George Zimmerman, Marissa Alexander, and The Right to Self Defense

On Saturday, July 13 George Zimmerman was adjudicated innocent of both second degree murder as well as a lesser charge of manslaughter. The verdict, to me, is a somber one. Trayvon Martin lost his life in an act of self-defense by Zimmerman. That is a heavy burden for Zimmerman to live with, and one I do not believe he will take lightly.

The Huffington Post reported in March of this year that Zimmerman was remorseful after the shooting, quoting Joe Oliver, a former news reporter and friend of Zimmerman. “He couldn’t stop crying. He’s a caring human being.”

From watching portions of the testimony and receiving regular updates on the trial, I believe the case came down to whether the jury believed Martin was beating Zimmerman’s head against the pavement. While Martin did not have a weapon with him when the physical altercation broke out, Zimmerman’s defense attorneys, in their closing argument, argued that the pavement becomes a blunt instrument capable of death or serious bodily injury when an assailant begins beating a victim’s head against the ground.

This case, the State vs. George Zimmerman has been described as an example of racial discrimination and has been contrasted with another recent case in which Marissa Alexander received a 20 year sentence for firing warning shots when her ex-husband, who had a restraining order against him for physical abuse violated the order and approached her as reported by CBS News.

I believe that both cases are examples of racial inequality, and I further believe that the discourse around race and the law highlights a unique challenge to America. How are we to see justice? How are we to perform justice? What should be the basis of our conception of law?

In June I attended and spoke at the 4th National Conference on Restorative Justice held in Toledo, Ohio. The conference focused on the topic of Race and justice. Angela Davis, educator and activist, spoke powerfully about prejudice in a culture where many claim to be beyond difference, to see people without seeing race. Davis described the Zimmerman case as one of the most powerful examples of racial inequality, highlighting how media coverage turned toward stereotypes of drug abuse and “street” behavior, with limited coverage of positive descriptions such as President Obama’s statement that were he to have a son, he would look much like Trayvon Martin.

The conference focused the topic of restorative justice, the concept that crimes should not be a matter of state enforcement, but are wrongs between people that create obligations. They further believe that these obligations should be redressed between the parties with the support of members of the community rather than be played out in the formal setting of a court of law. A powerful example of restorative justice is the Truth and Reconciliation Commission charged with healing the harms perpetrated under Apartheid in South Africa.

Restorative Justice has wonderful intentions, but it brings with it many challenges. How are the rights of the accused protected when our justice system is predicated on the right of the individual to stand silent, like Jesus before Pontius Pilate. In the biblical story, Pilate washed his hands of Jesus, leaving him to his fate on the cross. Our justice system proposes the opposite – that the accused should be able to stand silent and that the accuser must prove the case against him or her, not send them to a punishment simply because he or she won’t try to prove him or herself innocent.

Another challenge is one of equity – an offender willing to confess and make amends receives, under restorative justice processes, wildly different penalties than one found guilty in a court of law. How is justice served with such wild discrepancies? Couldn’t bias and discrimination flourish even more under a system where one penitent offender seems more penitent than others and where race, gender and sexuality are already believed to create bias in communities?

Restorative justice describes judicial justice as “retributive,” stating that the model intends to create harsh punishment as its own end, and implies that the current judicial system does nothing to protect or make safer the communities the system purportedly serves. Davis, the keynote speaker, has been active in the prison abolition movement, a group that agitates to end all incarceration. The movement spans both liberal and conservative positions, as members of such diverse groups socialists, democrats, tea party activists, black panthers, and even members of the “prepper” culture oppose excessive government intervention, high levels of incarceration and private, for-profit prisons.

To me the Restorative Justice movement represents a divide in American thought around the concept of justice. At its heart Restorative Justice is a moral system. By that I mean that it is focused on localized and individual concepts of right and wrong. The judicial justice system at its heart is an ethical system. By that I mean that it emphasizes conduct by a code and a system of weights and measures that any of us should be judged by. A system wherein an offender bears a debt based on their acts and behavior in perpetrating an offense, not in their performance of remorse following the crime.

Today on Facebook a number of my friends circulated a link to the story of Marissa Alexander wondering how her 20 year prison sentence could be a representation of justice in light of the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial. I responded to one friend, a Buddhist who attended the same Sangha (community) when we both lived in Portland, Oregon.

I wrote, “Warning shots are always illegal – they are considered a preemptive strike with a deadly weapon before the threat has risen to the level of deadly force. ‘Warning shots’ have been banned for use by police since the 1960′s because of incidents where people or property were harmed. The self-defense laws are based on two things: imminence, in which you have to act immediately to defend yourself or be maimed or die, and the threat level – that the threat level meets the requirement for deadly threat. My first concealed carry instructor in Portland gave the example that was realized in the Zimmerman case – that an assailant was beating your head against the cement. The assailant was unarmed while punching, but the cement counts as a deadly blunt object.”

Within an ethical framework, to suggest that firing warning shots should be allowed would be to broadly increase the number of instances where using a weapon against another would be allowed. It would suggest that it is reasonable to use a weapon to scare another person. Under current law any use of a weapon to scare someone is a form of assault. Self-defense with a deadly weapon is only allowable in circumstances that meet the imminence and deadly threat standards as stated in the laws that bear jurisdiction over the area where the incident occurs. That means that a deadly weapon should not be used until the victim of assault believes that without using deadly force they will be immediately maimed or killed.

Within a moral framework where right and wrong are subjective and where circumstance and belief bear more weight than a code of conduct, it is easy to see how a woman who has been abused by her husband and who has an active restraining order should be allowed to fire warning shots, in spite of the threat to public safety (in the ethical framework the shooter is responsible for every bullet and where that bullet ends up) when you or I should not be allowed that freedom. It is also easy to see how, in retrospect, we should be able to say no to the right to self-defense following the terrible outcome in the conflict between Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman.

Here is where I believe inequity becomes key to our understanding in the equation. The codes and framework around self-defense that go all the way back to the concept of natural law, and upon which the international laws surrounding the sovereignty of nations and states is based, are not taught, unless an individual opts into a class such as the Utah Concealed Firearms permit course. Many people feel that it is wrong to study self-defense, believing that peace is derived from lack of knowledge of means of force.

I suggest that to move forward toward greater equity is through a combination of means. Yes, I agree with Restorative Justice advocates that greater dialogue and sharing among people of diverse backgrounds can serve to ameliorate histories of discrimination and to create new communities, but I also believe that greater access across a range of groups and individuals that historically lack access to legal information to knowledge about how the use of force and self-defense are regulated within the ethical framework of the law is of the greatest urgency.

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