Dan Popp
Peekin' at justice
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By Dan Popp
July 15, 2013

On a cool summer evening several years ago I heard a commotion in the street. Ours is normally a quiet street, so it was startling to hear what seemed like a dozen people carrying on at about 10:30 at night. I looked out the window to see what was happening. It was only four boisterous young people, so I smirked in my usual manner and went on about the business of getting ready for bed.

But one of the youths had seen me. Looking. And he took umbrage at my looking. I was no longer in the window, but by the sound of his voice I could tell that he came onto my lawn to express his indignation at my "peekin' a__," as he put it. A female said, "Black folk can't walk?" Soon, fortunately, the group moved down the road. Of course I didn't know they were African American before I looked – and after I looked I took no note of the fact, since our neighborhood is about a 50/50 mix, racially. In my mind it wasn't about them being black and/or ambulatory; it was about them making a ruckus at the time most people are going to bed.

I remembered that little episode when the George Zimmerman trial gained national attention. I had experienced the puzzling phenomenon of young African Americans interpreting my mere observation of them as a hostile act.

The question recently before a Florida jury was whether Zimmerman was justified in killing Trayvon Martin. If we take the traditional view that the person who throws the first punch is the aggressor, and if Martin threw that punch, then he was responsible for everything that happened afterward, including his own death. John Locke wrote:
    This makes it lawful for a man to kill a thief, who has not in the least hurt him, nor declared any design upon his life, any farther than, by the use of force, so to get him in his power, as to take away his money, or what he pleases, from him; because using force, where he has no right, to get me into his power, let his pretence be what it will, I have no reason to suppose, that he, who would take away my liberty, would not, when he had me in his power, take away every thing else. And therefore it is lawful for me to treat him as one who has put himself into a state of war with me, i.e. kill him if I can; for to that hazard does he justly expose himself, whoever introduces a state of war, and is aggressor in it.
And:
    It is the unjust use of force, then, that puts a man into the state of war with another; and thereby he that is guilty of it makes a forfeiture of his life: for quitting reason, which is the rule given between man and man, and using force, the way of beasts, he becomes liable to be destroyed by him he uses force against, as any savage ravenous beast, that is dangerous to his being. (Both quotes are from Locke's Second Treatise of Government)
Some may say that Zimmerman should have "turned the other cheek" and allowed himself to be beaten, but that was his decision to make; not ours.

The Tampa Bay Times tweeted on Saturday: "#Zimmerman shot a 17-year-old in February 2012. Now a jury will try to decide whether the dead boy deserved it." Some people howled at that characterization of events. But that's exactly what the jury had to decide, and did decide. Certainly we may not kill anyone who does not deserve death. This is another way of asking whether Zimmerman was "justified" in his actions. If Trayvon Martin was the aggressor, then "to that hazard he [did] justly expose himself."

In this view, if I take matters into my own fists, as it were, I can't count on the law to back me up. But if we invent a new view that he who shouts the first insult is the aggressor, or the guy who looks at the other guy for more than a second-and-a-half is the one who "really started it," then we'll see justice differently, and we'll get a different outcome.

I saw a few minutes of the press conference with Mr. Zimmerman's attorneys after the verdict was announced. They called Mr. Martin's death a "tragedy." One of them compared it to losing his 13-year-old niece to cancer. But a tragedy is something this story cannot be. On that fateful February night either a thug met his fitting end – and his age is irrelevant – or something other than justice has been done. That statement seems very stark only because we've forgotten what justice is. Yes, human beings are complex. But justice is simple. Willfully attacking a man and then being shot in the attack is not like getting cancer, unless we want to say that the body is humanity and the cancer was Martin.

I want to be careful not to extrapolate a trend from these two incidents (my peekin' at the window and Zimmerman's neighborhood watch observation). But they do make me wonder if there's a strain of cancer in the hearts of some young black people, perhaps put there by professional racists like Sharpton, Smiley and Farrakhan; a disease that makes them interpret curiosity as hostility.

Civilization cannot endure a legal view which holds that merely looking at another person is a hostile act.

© Dan Popp

 

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