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
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 2334 GMT (0734 HKT)
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 2033 GMT (0433 HKT)
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0442 GMT (1242 HKT)
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2043 GMT (0443 HKT)
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0858 GMT (1658 HKT)
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 1938 GMT (0338 HKT)
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1700 GMT (0100 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2301 GMT (0701 HKT)
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1335 GMT (2135 HKT)
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 0208 GMT (1008 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1125 GMT (1925 HKT)
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 2004 GMT (0404 HKT)
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1307 GMT (2107 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 2250 GMT (0650 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
October 11, 2014 -- Updated 1543 GMT (2343 HKT)
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT