Unless you’ve been under a rock for the past few weeks, the George Zimmerman verdict (acquittal) has caught your attention. Commonly, you’ve probably heard (or seen) “It’s not just,” or “Justice failed,” or even “Justice wasn’t served.” You’ve probably also heard people counter that justice, by definition, was served in this case. This led me to wonder what, exactly, justice means.
- Dictionary: According to Mirriam-Webster online, justice is, “the maintenance or administration of what is just especially by the impartial adjustment of conflicting claims or the assignment of merited rewards or punishments,” and, “the administration of law; especially: the establishment or determination of rights according to the rules of law or equity.” Related definitions include, “the quality of being just, impartial, or fair; the principle or ideal of just dealing or right action; conformity to this principle or ideal (righteousness),” and, “the quality of conforming to law.”
- Philosophy: According to Wikipedia, the philosophical concept of justice is, “Justice is a concept of moral rightness based on ethics, rationality, law, natural law, religion, equity or fairness, as well as the administration of the law, taking into account the inalienable and inborn rights of all human beings and citizens, the right of all people and individuals to equal protection before the law of their civil rights, without discrimination on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, color, ethnicity, religion, disability, age, or other characteristics, and is further regarded as being inclusive of social justice.” Both Plato and Aristotle see justice as harmony, both in and between the individual and as a quality of the state. Locke, on the other hand, sees justice as an inherent quality of the universe similar to the laws of physics. By implication, law is an attempt by humanity to quantify that which God wrote into the fabric of creation.
- Virtue: Justice is one of the four cardinal virtues, and is the proper tension between selfishness and selflessness. In some sense, it is giving to everyone what is due and as such, seems to be the pivotal virtue of the four as one can view the other virtues as expressions of justice.
- Theology: The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia says, “The original Hebrew and Greek words are the same as those rendered “righteousness.” This is the common rendering, and in about half the cases where we have “just” and “justice” in the King James Version, the American Standard Revised Version has changed to “righteous” and “righteousness.” It must be constantly borne in mind that the two ideas are essentially the same.”
So back to the question: was the George Zimmerman verdict just?
It seems unjust to me that an armed man can chase a boy for several minutes and then shoot that same boy while claiming no culpability in that boy’s death. Zimmerman’s actions appear both reckless and negligent. While Zimmerman may have broken no law (or did not commit murder) as he was charged, it does not remove from him the responsibility for Trayvon’s death. The tragic, and unjust aspect, is that the law supports him in killing Trayvon.
And that is, by definition, injustice.
“Remember Emmett Till.”
Three simple words, and my father and mother repeated them to me several times in my life. They associated several ideas behind that simple phrase but the chief one was this: you are a black man living in a world hostile to you. Simply put, they reminded me that the world would pre-judge me and treat me unfairly. It would consider me hostile and a threat by virtue of my existence alone. In a group of my peers (I attended predominantly white schools), if all of them were causing trouble and the authorities arrived, those authorities would look to me first as the source of conflict. My peers could argue with police over tickets; I dare not if I valued my health and life. I would need to dress better, act better, live better than those around me.
My parents, unfortunately, were right. Time and experience have proved them true. Repeatedly.
Upon hearing the George Zimmerman verdict, I couldn’t help but hear those three words and see the parallels between Emmett Till and Trayvon Martin.
- Emmitt (14) and Trayvon (17) were both teenagers when they were killed.
- Both made typically teenager-like (impulsive, unwise) decisions in carrying out the activities that led to their death. In Emmitt’s case, he dared whistle at a white woman. In Trayvon’s case, he dared to stand his ground after feeling threatened.
- The killers in each case acted in accordance with the common social and legal bounds. In Emmitt’s case, the jury knew the perpetrators killed Emmitt, but felt the killing of a black boy deserved neither life in prison nor the death penalty. In Trayvon’s case, we have not heard from the jury (as of this writing) but their vote for acquittal was a vote against 2nd degree murder and manslaughter.
- Both Emmitt and Trayvon were accused of bringing on their own murders. In Emmitt’s case, one of the killers talked about “putting Emmitt in his place,” while in Trayvon’s case, some media commentators asserted that Trayvon’s manner of dress—a hoodie on a rainy day—was thug gear and made him seem suspicious.
- Both Emmitt and Trayvon’s killers were charged only after tremendous political and social pressure as well as national attention.
I have to admit: I was disappointment, frustrated, and ultimately unsurprised by the verdict. Based on what I could see of the case, Zimmerman’s actions were legal, but they weren’t good. Zimmerman has the right to carry a weapon and to use it if threatened. From a legal perspective, it doesn’t matter that he chose to follow Trayvon for over four mintues (and for those of you who think that’s no big deal, here’s a challenge for you: set a four minute timer on your phone and start walking; don’t stop until you hear the timer buzz and imagine that someone is following you the whole time—how might you react in that case?).
I also know that, when my son comes of age, I will teach my son the lesson my parents taught me with a simple, three-word phrase:
“Remember Trayvon Martin.”