Beware the Neighborhood Watchman
I was recently discussing the Trayvon Martin / George Zimmerman case with David Marc, who is known for his books in the communications, but is also an astute political observer. We were lamenting the fact that the legal case in Florida, and most of the media conversation, has focused almost exclusively on the question of whether Zimmerman acted in self-defense. In a court of law in a state which has adopted “Stand Your Ground” legislation and the balance of justice is heavily tilted toward the person who pulls the trigger, this should not come as a shock. But in the media, writers, reporters, and editors are not limited by the narrow prescripts of the law. Their conversation need not be so blinkered; they are free (even obligated) to entertain broader concepts such as justice, ethics, and history.
David noted that in all the commentary regarding Martin’s murder (let’s call it what it is), no one, not even Al Sharpton, raised the history of Neighborhood Watch groups. Zimmerman was not just a passing bystander; the sole reason for his presence on that Florida street was in the role of neighborhood watchman. He was, in other words, looking for trouble. In his armed defense of his turf, Zimmerman was following in the footsteps of the most notorious neighborhood watch group in U.S. history: the Ku Klux Klan. Just like George Zimmerman, Klan members felt themselves to be protecting the safety of their neighbors and extending the arm of law and order. And, just as many in the community have rallied to Zimmerman’s defense, the Klan was a fraternal organization that enjoyed broad support for much its history. After a period of decline, which came after Jim Crow laws institutionalized the intimidation of Blacks, the Klan revived in the 1920s as a powerful anti-immigration, anti-Semitic, anti-civil rights group with an estimated 4 million members nationwide, many of whom participated in a massive march on Washington in 1925. Only after decades of murder and mayhem did the Klan come to be seen by a majority of Americans as the terrorist organization that it was.
But is the Klan an extreme outlier, or merely the foremost example of a strain of violent vigilantism that runs through the history of the country? There has always been a thin line in the U.S. between the reflex for self-preservation and self-determination on one side, and a faith in law and law enforcement on the other. Anyone who has participated in a protest or committed an act of civil disobedience has crossed that line. But such acts are borne of a profound (perhaps naïve) belief in the power of organized citizens to make things better by putting strategic pressure on the prevailing powers. Amazingly few of such actions have been violent. Protesters generally wish to improve the law, not take it into their own hands. In other words, a protester may be an outlaw, but he/she is not a vigilante.
What is the difference? The outlaw is driven to act by intolerable circumstances and takes only those measures which will restore the balance of fairness and justice. Driven more by need than greed, he/she is likely to be an anti-war or environmental activist, a whistleblower, or just a shoplifter of food and clothing, but not a gun-toting bank robber or revolutionary, despite frequent media portrayals to the contrary. He/she acts out of conviction or desperation, not fear. The vigilante, by contrast, takes extra-legal action because he/she has allows fear of “the other” – someone of a different color, caste, or ethnic group – to overcome all restraint and empathy.
The great tragedy in the Martin/Zimmerman affair – beyond the murder of a teenager – is that Stand Your Ground, both the law and the mentality, has legalized and institutionalized vigilantism. Stand Your Ground follows a long-established American tradition in which punishment is preferred to forgiveness, incarceration is stripped of opportunity for rehabilitation or redemption, and more energy is spent blaming victims than seeking social solutions. It is a bold step toward a brutal, dystopian society in which fear and hatred are protected, and guilt or innocence is irrelevant.
But it is crucial to recognize that this is not an inherent human condition, a kind of survival of the fittest in which “fitness” is defined by who the quicker trigger finger. Stand Your Ground doesn’t make our streets safer – quite the opposite – and it isn’t really intended to. It is part of a larger campaign that seeks to maximize corporate profits, minimize public resources that cannot be monetized or exploited for competitive advantage. Technically, Stand Your Ground is an extension of the so-called Castle Doctrine, which allows a person to use deadly force to defend their home. But this law makes a radical leap. This law is not about giving families the right to protect themselves, but creating a right for any White person with a pretext to shoot first and (maybe) ask questions later.
This break with legal and ethical tradition did not come as the result a grass roots movement, but is the product of a concerted campaign driven by an unholy alliance of three forces: gun manufacturers, the National Rifle Association (NRA), and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). Seizing the opportunity afforded when Republicans established majorities in many state legislatures, ALEC drafted model Stand Your Ground legislation and, supported with millions of dollars from gun manufacturers and other ALEC member businesses, joined the NRA in lobbying for its adoption. In a remarkably short time, Republican officials in 22 states adopted the law, often word-for-word, from the ALEC template.
Usefully, The Tampa Bay Times has conducted an extensive case review of Stand Your Ground claims. Their research points unequivocally to the fact that the Zimmerman defense, which played shamefully on racist fears of young Black males, is consistent with most Stand Your Ground cases that come to court (remember, law enforcement wasn’t even going to bring charges against Zimmerman until there was an outpouring of outrage). When the shooter is Black, conviction is likely; when the perpetrator is White, much less so. In America, a young Black man is simply not free; even if he is minding his own business, he can be gunned down and then portrayed as a perpetrator. As one blogger put it, Trayvon Martin was put on trial for his own murder…and found guilty.
If fear is the animating force behind most vigilantism, the truly scary thing is that race-based fears are so broadly shared and widely condoned. The Zimmerman case is not an isolated incident; the violence is not the result of personal vendetta, but of tribal warfare. The Southern Strategy, perfected by staunch segregationists such as Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms, and adopted almost whole in recent decades by the Republican Party, is based on planting fears among White Americans that their tenuous standing in society is threatened by Black people, immigrants, Jews, Muslims, or other “others.” Recent demographic shifts only exacerbate these fears. New voter suppression laws, which purport to fight a voter fraud problem that does not exist, are desperate attempts to maintain White supremacy by disenfranchising minority, immigrant, and student groups.
One might view these draconian laws on a superficial, Republican vs. Democratic, level. But Stand Your Ground, Voter ID, and other so-called reforms aimed at reducing health care, privatizing education, or rolling back environmental and workplace protections, are part of a bigger power grab. In each of these cases, the victims are either poor or sympathetic to those in poverty. This divide, between those entrenched, moneyed powers (the 1%) who impose austerity, and the working stiffs (the 99%) who cling to their dreams of democracy even as their economic and social security is decimated, is a global problem that poses just as great a threat to the survival of the species as climate change. Whether the agent is the Republican Party, the Tea Party, or the Klan, they are all doing the grunt work for the plutocrats. From their ranks will inevitably emerge vigilantes like George Zimmerman, a home-grown terrorist.