In the aftermath of the Jury finding George Zimmerman not guilty of the murder of Trayvon Martin, President Obama released the following statement:

President Barack Obama

President Barack Obama Photo courtesy of Wikipedia


This image is available for Web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

The death of Trayvon Martin was a tragedy.  Not just for his family, or for any one community, but for America.  I know this case has elicited strong passions.  And in the wake of the verdict, I know those passions may be running even higher.  But we are a nation of laws, and a jury has spoken.  I now ask every American to respect the call for calm reflection from two parents who lost their young son.

The statement is classic pastoral Obama, the role that by now we have seen too frequently, in the aftermath of Aurora, in the aftermath of Newtown, and now.   It is Pastor/President Obama, the Minister In Chief, calling the nation to heal, and moving towards a more compassionate and inclusive union.

It is a beautiful, powerful message.

It’s also woefully inadequate.  

George Zimmerman mug shot

George Zimmerman mug shot Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

President Obama is right (in the second part of his statement) to call our attention to the problem of gun violence.
A society that has 300 million people and 300 million guns is a society that teeters on the edge of self-destruction.

Yet Obama’s shortcoming is actually elsewhere in this statement:

         “But we are a nation of laws, and a jury has spoken.”

Yes we are a nation of laws, but we are also a nation with a proud history of resisting unjust laws.    This resistance goes back to the very foundations of the American experiment, where the governor of Massachusetts stated:  “Resistance to tyranny is obedience to God.”

This very quote had been ceased upon by Susan B. Anthony in the women’s right struggle:

And I shall earnestly and persistently continue
to urge all women to the practical recognition of the old revolutionary maxim,
that “Resistance to tyranny is obedience to God.”

This resistance goes back to the Greek tradition, which recalls Aristotle stating:

“It is not always the same thing to be a good man and a good citizen.”

There comes a time when we have to choose between a good citizen and obeying unjust laws, or being a good human being.

Saint Augustine of Hippo, courtesy of Wikipedia

Saint Augustine of Hippo Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

This resistance to unjust laws goes back to the Christian heritage of St. Augustine, who centuries ago stated: “an unjust law is no law at all.” 

Coming back closer to our own time, this resistance goes back through the Suffragette movement and the tradition of civil disobedience.

It was Henry David Thoreau who stated:

Henry David Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

“If the machine of government is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law.”

This too is America, but it is not an America of obedience to unjust juries, but rather of disobedience to injustice.

And most powerfully, this resistance of unjust laws goes back to the prophetic Christian legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, who stated:

“One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws.
Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” 

 

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King, Jr. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia


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Dr. King in his Letter from Birmingham Jail was mindful that such a responsibility might lead to chaos in society, and connected that moral responsibility to human dignity:  “Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.” 

This is the dimension that is missing from President Obama’s pastoral statement.  Yes, there was a jury.   And yes, they did rule base on “the law” by now infamously known as “stand your ground.”  But it is this very law itself that is unjust. It is this very law that degrades human personality by associating people of color with being suspicious as George Zimmerman did.  And it is this very immoral law that must be resisted by all people of conscience.

President Obama has sought to punt this ruling back to the cool and dispassionate realm of juries and laws.  Yes, we are a nation of laws, but we are also a nation of institutional racism, classism, sexism, xenophobia, and homophobia.

We are a nation that is and remains an imperfect exercise of democracy, where our democracy is a dream as of yet unrealized.    The American dream is to be found not in resting upon the laurels of our laws, but in ever pushing forward and higher, resisting the very injustice that is both a part of and a perversion of the American experiment.

To speak of us as merely being a nation of laws is to abdicate the moral responsibility to grapple not only with laws, but also with the human beings and institutions that animate, interpret, and execute those very laws.  And for as long as our nation—like all nations—remains an imperfect nation reflecting the best and the worst of humanity simultaneously, it is forever insufficient to abdicate the moral responsibility to resist injustice by simply stating that we are a nation of laws.

That is where President Obama errs.

That is where we have to go:  to morally resist injustice in our laws, in our institutions, and in our community if we wish to find a way—as the President puts it so beautifully—to honor Trayvon, and all the Trayvons.

martin luther king with a hoodie as Trayvon

Martin Luther King with a hoodie as Trayvon Photo courtesy Twitter, Van Jones


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[This blog is dedicated to the family of Trayvon Martin.]

 

10 Comments

  1. The prosecutors should have made better use of the 14 recorded screams loud enough to be captured on the neighbor’s call to 911. They should have played those screams at the outset of their rebuttal — a time when the defense was a sitting duck — and they should have played those screams again at the very end — so that the jurors would have retired to the jury room with those haunting screams ringing in their ears.
    Nor did the Court’s ruling disallowing expert testimony on the 911 call prevent the prosecutors from playing the call during final argument; or prevent them from drawing common-sense conclusions from what is heard.
    As for Zimmerman saying it was he doing the screaming — and just as Martin was prying his gun away — then why do we have none of Martin’s DNA on the gun? There should have been something there, even if Martin had merely touched the gun, let alone grabbed it, or struggled with it. Indeed, we might expect a struggle for control to leave a heavy DNA imprint on the gun. Yet, it left none.
    What about the silence, that dead silence we note after the gunshot? Does it tell us anything? If Zimmerman was the one crying for help the ensuing silence after the shot is revealing — unless he can plead for help and hold a gun to shoot at the same time.
    And remember, Zimmerman says he screamed during his struggle with Martin. If this is so, then we would expect the screams to have been interrupted. They were not. Rather, the cries for help are steady, though growing more desperate, but at the same tempo as they had started. This is not plausible from a man having his head pounded on the pavement; it is not plausible from a man struggling to keep his gun.
    No, those steady heart wrenching howls were from someone who was held at gunpoint; someone who had felt the cold steel of a gun in his side; a teenager untested with the dangers of life; a juvenile who suddenly realized he was way over his head, and firmly believed his life was about to come to an end.

  2. Omid, I understand your passion and I agree with many of the individual points you make in your blog. I must point out, however, that you have unfortunately conflated a number of issues such that your criticism of President Obama is neither entirely accurate nor fair.

    The trial was held to determine whether or not Mr. Zimmerman was guilty or innocent of committing either second degree murder or manslaughter, as those acts are defined by Florida law. The issue of Stand Your Ground was actually specifically removed from consideration during the trial. There were a number of other limitations placed on what could and could not be introduced into the trial, regarding evidence and testimony presented. The jury was tasked to work within the legal and procedural limitations placed upon them. They were given 27 pages of instructions to follow in their deliberations. The jury also had to deliberate and decide without knowing everything about exactly what happened when Trayvon Martin was killed by Mr. Zimmerman. As with so many other cases, there are always unknowns, and unknowns tend to introduce doubts.

    In the end, the jury was unable to convict Mr. Zimmerman, beyond a reasonable doubt, of either second degree murder or manslaughter – as defined by Florida law – based on the evidence, testimony and arguments presented. In other words, the jury determined that the State did not convincingly make its case. That’s it. The jury did not make any determination regarding whether or not Mr. Zimmerman was at fault or was justified in his pursuit of Trayvon Martin, or in confronting Mr. Martin, or in carrying a weapon, or in using that weapon such that it resulted in the death of Mr. Martin. It also did not make any determination that Mr. Zimmerman killed Mr. Martin in self-defense. The jury simply said Mr. Zimmerman was not guilty of either second degree murder or manslaughter.

    There are many questions that have been raised by the killing of Trayvon Martin, by the actions of law enforcement, by actions of prosecution and defense, by the judge, and by other aspects of this case. Some of these questions are now being actively investigated at the Federal level. All of these questions need to be looked into over time. Many issues remain to be investigated and settled.

    President Obama is correct, however, in pointing out that the jury has spoken regarding the guilt or innocence of Mr. Zimmerman, according to how the trial was structured and the way it proceeded. He did not say this is the end of the road regarding investigation into the killing of Trayvon Martin. He did not say that this trial supports Stand Your Ground laws. He did not say we should placidly accept unjust laws. He said we are a nation of laws, but he did not say we are *only* a nation of laws, so for you to emphasize that we are “more than a nation of laws” has no real basis in his comments.

    We are a nation of laws – and more, most certainly – and it usually best to abide by current law. It is also usually best to try to work within the legislative and judicial systems to change unjust laws in order to eliminate them or replace them with more just laws. It is rare that it might be best to ignore and intentionally circumvent current law or act completely contrary to current law.

  3. Omid Safi

    Dear Carl, thank you for your helpful response. Actually if you read some of the follow up with the jurors, you will note that they did, in fact, take the “stand your ground” laws into consideration for making their verdict: http://thinkprogress.org/politics/2013/07/16/2306901/7-mind-blowing-moments-from-zimmerman-juror-b37s-first-interview/
    I understand what you are saying about working within the legislative system. From where I am situated in NC, where so many rights and institutions ranging from voting to marriage to education and taxations are under assault, it does seem that something more dramatic, such as nonviolent civil disobedience is needed to awaken the people to more direct action.

    • Yes, Omid, I now see that information about the FL Stand Your Ground law was included in the instructions to the jurors, even though that law was not invoked in the Zimmerman defense. I have read the whole transcript of the interview with the juror, not just selected excerpts for a “mind blowing moments” commentary, and I think that makes a difference. It’s also important to note that this is not “the follow up with the jurors” – it is only a single juror and that one jurors impressions. I think it’s important to be careful in stating such things because “the jurors” vs. “one juror” creates impressions that can significantly influence one’s own thinking and the impressions and thoughts of others, whether intentionally or unintentionally.

      My impression, from reading the whole transcript, is that Stand Your Ground played a role in the process but quite possibly not a very significant role. It simply meant that Mr. Zimmerman did not need to back off and leave. I view that in the context of the juror’s several statements that Mr. Zimmerman had gone further than he should have, beginning with getting out of his car after the 911 call. The thinkprogress.com (“mind blowing”) piece emphasizes (sensationalizes?) that the 911 operator “egged” Mr. Zimmerman on, but I don’t really get a strong impression of that from the transcript, although that was mentioned. I haven’t actually heard the audio from that call, but I’m wondering if “egged” is even an appropriate characterization of what the operator said. It may have simply been a point of getting information for the operator to ask “can you see where he’s gone?” It’s a big leap to translate that into jump-out-of-your-car-and-pursue. And it’s an even bigger leap to expand that into accost, assault and shoot.

      It seems to me that there is some confusion in the minds of many regarding Stand Your Ground as compared to a right to defend one’s self. They are not the same thing, but they certainly get blended together in the minds of many.

      If you haven’t read the complete transcript, you can find it here:
      http://www.miamiherald.com/2013/07/15/v-fullstory/3502047/zimmerman-juror-speaks-out-transcript.html

      I find it interesting, puzzling and worrisome that so much has been made of Mr. Zimmerman supposedly fearing for his life. The interviewed juror mentioned this many times. There seems to be little if any mention that perhaps Trayvon Martin also feared for his life. I suspect that most unarmed people being confronted by someone with a gun would fear for their life. If Mr Martin did in fact try to get hold of Mr. Zimmerman’s gun, might he not have been doing so simply to protect himself by trying to disarm Mr. Zimmerman who was the aggressor? That thinking doesn’t seem to have factored into the case or the deliberations according to what I’ve seen so far.

      I hear what you’re saying about the assaults on rights and institutions, particularly in the South, but all over. It’s even happening to some extent here in MN. And, yes, sometimes nonviolent civil disobedience is definitely called for. I think, though, that it would be more effective if only more apathetic citizens could be inspired into raising their voices in various ways that would help our country get realigned with its long term course of progress for the good of all. A “shock” to the system, such as from cases like this one, can sometimes help provide the necessary inspiration for that. While some people go reactively astray, other people become energized and activated to work towards positive results, even in the face of the many apparently daunting obstacles.

      • First of all great article by Mr. Safhi! Secondly, Carl, why don’t you just come out and say you agree with the verdict instead of the long winded BS defense of the verdict you are posting? The Think Progress article was not sensationalism as you imply. Rather, it captures perfectly the frustration felt by those of us who disagree with the verdict. Juror B37′s comments thus far along with her quick book deal, now killed by outrage by the public, lead many of us to believe and rather strongly so that there may have been jury misconduct at the least and jury tampering at the most likely, given B37′s comments about her husband and her being friends with one of the defense attorneys. Here’s hopeing that the Justice Department will investigate all these questions and more. What has happened thus far is racism at it’s most ugly best, starting with the initial police non-investigation and ending with the verdict. Yes, it’s only 1 juror that has spoken out so far but she has made some quite revealing and troubling comments leading a more than significant number of us to believe that this jury simply chose to disregard key evidence and find Mr. Zimmerman Not Guilty based on their beliefs and not the evidence.

  4. Martha Christian

    A nation of laws? The law is violated in actions against the weak or defenseless by the powerful and defended every day. I would like to believe, against all evidence to the contrary, that this is a nation of justice. However, the crime against Trayvon Martin certainly was not lawful and the acquittal of Zimmerman was not just but, rather, a travesty of justice.

  5. President Obama is a disgrace!! Trayvon was a thug and if zimmerman didn’t have a gun in him, he would have been killed by Trayvon! This is totally a gun issue. Obama trying to push his gun agenda to disarm Americans so that the government could come in and take over and do as they please! We have 2nd amendments rights and no one is taking that away.

    • Omid Safi

      Hello Francesca. While you and I agree that President Obama’s response has been sufficient in this case, our reasoning couldn’t be more different. Your labeling of Trayvon as a “thug” (whereas he was an honor student with many hours of community service) is enough to reveal the assumptions behind your position. Goodbye.

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