Misjudgment and Overreaction Killed Trayvon Martin. Now They’re Driving Our Response to the Verdict.

How you look at things.
July 15 2013 5:15 PM

You Are Not Trayvon Martin

His death wasn’t about race, guns, or your pet issue. It was about misjudgment and overreaction—exactly what we’re doing now to the verdict.

Demonstrators react to George Zimmerman's acquittal, Miami Florida.
Demonstrators hold signs in downtown Miami a day after the verdict to the George Zimmerman murder trial

Photo by Angel Valentin/Getty Images

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Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

Trayvon Martin is dead, George Zimmerman has been acquitted, and millions of people are outraged. Some politicians are demanding a second prosecution of Zimmerman, this time for hate crimes. Others are blaming the tragedy on “Stand Your Ground” laws, which they insist must be repealed. Many who saw the case as proof of racism in the criminal justice system see the verdict as further confirmation. Everywhere you look, people feel vindicated in their bitter assumptions. They want action.

But that’s how Martin ended up dead. It’s how Zimmerman ended up with a bulletproof vest he might have to wear for the rest of his life. It’s how activists and the media embarrassed themselves with bogus reports. The problem at the core of this case wasn’t race or guns. The problem was assumption, misperception, and overreaction. And that cycle hasn’t ended with the verdict. It has escalated.

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I almost joined the frenzy. Yesterday I was going to write that Zimmerman pursued Martin against police instructions and illustrated the perils of racial profiling. But I hadn’t followed the case in detail. So I sat down and watched the closing arguments: nearly seven hours of video in which the prosecution and defense went point by point through the evidence as it had been hashed out at the trial. Based on what I learned from the videos, I did some further reading.

It turned out I had been wrong about many things. The initial portrait of Zimmerman as a racist wasn’t just exaggerated. It was completely unsubstantiated. It’s a case study in how the same kind of bias that causes racism can cause unwarranted allegations of racism. Some of the people Zimmerman had reported as suspicious were black men, so he was a racist. Members of his family seemed racist, so he was a racist. Everybody knew he was a racist, so his recorded words were misheard as racial slurs, proving again that he was a racist.

The 911 dispatcher who spoke to Zimmerman on the fatal night didn’t tell him to stay in his car. Zimmerman said he was following a suspicious person, and the dispatcher told him, "We don't need you to do that." Chief prosecutor Bernie de la Rionda conceded in his closing argument that these words were ambiguous. De la Rionda also acknowledged, based on witness and forensic evidence, that both men “were scraping and rolling and fighting out there.” He pointed out that the wounds, blood evidence, and DNA didn’t match Zimmerman’s story of being thoroughly restrained and pummeled throughout the fight. But the evidence didn’t fit the portrait of Martin as a sweet-tempered child, either. And the notion that Zimmerman hunted down Martin to accost him made no sense. Zimmerman knew the police were on the way. They arrived only a minute or so after the gunshot. The fight happened in a public area surrounded by townhouses at close range. It was hardly the place or time to start shooting.

That doesn’t make Zimmerman a hero. It just makes him a reckless fool instead of a murderer. In a post-verdict press conference, his lawyer, Mark O’Mara, claimed that “the evidence supported that George Zimmerman did nothing wrong,” that “the jury decided that he acted properly in self-defense,” and that Zimmerman “was never guilty of anything except protecting himself in self-defense. I’m glad that the jury saw it that way.” That’s complete BS. The only thing the jury decided was that there was reasonable doubt as to whether Zimmerman had committed second-degree murder or manslaughter.

Zimmerman is guilty, morally if not legally, of precipitating the confrontation that led to Martin’s death. He did many things wrong. Mistake No. 1 was inferring that Martin was a burglar. In his 911 call, Zimmerman cited Martin’s behavior. “It’s raining, and he’s just walking around” looking at houses, Zimmerman said. He warned the dispatcher, “He’s got his hand in his waistband.” He described Martin’s race and clothing only after the dispatcher asked about them. Whatever its basis, the inference was false.

Mistake No. 2 was pursuing Martin on foot. Zimmerman had already done what the neighborhood watch rules advised: He had called the police. They would have arrived, questioned Martin, and ascertained that he was innocent. Instead, Zimmerman, packing a concealed firearm, got out and started walking after Martin. Zimmerman’s initial story, that he was trying to check the name of the street, was so laughable that his attorneys abandoned it. He was afraid Martin would get away. So he followed Martin, hoping to update the cops.

Mistake No. 3 was Zimmerman’s utter failure to imagine how his behavior looked to Martin. You’re a black kid walking home from a convenience store with Skittles and a fruit drink. Some dude in a car is watching and trailing you. God knows what he wants. You run away. He gets out of the car and follows you. What are you supposed to do? In Zimmerman’s initial interrogation, the police expressed surprise that he hadn’t identified himself to Martin as a neighborhood watch volunteer. They suggested that Martin might have been alarmed when Zimmerman reached for an object that Zimmerman, but not Martin, knew was a phone. Zimmerman seemed baffled. He was so convinced of Martin’s criminal intent that he hadn’t considered how Martin, if he were innocent, would perceive his stalker.

Martin, meanwhile, was profiling Zimmerman. On his phone, he told a friend he was being followed by a “creepy-ass cracker.” The friend—who later testified that this phrase meant pervert—advised Martin, “You better run.” She reported, as Zimmerman did, that Martin challenged Zimmerman, demanding to know why he was being hassled. If Zimmerman’s phobic misreading of Martin was the first wrong turn that led to their fatal struggle, Martin’s phobic misreading of Zimmerman may have been the second.

In court, evidence and scrutiny have exposed these difficult, complicated truths. But outside the court, ideologues are ignoring them. They’re oversimplifying a tragedy that was caused by oversimplification. Martin has become Emmett Till. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is using the verdict to attack Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, which wasn’t invoked in this case. The grievance industrial complex is pushing the Department of Justice to prosecute Zimmerman for bias-motivated killing, based on evidence that didn’t even support a conviction for unpremeditated killing. Zimmerman’s lawyers have teamed up with members of the Congressional Black Caucus, inadvertently, to promote the false message that Zimmerman’s acquittal means our society thinks everything he did was OK.

It wasn’t OK. It was stupid and dangerous. It led to the unnecessary death of an innocent young man. It happened because two people—their minds clouded by stereotypes that went well beyond race—assumed the worst about one another and acted in haste. If you want to prevent the next Trayvon Martin tragedy, learn from their mistakes. Don’t paint the world in black and white. Don’t declare the whole justice system racist, or blame every gun death on guns, or confuse acquittal with vindication. And the next time you see somebody who looks like a punk or a pervert, hold your fire.

William Saletan's latest short takes on the news, via Twitter:

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