The Lonesome Death of Trayvon Martin

While the most obvious similarity between the death of Hattie Carroll in 1963, the hotel barmaid with eleven children murdered by the cane of the drunken, wealthy snot William Zantzinger and recounted in the classic Dylan song, The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll and the murder of Trayvon Martin is that both are heinous acts in which congenital racism played a central role, the all but insouciant response of the legal and judicial systems is eerily familiar too.

Class and institutional racism were instrumental in Billy Zantzinger spending a mere six months in county jail for committing murder (the charge was reduced to manslaughter). And while socially and institutionally times have changed, the fact that George Zimmerman, dubiously self-designated Neighborhood Watch vigilante and the murderer of Trayvon Martin remains uncharged and unincarcerated betrays its own contemporary twist on legal and institutional insanity.

If nothing else, Trayvon’s killer George Zimmerman is a cornucopia of familiar ugly pathologies: deep racism, an infatuation with law enforcement, a touch of paranoia and an authoritarian bent to his personality one may safely surmise. As long as there are people like him, and there always will be, some Americans, young black men in particular are going to be at risk. And while we really have no answers for how to change a George Zimmerman, we most certainly have ways to resist the sort of laws and the sort of law enforcement that has left Trayvon’s traumatized family overcome as much with disbelief as grief.

In a nutshell, the Stand Your Ground laws adopted by 31 states are an extension, I would say a perversion and bastardization of the Castle Doctrine derived from English Common Law that declares one need not retreat within one’s home before using lethal force in self defense, into an interpretation that when one has the legal right to be wherever he or she may be, he or she may resort to lethal force if a threat is perceived. One needn’t be immersed in social psychology or legal scholarship to conclude such legal and moral ease of public gunplay is fully demented.

The fact that George Zimmerman’s insistence to law enforcement, despite all available evidence that not only was he not threatened but was in fact the aggressor, that he acted in self defense was enough to walk free is astonishingly instructive by itself. But just as bizarre, as we are aware now, were it not for the Category 5 shit storm of shock, national outrage and pressure brought to bear, Zimmerman likely would never be charged at all, insulated by Stand Your Ground and the reluctance of prosecutors feeling hamstrung on its account. Again, that 31 states have a law such as this on the books is evidence something really bananas is loose in the national zeitgeist.

As usual, the origins of that something are conservative and reactionary. One somewhat nauseating irony here is that the traditional screamers for law and order are the source of this gun saturation and new freedom to carry and use guns.  As Republicans have extended control over governorships and legislatures, along with attempts to decimate organized labor, drug test welfare recipients and gut corporate tax revenues they have launched a new epoch of legal pistol-packing, first passing laws allowing guns everywhere from bars to campuses, concealed or unconcealed, and now giving the green light to firing when scared, or in the case of George Zimmerman, allowing bigoted, screwy, homicides-waiting –to-happen an excuse to kill with impunity.

In other words, we’re now taking the word of the only person left standing that a killing was justified. Have Americans in states with these laws on the books really considered the likely consequences of permitting public use of a firearm as a first resort? Is the lily white and maturing Tea Party bunch aware that potential victims of frightened or deranged or jumpy gun-toters may not be confined to teenagers of color wearing hoodies? Maybe that should be the point when it comes to confronting the asininity of Stand Your Ground: This may be a little more empowerment to the George Zimmermans of the world and their 9 millimeter semiautomatics than we want to bestow.

Just to be clear, it is my view, as it is of no small number of scholars and historians that the Second Amendment never intended to guarantee the right of individual possession of a firearm. However, there is nothing in the Constitution preventing a democratic society from passing laws that allow it. I’m comfortable with erring on the side of liberty here, though Americans should understand the trade-off in pervasive violent deaths. To some extent, by responding to the alarmism and bullying from the NRA, and to Republican demagoguing on guns by punishing advocates of sane gun regulation at the ballot box the majority has chosen to accept, perhaps unwittingly, mayhem as the price for easy gun ownership and the proliferation of guns, and now for de-facto de-regulation of their public use.

The cynic in me says that if Americans want to slaughter each other let them have at it. But I have to remind myself that both the victims and the perpetrators of much of the resulting violence of this gun fetishization, wild-west braggadocio and firearm laissez-faire are children.

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