinks its neighbor country B is arming itself and might be preparing to attack. Therefore country A starts arming itself. Then country B, which might or might not have been arming itself, but was in no way preparing to attack country A, starts arming itself, or increases what it was doing before in light of what it sees country A doing. This can continue to escalate, and wars have started this way. It’s a difficult scenario from which to escape without mishap and requires the development of some sort of mutual trust.

To illustrate this, think of the Cuban missile crisis. Cuba, feeling under threat by the United States, the world’s strongest military power, decides to import nuclear missiles from its ally, the Soviet Union. Cuba has no design to attack the U.S., just to get itself some deterrence against an attack by the U.S., something that has already happened at the Bay of Pigs. The U.S., via U2 over-flight espionage, has discovered what’s happening, stops the Soviet ships in international waters, and implies nuclear war to prevent the installation of nuclear weapons so near to itself. Through main-channel and back-channel diplomacy, and a true desire to avoid war by all sides, the situation is defused. But it took very careful and sophisticated maneuvering to accomplish it. (For an excellent description of the event, see Essence of Decision, by Graham T. Allison.)

Delicate diplomatic maneuvering is not a hallmark of interpersonal confrontations. What happened next between Zimmerman and Martin? We don’t yet know.

  • Did Zimmerman follow and later grab or otherwise batter Martin, which then got Martin active in fighting with Zimmerman, perhaps later gaining the upper hand? Zimmerman would not then be able to claim self defense, since he would have initiated it. (If he had stopped and announced surrender, and Martin kept fighting, this might have changed, but again, we don’t know.)

  • Did Martin get tired of having some neighborhood watch guy follow him, thought about all of the times whites have victimized blacks, and attacked Zimmerman?

  • Were there racial motives on either side? There is no such thing as “good” racism, so any racial motive on either side would have been unjustified.

Information Trickles In

“The guy on the bottom who had a red sweater on was yelling to me: ‘help, help…and I told him to stop and I was calling 911,’ he said.

Trayvon Martin was in a hoodie; Zimmerman was in red.”

Hamilton said another neighbor, a black woman, would regularly inform Zimmerman when she was out of town so that he could keep an eye on her place.”

  • Neighbor comes to defense of Trayvon Martin’s shooter: “Frank Taaffe pointed out the circumstances that he believes led his 28-year-old neighbor to react the way he did on the night of Feb. 26: Eight burglaries within 15 months, most done by young black males, he said.

‘The stage was already set. It was a perfect storm,’ Taaffe said.”

  • Firearms and shooting expert Massad Ayoob says: “The death weapon was a Kel-Tec PF9 semiautomatic 9mm pistol. It has been reported that the gun was recovered with a full magazine and that only the chambered round had been fired. This is a condition we associate with something preventing the gun from cycling a fresh round from the magazine into the chamber after the shot was discharged. One thing that can cause that is another man’s hand wrapped around the pistol, retarding its slide mechanism. This would indicate, as could certain gunshot residue patterns or cuts in certain places if found on Trayvon Martin’s hand(s), that a struggle for a gun was taking place when the fatal shot was fired. This would clearly change the shape of the case. But – WE DON’T KNOW YET.”

  • Since Martin lived in Miami and was visiting the house of his father’s girlfriend, Zimmerman correctly noticed that he didn’t live in the community. Thus no racial profiling was necessary for Zimmerman to take notice of Martin. (This is not to say that it did or didn’t happen. It is just as racist to presume that Zimmerman profiled Martin as it would be for Zimmerman to have done it!) Being a neighborhood watch person, he asked Martin what he was doing there. Did Martin say he was visiting someone? I don’t know, but that might have quickly defused the situation.

It begins to look like there are things to be considered other than the fact that Martin was just this good-natured black kid who was killed by some white wannabe cop. We still don’t know the answers, but it shouldn’t seem, to anyone with an open mind, that it’s a simple, cut-and-dried affair.

So Many Things Don’t Matter

Except in a few cases, serial killers and others where there is a proven continuing motive, every incident stands on its own. What does it matter that Zimmerman had a run-in with the law years before, especially one that was dropped by law enforcement? It doesn’t mean that he was doing something illegal in this case. What does it matter that there were a number of burglaries committed by young black men. Martin wasn’t one of them (that we know of; presumably not), so his mere presence walking down the street did not mean that he was up to no good.

Trayvon Martin “Family spokesperson Ryan Julison confirmed to ABC News that Martin was suspended for an ‘empty baggy that had contained pot. It’s irrelevant to what happened on Feb. 26, does not change material facts of the situation.’” Perhaps so. Why then is the family and so many others harping about a scrape with the law Zimmerman had when he was 21, in which no charges were filed? There is a double standard being applied. “Martin's mother, Sybrina Fulton, and family attorneys blamed police for leaking the information about the marijuana to the news media in an effort to demonize the teenager.” Of course, Zimmerman's critics have no problem demonizing him before all of the facts are in. He is routinely being referred to as a racist murderer. You can’t have it both ways.

As an analogy, suppose you flip a coin and it comes up heads 20 times. Does that mean that the odds have increased that it will turn up tails the next time it’s flipped? No! The odds of the next flip are still 50%, because each flip is unique.

On the Other Hand

The principal way humans got to the top of the food chain and built successful societies is because they learned from past experiences. This is not only natural and normal, but is imperative if society and individual people are to survive. However, in this, as in most things, caution is necessary.

If you are walking down the street at night, and someone is following you, step for step, turn for turn, does this person mean you harm, or is it the person who lives upstairs from you who happens to be going home at the same time you are? Any fear you have is your problem, and it need not concern someone innocently walking behind you. If you look over your shoulder and see that the follower is black, and you know that African-Americans commit crimes disproportionately to their fraction of the population, does it mean that that particular black person has evil intent? Certainly not! But it doesn’t mean that you should blithely ignore the situation, either. Perhaps you should cross the street or go into a store or restaurant and see what the follower does. No matter how afraid you must be, the situation absolutely does not justify you take out your pistol and shoot the person! You need to apply judgment.


This is one place where prejudice can enter into things. Our word comes from the Latin prae judicare, judging in advance of the facts. It means that we must handle the facts that we know carefully, realizing that we might not have enough of them to make a solid judgment. What is called for is what I call a speculative inference. You make a tentative judgment based upon the facts that you have, but realize that further facts might change the situation entirely. This is the difference between taking immediate action against the person following you and making some other moves that might shed further light on the intent of the other person.

This sounds very intellectual, but in fact it happens all of the time. It’s called being careful. Do you look both ways before crossing the street? Do you avoid standing on the top of a step ladder? Do you wear your seatbelts? They all mean that you think about the possibilities and take some action, even though you have not decided that some terrible situation is imminent.

This awful incident between Martin and Zimmerman, it seems to me, probably turns on someone making a firm judgment when the situation was much too speculative to make such a call. There are not enough facts presented — indeed, there might never be enough facts presented — to definitively prove what happened. That’s unfortunate. Whatever else it might mean, it certainly implies that a lynch-mob mentality against Zimmerman is not justified!


There is confusing and contradictory information circulating, some indicating that Zimmerman was injured and acting in self defense, and some indicating the opposite. If, after all of the facts are in, it seems that he overstepped the bounds of legal behavior, then he should be prosecuted. However, things are not always what they seem to be at first, especially when there are advocates of one position who base their attacks on some ideology instead of the facts that ought to spearhead any criminal investigation. That is just as much an indication of prejudice as would be Zimmerman shooting that kid for racial reasons.

The “stand your ground” law is a good one. There is no reason why someone should have to retreat from a position where he or she may legally be because of the actions of some malefactor. On the other hand, hiding behind such a law when one is practicing some attack upon an innocent person is a heinous thing.

In my first Google search on Trayvon Martin’s name. In the 65 pages I looked at, I think that there were less than 10 articles calling for restraint until all of the evidence is in or directly supporting Zimmerman. The rest presumed his guilt. It reminds me of the campaigns against Wobblies, union organizers and Communists in decades past. The press and the people crying for punishment, all before there was any arrest or trial.

Wait for the facts! Too many people are not. Especially egregious is the fact that Seminole State College decided to expel Zimmerman “because of the high level of controversy that has been generated by this case.” Expelled for controversy? Whatever happened to innocent until proven guilty? Trying the case in public and in the press is as wrong here as it is everywhere else. It could go either way.

Again, On the Other Hand

In this country, we have seen over the decades that the powers that be, be they police or one or another level of government, frequently stall and dismiss incidents in which racial discrimination take place. To wit: the city of Chicago still has not charged any police officers in the murder of Black Panthers Fred Hampton and Mark Clark in 1969. The evidence of bullet penetration from the police, killing the victims in their beds, is overwhelming. It is still important that the public exert pressure on the government and police to come to a true resolution of such crimes. However, taking sides before the facts have been established is prejudice. Calling for justice for one party in a situation in which so many facts are unknown is not justice at all! We need justice for Zimmerman, too, without the interference of prejudice.

I’m sad to say it, but I think very strongly strongly that if the races of the two individuals were switched, we would be hearing cries of Justice for the shooter, cautions against rushing to judgment and a quick expression that the story told by the shooter ought to be believed. Life is always a delicate balance if one wants to do the right thing. Intelligence, as well as emotion, is required, and too much of one without enough of the other can lead us astray.

For some further remarks on this subject, please visit Trayvon Martin--What Happened?


Other New or Different Information as it Comes Out:

Shooter of Florida Teen Describes Assault

George Zimmerman Trayvon Martin 911 Call

Police: Zimmerman says Trayvon decked him with one blow then began hammering his head

Trayvon Martin and the Politics of Division

Revealed: Trayvon Martin’s Suspension Record, George Zimmerman’s Statement to Police

Trayvon Martin, George Zimmerman and the Digital Lynch Mob

Why Lots Of People Think The Media Is Wrong About The Trayvon Martin Case

911 calls paint picture of chaos after Florida teen is shot

Mother of slain Florida teenager seeks trademarks

Don’t rush to judgment in Trayvon Martin killing — Remember Duke Lacrosse Team

An Object Lesson In Why You Shouldn’t Rush To Judgment In The Trayvon Martin Case

Trayvon Martin: A rush to judgement with little information

The rush to judgment in the Trayvon Martin shooting

Both sides now -- Trayvon Martin case far less clear-cut now that shooter’s story has come to light

Student Newspaper Runs Controversial Trayvon Martin Cartoon

Rush to judgment in Trayvon Martin case

Gun Owners Group Offers $10K to Zimmerman’s Defense— Ordinarily, I might have second thoughts that this is a wise thing to do. However, since so many of those rushing to judgment are condemning the “stand your ground” law, which might or might not apply, and even criticizing Zimmerman’s right of self-defense (depending upon what really happened in the case), it seems like a legitimate thing to do, given the organization’s support of the Second Amendment. Attack breeds counter-attack.

Trayvon Martin case exposes worst in media

Bond set for New Black Panther leader in weapons case

Race, Tragedy and Outrage Collide After a Shot in Florida — Finally, an article that tries to examine facts without tasking a side. Actual journalism! This article might be continuously updates with new facts.

Advance legal columnist: A rush to judgment in the Trayvon Martin case — Enough, already, with attacka against “Stand Your Ground.”

In Trayvon Martin case, a complex portrait of shooter emerges

Can Justice Survive Media Lynch Mob?

Trayvon Martin police report reveals Zimmerman was ‘bleeding from the nose and back of head’

KOPEL: Debunking the ‘stand your ground’ myth

Lawyers: Zimmerman whispered ‘punks’ before shooting Trayvon Martin

The Events Leading to the Shooting of Trayvon Martin — The New York Times provides us with some idea of the geography involved, but is missing key data, such as the paths taken by the two individuals and the location of Zimmerman’s vehicle.

Trayvon Martin Shooter Zimmerman’s Audio Tapes Show Calm

Prosecutor in Martin Case Will Alone Determine Its Merits

Washington Times Opinions — This paper is definitely more conservative than I am, but that does not mean that the opinions of its columnists and the commenters thereupon are not worth reading; they are. A more rounded picture of the issue is a good thing:

HICKS: Trayvon case shows ‘racist’ epithet persists

LETTER TO THE EDITOR: Obama’s double standard on race violence

Supporters of Fla. shooter fearful of speaking out

SIMMONS: Bill Cosby weighs in on Trayvon Martin case

Evidence that Trayvon Martin Doubled Back

Suspect in Martin Case to Appear in Court

Trayvon Martin mom Sybrina Fulton on Zimmerman shooting: ‘I believe it was an accident’

Affidavit: Zimmerman did not use racial slur

Trayvon Martin mom Sybrina Fulton retracts ‘accident’ comment: ‘George Zimmerman stalked my son and murdered him in cold blood’

George Zimmerman: Self-defense hearing could dismiss death charge

George Zimmerman charged with 2nd-degree murder: Trayvon Martin shooter to remain in jail

Trayvon Martin's killer showed signs of injury: neighbors

It’s Not About Stand Your Ground — John R. Lott Jr.

Prosecutors face hurdles in Trayvon Martin case

George Zimmerman: Prelude to a shooting — “But a more nuanced portrait of Zimmerman has emerged from a Reuters investigation into Zimmerman's past and a series of incidents in the community in the months preceding the Martin shooting.

Based on extensive interviews with relatives, friends, neighbors, schoolmates and co-workers of Zimmerman in two states, law enforcement officials, and reviews of court documents and police reports, the story sheds new light on the man at the center of one of the most controversial homicide cases in America.”

Permalink Trayvon Martin, Prejudice and the Rush to Judgment


Last Updated — April 06, 2013
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