San Pedro, CA – Because it wasn’t officially released, Bob Dylan’s early song: “Who Killed Davey Moore?” never really got the respect it deserved, but the more I learned about the murder of Trayvon Martin, the harder it was to get “Davey Moore” out of my head. Davey Moore was a boxer, killed in the ring, and Dylan’s song questioned everyone involved, beginning with the referee who “could’ve stopped it in the eighth/An’ maybe kept him from his fate/But the crowd would’ve booed, I’m sure” and ending with the fighter who “hit him, yes, it’s true/But that’s what I am paid to do/Don’t say ‘murder’, don’t say ‘kill’/It was destiny, it was God’s will” – with verses in between for the angry crowd, his manager, the gambling man, and the boxing writer. Each in turn explains how blameless, how innocent they are. And yet, Davey Moore is dead all the same, and not just dead, but brutally so.
Ostensibly, it’s a song about the brutality of boxing – an odd counterpoint to his more well-known song, “Hurricane”, about the falsely convicted boxing champion Hurricane Carter. But actually, it’s about the denial of personal responsibility by the very same sorts of people who just love to lay the blame on others for their lack of responsibility. It’s no surprise really – if you’re going to shift the blame for things off yourself, it goes without saying that you have to shift it onto someone else. So why not – as many commentators on a Fox News story did – blame it on the victim?
Not being a conservative, I don’t think like that. Instead, as the Dylan song suggests, I keep noticing who it was that had a hidden or not so hidden hand in the murder of Trayvon Martin.
“Zimmerman didn’t just murder Trayvon in cold blood, he had tracked him down like dog.“
George Zimmerman was obviously responsible, of course. Nothing hidden there at all, except from the willfully blind police. Zimmerman didn’t just murder Trayvon in cold blood, he had tracked him down like dog. The 911 tapes released so far include Zimmerman talking of “suspicious” black men: “These a**holes always get away.”
Because the police dispatcher expressly told Zimmerman not to follow Martin, because Neighbourhood Watch guidelines forbid the carrying of guns, as well as the pursuit of suspects – requiring Watchers to call the police to the scene – not to mention the fact that Zimmerman wasn’t actually part of a registered Neighborhood Watch group, and was a failed, wannabe cop who’d actually been arrested for attacking a real police officer – because of all that, it is perfectly obvious that Zimmerman’s “Neighborhood Watch” activities were nothing but a ruse and a fantasy. Murdering a black teenager had arguably been Zimmerman’s underlying (if perhaps unconscious) motive for everything he’d done for at least the past year, if not for wanting to be a cop in the first place.
But Zimmerman didn’t act alone. He had all kinds of help. For one thing, there was Florida’s two-pronged “Stand Your Ground” bill, as explained by Josh Horwitz, Executive Director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence (“Arming Zimmerman“). The first prong of the law explicitly removes an individual’s duty to retreat from a conflict when he/she can safely do so – a long-standing duty under Anglo-American common law. The second prong explicitly protects killers acting under the first prong:
“A person who uses force as permitted in s. 776.012, s. 776.013, or s. 776.031 is justified in using such force and is immune from criminal prosecution and civil action for the use of such force … A law enforcement agency … may not arrest the person for using force unless it determines that there is probable cause that the force that was used was unlawful.” [emphasis added.]
This law, in turn, implicates many more people in the murder of Trayvon Martin, beginning with the NRA, who promoted the law, their Florida lobbyist Marion Hammer, who reportedly secured its passage, the legislators who voted for it, and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who signed the bill into law. It’s not as if none of them knew what they were doing. As Horwitz explains: “Florida’s elected leaders ignored the overwhelming opposition of prosecutors and law enforcement to the law, including the National District Attorneys’ Association, the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys’ Association, multiple state attorneys, and police chiefs from cities like Miami and St. Petersburg.”
“As the new law become more well-known, that number [of ‘justifiable homicides’] more than tripled.“
The law proved every bit as disastrous as the police and prosecutors had warned it would be. It went into effect in mid-2005, and the next year there were 33 justifiable homicides reported in Florida, just one less than the average for the decade up until then. In 2007, as the new law became more well-known, that number more than tripled to 102. In 2008, the number dipped to 93 and rose again to 105 in 2009, as reported in a five-year review of the law in the Tampa Bay Times. While many cases remain murky, because the only witness aside from the killer is dead, sometimes a miscarriage of justice is easy to spot. For example, the article noted: “In 2008, two gangs in Tallahassee got into a shoot-out. A 15-year-old boy was killed. A judge dismissed charges against the shooters, citing ‘stand your ground’.”
Yet, nearly two years after that review, the law is still in place. There’s been plenty of time for Florida lawmakers to reverse their deadly folly – and they have not. Trayvon Martin’s blood is on the hands of each and every one of them.
Florida lawmakers and the NRA are operating within a broader ideological framework. As NRA lobbyist Marion Hammer put it: “Through time, in this country, what I like to call bleeding heart criminal coddlers want you to give a criminal an even break, so that when you’re attacked, you’re supposed to turn around and run, rather than standing your ground and protecting yourself and your family and your property … Taking away the rights of law-abiding people and putting them in jeopardy of being prosecuted and then sued by criminals who were injured when they were committing crimes against victims is wrong.”
This rationale has several key hallmarks of conservative ideology: It adopts the liberal language of rights – but only to take them away from some, while turning them into privileges for others. It also pretends to be protecting the law-abiding against the criminal, and to oppose the erosion of traditional rights by the presumably liberal “bleeding heart criminal coddlers”. But the reality is exactly the opposite. Outside the home, the duty to retreat is the traditional common law doctrine. Hammer and the NRA are the ones radically altering the law. And the second prong – prohibiting criminal prosecution – goes even further.
“As the law stands, it contradicts the entire purpose behind the justice system. It takes the decision out of the hands of the jurors,” said Brian Cavanagh, head of the state attorney’s homicide unit, commenting with regard to a Broward County case in December 2011. It’s hard to imagine a more radical attack on the justice system as we know it.
“As the law stands, it contradicts the entire purpose behind the justice system. It takes the decision out of the hands of the jurors.“
– Brian Cavanagh, Florida state attorney’s homicide unit, speaking in 2011
Finally, the definition of who is law-abiding and who’s a criminal is not a matter of self-declaration, despite what conservatives such as Marion Hammer believe. It’s not a matter of who is black versus who is white, as racists such as, allegedly, George Zimmerman believe. It’s a matter of who actually breaks or abides by the law, and the criminal justice system – based on actual, case-by-case investigations of actual, case-by-case evidence – is the means that our society has developed for determining who is a criminal and who is not. It is, of course, an imperfect system – though those who suffer from its imperfections are much more often the very same people that Hammer and Zimmerman hate and fear than it is their cherished “law-abiding” white people. Still, it is a system of lawful accountability that can be corrected, when wrong, by more of the same – not less.
I’ve only begun to scratch the surface here. The “Stand Your Ground” law is just one aspect of the NRA’s multi-faceted attack on public safety, common sense and the traditional rule of law. Florida is just one one jurisdiction where the NRA’s madness has increasingly prevailed. And George Zimmerman is just one sick self-deceiving racist among millions still out there in our not-really-post-racial, not-really-United States of America today. I have not even said a word about how the Kafkaesque police department misinterpreted the admittedly heinous “Stand Your Ground” law as requiring them to act as Zimmerman’s defence team, and to treat Trayvon Martin and his family as de facto enemies of the state.
But I have said enough to make my broader point: When there is great evil afoot, it is not enough to try to find someone to blame, since there are invariably so many to blame – and equally as many who will adamantly deny it.
Blame may not be the best way to think of such things, anyway. But what about responsibility? What about personal responsibility? We’ve been lectured about it for decades on end now – centuries, perhaps. It would surely be nice to actually see some in action for a change.
Paul Rosenberg is the senior editor of Random Lengths News, a bi-weekly alternative community newspaper.
Follow him on Twitter: @PaulHRosenberg