Skip to main content

Zimmerman case echoes issues of race, guns

By Paul Waldman, Special to CNN
July 14, 2013 -- Updated 1736 GMT (0136 HKT)
Sybrina Fulton, mother of Trayvon Martin, is joined by her son Jahvaris Fulton as she speaks to the crowd during a rally in New York City, Saturday, July 20. A jury in Florida acquitted Zimmerman of all charges related to the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. <a href='http://www.cnn.com/2013/06/27/justice/gallery/zimmerman-trial/index.html'>View photos of key moments from the trial.</a> Sybrina Fulton, mother of Trayvon Martin, is joined by her son Jahvaris Fulton as she speaks to the crowd during a rally in New York City, Saturday, July 20. A jury in Florida acquitted Zimmerman of all charges related to the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. View photos of key moments from the trial.
HIDE CAPTION
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Photos: Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
Reaction to Zimmerman verdict
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Paul Waldman: Zimmerman trial reflected much of U.S. struggle with race; verdict did not
  • He says reasonable doubt and Florida law made acquittal unsurprising
  • He says it may not have been law's intent, but the threat it addresses is colored by race
  • Waldman: O'Reilly, Limbaugh, others are race-baiting when they warn of unrest after verdict

Editor's note: Paul Waldman is a contributing editor at The American Prospect and the author of "Being Right Is Not Enough: What Progressives Must Learn From Conservative Success." Follow him on his blog and on Twitter.

(CNN) -- Many trials in recent years have implicated our ongoing national struggles with race. But few have gotten as much attention as that of George Zimmerman, who shot and killed young Trayvon Martin 17 months ago in Sanford, Florida. Perhaps the uncertainty of what really happened that night is part of what drew us: Since only two people knew exactly what transpired and one of them is dead, we're free to speculate and argue to our heart's content.

It may also be the fact that this young black man wasn't killed by the police, but by an ordinary citizen. So anybody could put himself or herself in the place of Zimmerman or Martin.

CORRECTION
An earlier version of this article incorrectly said "Bill O'Reilly wondered the other day if, after an acquittal, black people would 'run out and cause trouble.'" He did not mention race in his question.

The verdict by itself says very little about race in America. Juries don't ponder such things; their job is to answer particular legal questions (in this case: Did Zimmerman kill Martin in self defense?)-- which may not be the ones the rest of us are asking. And so Zimmerman's acquittal wasn't much of a surprise.

Opinion: When blacks killed by non-blacks, justice rarely served

Trayvon Martin couldn't give his side of the story, leaving ample room for reasonable doubt. More importantly, under Florida law, it's perfectly legal to follow someone for even the worst of reasons, confront them, and even start a fight with them. Then when you lose the advantage to the point where you believe you're in danger of "great bodily harm," you can shoot the other person dead. The law forgives, whether forgiveness is deserved or not. Zimmerman could have had the soul of Martin Luther King or Bull Connor, and it wouldn't have made a difference to whether he was innocent or guilty under this law.

Social media erupts in anger, sadness over Zimmerman verdict

Paul Waldman
Paul Waldman

That's "standing your ground," the legal world that gun advocates have created and this case has highlighted. Gun rights supporters have a Hollywood fantasy in which a brave homeowner uses his gun to fight off a vicious criminal gang intent on killing his family, but this case showed a far less romantic reality: A nebbishy neighborhood watch volunteer with a never-to-be fulfilled dream of becoming a cop chased down a kid who just wanted to get his Skittles back to his dad's house to watch a basketball game.

The state laws governing who you're allowed to shoot and when may not have been built with race in mind, but out in the real world, our perception of what's threatening is still colored profoundly by race. Bill O'Reilly wondered the other day if, after an acquittal, people would "run out and cause trouble." After all, you know how those people are. The head of the Miami-Dade police went to a black church to warn, "Riots are not acceptable and riots are not expected."

Well, if they aren't expected, why was the warning necessary?

George Zimmerman found not guilty
Defense gives three-hour closing
Zimmerman trial roils social media

There were warnings of riots from many corners, just as there were those who saw in this case an excuse to pick at race like a scab, for no reason other than sending their audiences to greater heights of resentment. Rush Limbaugh, for instance, read a story about the Justice Department sending mediators to Sanford to help local officials defuse tensions, and saw a conspiracy from a White House practically taken over by Black Panthers.

Opinion: Doing what's right not just about law

"Stoking the racial stuff is the way Obama was raised," said Limbaugh, the most prominent race-baiter in America. "He's got a chip on his shoulder about it, and he's here to square the deal. And (Attorney General Eric) Holder too. I think all of these guys have an anger about them."

Even as we scorn repellent hate-mongers like Limbaugh, it's good to remind ourselves that we all make assumptions about other people, and we'd all benefit from examining them. Much of our reaction to cases like this one is built on what we assume other people are like, regardless of what we know about them as individuals. That's what turns a kid walking down the street with candy in his pocket into a threat that should be met with a gun at the ready.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Paul Waldman.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2311 GMT (0711 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2113 GMT (0513 HKT)
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
December 10, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1023 GMT (1823 HKT)
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 0639 GMT (1439 HKT)
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 2020 GMT (0420 HKT)
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1456 GMT (2256 HKT)
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1453 GMT (2253 HKT)
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 2253 GMT (0653 HKT)
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1550 GMT (2350 HKT)
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2123 GMT (0523 HKT)
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 1426 GMT (2226 HKT)
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1828 GMT (0228 HKT)
Rip Rapson says the city's 'Grand Bargain' saved pensions and a world class art collection by pulling varied stakeholders together, setting civic priorities and thinking outside the box
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2310 GMT (0710 HKT)
Glenn Schwartz says the airing of the company's embarrassing emails might wake us up to the usefulness of talking in-person instead of electronically
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 2233 GMT (0633 HKT)
The computer glitch that disrupted air traffic over the U.K. on Friday was a nuisance, but not dangerous, says Les Abend
ADVERTISEMENT