I Could Get Away With Murder

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Edwin Lyngar considers his own white privilege in the wake of the Zimmerman verdict.

I could shoot a black kid in the street and get away with it.

I’m not proud of this, and I might have never put it into words, except for the sad, horrid feeling I got watching the George Zimmerman trial. George shot a black kid and walked. I know I could too, and with much less trouble than George Zimmerman had. I’m 40 years old, white and educated. I’m a chubby, pale taxpayer. I have no tattoos and have never been arrested and I walk around with the assumption that the police are actually here to serve me.

I could drive through a part of town known for housing people of color. I could get out of my car, walk down the street and find the first kid that looked “street.” I could insult or provoke him, perhaps by calling him a horrid racial name. The moment he responded with any kind of violence or intimidation, I could pull out my Beretta 9mm and shoot him dead. No jury would convict me.

My wife is a lawyer and she told me that Zimmerman isn’t a “perfect” example of getting away with murder, because the facts are complex. I think this case adds yet another example of a broken justice system as it applies to communities of color, as if they needed any more.

I have only a second-hand notion of how people of color feel. I was hassled by police in the very (very) small town of my youth. In small-town America, all the adolescents get hassled. Cops knew all us high school kids, almost by name. They’d ask us if we had beer in our cars and would chase us home after parties. It was about as frightening as an episode of the Dukes of Hazzard. Since I left small town America, my experience with law enforcement is the equivalent of another country compared to the experience of African Americans.

A couple years ago, I got pulled over going to the airport. It was super early and I was both tired and in a hurry, so I was weaving like a drunkard. A cop tried to pull me over about a mile from the airport off-ramp. I just kept going until I was almost to the terminal, right near where I was going. When I finally pulled over the cop asked why I waited so long to stop. I told him wanted off the freeway because it was dangerous for him. I didn’t get a ticket. If I were standing over a body holding a bloody knife, I would expect the police to listen to my side of the story while calling me “sir.”

People like me live in an insular world. I only know this because I was in the military and I went to a number of colleges and graduate schools. The military and college are the two places in our society where people really mix.

During one graduate school experience, I was walking with an African-American friend down a sidewalk in Los Angeles. We came upon a cop who had a suspect in handcuffs sitting on the sidewalk. The “suspect” looked roughed up, and the cop stopped me.

“This guy just fell flat on his face. Did you see it? I’d like to get a witness statement.”

I apologetically told the cop I hadn’t seen what happened, but my friend never even slowed down.

When I caught up with him, I asked why.

“I never talk to the po-po,” he said, blowing my mind. He has the same background I do. He’s educated, smart and middle class, yet we have totally different world views about the “po-po.” He shared with me his lifelong experience of harassment and lack of trust for law enforcement, an inescapable reality for him that I will never feel.

I benefit so much from inequity in ways big and small, seen and unseen. Next to “white privilege” in the dictionary there’s a picture of me sipping a mojito with a little umbrella in it. I feel some shame over these unasked-for advantages, and try to console myself by saying that at least I admit it.

I know many blue collar, so called “working class” white people from my time in rural America. I haven’t lived there in twenty years, but many white working-class people don’t believe “white privilege” exists. Why should they? They never see it. I know people who think Zimmerman shouldn’t have been arrested at all. In fact, my dad called me a “typical liberal” when I said, “you can’t just shoot someone down in the street and get away with it.”

Somehow the murder of this child, Trayvon Martin, has become an issue straight down party lines, with Republicans on one side and Democrats on the other. The self-dividing of our population is a big part of the problem, in my opinion, but I have to admit my father was right about one thing. I do think like a typical liberal in terms of fairness, and there is nothing fair about what happened to Trayvon. The worst part for me of watching the verdict come back was the painful epiphany that if I really wanted to, I could shoot a black kid and get away with it.

I could do that easy.

Photo—bradleygee/Flickr

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About Edwin Lyngar

Edwin Lyngar is a writer and author living in Reno, Nevada. He graduated from Antioch University in 2010 with his MFA in creative writing and also holds an MA in Writing from the University of Nevada Reno. His essays have appeared or are forthcoming in the Bellingham Review, Ontoligica and RoleReboot. He blogs about parenting, family life and writing at www.edwinlyngar.com and is in the process of finding a home for his first book, a memoir, titled Guy Parts.

Comments

  1. Thank you Ed for your honesty. It is a shameful thing that has happened, horrifying and heartbreaking.

    • Yes, Khadija. Horrifying and disturbing. I should not be “grateful” for being white, yet I am. All of our children should have the benefit that my, pasty white, kids start life with. Thanks for reading.

  2. I could get away with shooting someone too, if they were beating the hell out of me when I did it.

    It doesn’t matter if Zimmerman followed Martin and confronted him. What matters is that Martin was on top of Zimmerman, punching him and slamming his head into the concrete (Zimmerman had two shiners, a broken nose, and numerous lacerations all over his head to corroborate this version of events). It was self-defense. The end.

    • If you cause a death by, say, by following someone and harassing a person, you are AT LEAST guilty of manslaughter. Is “no one” responsible for the death of this CHILD? If Zimmerman stayed home or if Trayvon were white, a 17-year-old child would not be dead.

      • Mostly_123 says:

        The case confuses me.
        I still cannot believe that any random jury could somehow NOT convict Zimmerman of manslaughter: I don’t know the legal parameters, especially for Florida, but even with something like a ‘stand-your-ground’ law I thought ‘not guilty by reason of self-defense’ implicitly suggested Zimmerman had to be in fear (dire fear) for his life: So didn’t he have any reasonable responsibly to act for his safety & extricate himself from that danger before the exact second he was down on the ground and firing his weapon?     

        Now, I’m not saying that I couldn’t be missing something, or that I couldn’t be wrong on this one; but Zimmerman was so afraid of Martin and the inherent danger Martin posed that he pursued him, so afraid of him that after he called the police & they told him they were on their way he still pursued him, so afraid that after the police explicitly told him NOT to continue Zimmerman still followed him, so afraid that he left his vehicle, so afraid he went over to Martin, and so afraid he confronted Martin, and so afraid that once it came to hand-to-hand blows that Zimmerman had absolutely no other self-preserving choice but to use deadly force in the form of a gun he was carrying with him the whole time? I’m having trouble understanding this.  

        Second-degree murder aside (and that’s a big aside, I know); How could this NOT be voluntary manslaughter? I don’t understand. There is a difference between being truly invoking menace and threat (both mental and physical) to others, and simply being perceived as such: It’s the difference between having someone ELSE’S fears projected upon you, and actually actively doing something provocative to actively incite fear in others: I can’t believe a jury would not understand the difference. Zimmerman had the power- not just because he had the power to quit the situation at any time (AND a loaded gun with him). But remember – the rationale/justification for using violence was the fear- Zimmerman’s fear for his life and limb (to what extent Martin was afraid and justified to act to protect himself, we’ll never know from his own lips)  Zimmerman was the one who had control there – he was the one who was PROJECTING his fear onto Martin; in that situation, it was beyond Martin’s reasonable expectation and responsibility to control & assuage Zimmerman’s fear. 

        When fear is unreasonably or arbitrarily projected, the power lies with the person who is projecting their fear, NOT (I would argue) the person who is having someone else’s fears projected ONTO them. If Zimmerman had the fear and thus, the origin of control, he also had the power (and responsibility) to deal with his fear less destructively: he didn’t do that- he did everything he could to ESCALATE rather than deescalate the situation as well as his fear- and so to, his rationale for using force. How does that work? – ‘I was so afraid, I kept putting myself deeper & deeper into jeopardy’? It contradicts the whole idea of reasonable & responsible criteria for self-defense & the justification for using the deadliest option.

        I’ve said this before, but I think ‘fear’ connotates self-preservation & self-awareness, and thus it can be used to justify & excuse (and even enable & perpetuate) a belief, a course of action or attitude (or a prejudice.) I don’t think the jury understood the difference in power between projecting one’s own fear ONTO somebody, between that and actually being provocatively, actively life-threateningly inciting fear in others. Whatever it was, it could not be self-defence justifying acquittal, because Zimmerman had the power & discretion available of how to manage that fear; HIS fear. I could be wrong about any of this, but like I said, I’m baffled by the whole thing.

        In very broad terms- I think it’s well to remember that though many people tend to conflate ‘privilege’ with ‘luxury’, ‘impunity’, and ‘arbitrary’ power (undeserved or deserved) privilege should also connotate ‘responsibility’ and the onus to use (or to decline to use) that power responsibly & constructively.    

        Power, merited or not, used irresponsibly (be it with benign or malevolent intentions) undermines legitimacy. And power without legitimacy & parameter is anarchy. These are concerns that are not bordered along purely racial, religious, gender, or political lines- though those all these things certainly can (and do) impact & complicate all our subjective fears and prejudices with relativity.

        On a side note, Edwin- you mentioned your wife is lawyer; can she shed anymore light on the whole ‘manslaughter’ thing – why/why not it was, or it wasn’t? I would love to hear her insight. Thanks.     

        • Edwin Lyngar says:

          Good comment! I have talked with my wife about the manslaughter charge. She doesn’t have much to say on it. The article in the Atlantic on the jury instructions is very informative on this bit. http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2013/07/trayvon-martin-and-the-irony-of-american-justice/277782/

          • Mostly_123 says:

            Thanks for the link- the article in the Atlantic said in one part: “The danger… need not have been actual; to justify the use of deadly force, the appearance of danger must have been so real that a reasonably cautious and prudent person under the same circumstances would have believed that the danger could be avoided only through the use of that force.” 

            I think it speaks volumes to societal preconceptions in this case that a teenager (specifically, an African-American male teenager) confronted by an (armed) adult could be used in that circumstance to justify those criteria. Moreover, (and this is just a bit of a side thought, but it troubles me) what was Zimmerman’s endgame here, had Martin not resisted (giving Zimmerman the benefit of the doubt that Martin did resist)? Was Zimmerman going to make a citizen’s arrest and hold Martin until the police came? If so, why not keep his distance, and hold Martin at gunpoint for the cops? It’s conjecture, but it’s also a question that speaks to Zimmerman’s state of mind & intention.        

            The Atlantic article also mentioned: “{The accused} had no duty to retreat and had the right to stand his ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he reasonably believed that it was necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself.”

            As stated there, yes, Zimmerman had no legal obligation, responsibility or “duty” to retreat. BUT I also think it could be argued that, (regardless of this lack of legal obligation), it speaks to the state of Zimmerman’s mind, and degree of fear that there actually was there (or lack thereof)- which is the whole point: All his actions were inconsistent with someone acting with ‘reasonable caution and prudence’ such that ‘the danger could be avoided only through the use of that force.’ The jury was persuaded otherwise; make of that what you will.

            I don’t know if the state could have met the burden of proof to conclusively define Zimmerman’s state of mind as offensive rather than defensive, as high as Florida law sets its bar, and that’s the bigger problem. Still the most sobering observation was: “The killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman is not an error in programming. It is the correct result of forces we set in motion years ago and have done very little to arrest.”
            Thank-you again for the link Edwin.  

      • Will Best says:

        No you are guilty of manslaughter if you don’t have self defense. Zimmerman has a few things you don’t in your hypothetical.

        1) He lives in that neighborhood you are leaving your white enclave to go to an area you have no business in to start something

        2) Zimmerman had previously phoned the police regarding Trayvon, which tends to indicate that he had no intention to go gun down a black person. In your hypothetical that is apparently your objective

        3) Zimmerman passed a lie dectector test and submitted to questioning to the police for 5 hours the night of the incident without the presence of an attorney. And followed it up the following day with an additional interview. The only way you could go through that hurdle is if you were a sociopath.

  3. Thanks, Evan, for proving Ed’s point!

  4. The Wet One says:

    Any of you folks live in Florida? If so, can I come down and visit you. Talk a walk on the wild side, and watch you gun down some black folks?

    Just curious.

    Can’t really pull that kind of thing in my neck of the woods, so I thought it would be great sport if I could do it down there. Seems to be the law thereabouts. Sure we gotta set things up just so, so the law won’t attach to us, but still, seems like a blast.

    Lemme know in the thread k?

    Thanks!

    (sarcasm off)

    Anyways… What’s for dinner? I’m hungry. This nonsense trial is getting old.

  5. The easiest way to get away with murder is by being a woman. In general women are given 50-70% lesser sentences for exactly the same crime. This is several hundred percent more of a sentencing discount than you get for being white. This means that you will be punished harder being a white man than you will as a black woman. The harshest punishments is given to black men and the lightest ones to white women. When it comes to murder it is extremely easy for women to get off. Warren Farrell has a chapter on it in the Myth of Male Power that is probably the most shocking thing I have read in my life. The absurd lengths the courts and media go to in order to excuse a woman’s murder and let her get off the hook is unbelievable and the double standard in how men are treated is beyond belief. This is a short summary but the actual chapter is much more shocking because you get to read the details of the cases:

    http://www.harrysnews.com/tgWomenWhoKillTooMuch.htm

    I also read some old newspaper articles from the 1920s or so at the site unkownhistoryofmisandry where people where discussing wether there really was any point in having laws against wives murdering their husbands since they where almost never convicted anyway and just given slaps on the wrists if they where convicted.

    If the thought has occurred to you that this stuff might influence the spousal murder statistics, you are right. it will very much do just that.

    • Edwin Lyngar says:

      I don’t think the epidemic of violence and gun deaths in America are caused by women. That said, there is WAY too much coverage and emphasis on some of these trials when an attractive woman is accused of something. It does show quite an ugly side of the news.

      • Examples please?

      • Neither do and I did not say saw so why are you making a straw man? The point here is that societies attitudes makes it way, way, way easier to get away with murder when you are a woman than if you are a man of any color. I would think that is a thousand times more relevant to focus on than the fact that the media focuses extra on physically attractive women charged with murder. Or for that matter that young women go gaga over terrorists and murderers like they where Justing Bieber simply BECAUSE they are killers.

      • John Anderson says:

        @ Edwin

        “I don’t think the epidemic of violence and gun deaths in America are caused by women.”

        And so Johan’s point is proven. Men are 90% of the murderers in the U.S., but when looking at intimate partner killings, women are 33 – 40% of the killers. Why do women who kill choose to kill their intimates at about 12 times (if I did the math right) the rate of men. Could it be because they have a better than average chance of getting away with it?

    • John Anderson says:

      “The easiest way to get away with murder is by being a woman.”

      Nah, the second easiest way. The easiest way is to use a motor vehicle.

  6. So much for Counterpoint. Another shining example of diversity, Celebrate Diversity (as long as we all think the same way)!

  7. I enjoyed this article and I think it hit some really great points. It was certainly heartfelt and genuine. And my comment isn’t directed so much at this article, but rather the “coverage” of the Zimmerman case in general.

    The thing that kills me is that there is all this outrage over Trayvon, but none for the all the other black “children” that are dying EVERY DAY at the hands of other black children and black men. This last weekend 12 black youth under the age of 18 were killed in Chicago. Where is the outcry? Where are the articles and the media attention for those youth? Or do Americans and our media only care about a young black kid if the shooter happens to be NOT black? I keep seeing all these articles from people saying “my son could be Trayvon” etc., with the implication being they could be the victims of some idiot like Zimmerman. Yes, they could. But chances are (and statistics) tell us they are most likely going to be victims of violence, but not from whites, from other blacks. But our country seems not to care about that sort of violence. It doesn’t fit our media narrative. It doesn’t suit the agenda. All of it reeks of hypocrisy.

    • Edwin Lyngar says:

      Thousands die a year from violence and none of those cases get coverage. I hope this generates a larger conversion about violence. I have already heard a lot of talk about the need to reduce violence overall. One can only hope some good comes of this very bad situation.

    • That is EXACTLY the same as for men in general. Men, and boys, are killed far, far, far more often then women but that is not a problem in societies eyes because they are killed by other men. So it is men killing “themselves” and so not a problem. Men killing women in disproportionate numbers on the hand is, in the views of society a much, much greater problem even though the number of victims are far less. That the individual men are totally innocent victims does not matter because they are men. “Fairness” in the gender balance of killing is far more important than people actually dying. This is the same as saying that a disproportionate number of blacks dying is not an issue because they are killed by other blacks.

  8. William Weber says:

    The verdict just leave me filled with questions. Is this the result of the stand your ground laws in Florida? Would we get the same verdict in another state without a similar type of law? What is the law in Nevada about stalking someone and then shooting them if they retaliate? Does the Zimmerman verdict set a precedent for other cases? Is that president set just for Florida or for all the states?

    • Edwin Lyngar says:

      The “stand your ground” language was used extensively in the final jury instructions, so I think it had to have some effect. Good question, though, Bill.

  9. This ruling is nuts. If I want to kill someone, all I have to do is get them to hit me, then I can shoot them in self defense!

    It is really easy to get someone to hit you, all you have to do is shout “Fucking learn to drive” into a car window.

  10. Atypical says:

    GZ is as white as Barack Obama so why is everyone associating this case with “white privilege”? Also, i think that if a person is old enough to drive and old enough to work legally then you can hardly call them a “child”. Jussaiyan.

    • Edwin Lyngar says:

      It’s not about Zimmerman. It’s about how the justice system fails certain populations. And it will continue to do so until we talk frankly about it.

      • If that’s the case, then please explain exactly how the justice system failed a particular population in this case, because so far all I’ve seen are naive assumptions, reprehensible scripted race baiting and histrionic handwringing.

  11. You’re right. You can’t just shoot someone in the street and get away with it. Even as a white man in good ol’ America. You’re reaching way too far to make your point by stating you can shoot a black person and get away with it simply because of your skin color. For shits and giggles, I challenge you to test your theory. I am positive you’ll fully regret stating this opinion while sitting in prison for your crime.

    You aren’t adding anything of value to the discussion by dragging out this race issue. This is a justice system that FAILS THE POOR AND HELPLESS CONSISTENTLY. It failed Nicole Simpson, it failed Kaylee Anthony, it failed Ron Goldman, it failed Trayvon Martin and COUNTLESS others that do not get the luxury of becoming a national talking point.

    Non-whites aren’t the only folks living the “street” life.

    You are a privileged white man who has never been arrested by your own admission. Have you thought about the white kids that aren’t as privileged as you? What about the white kids from the pits with tattoos and petty criminal records? They get sub par public defenders because they can’t afford the moneyed lawyers. They take plea bargains to serve time for lesser crimes when in many cases they could have taken it to trial, but an overworked public defender convinces them to “take the deal” without warning them that their adult lives are soon to be ruined by it! They share the same skin color of the men who write these laws, but they don’t enjoy the benefits. Their only crime was being born have nots. Slap a darker shade of skin on it and call it what you will. The point remains the same.

    Zimmerman had the MEANS and his legal team had the SMARTS to play the system and they did it well. Had a white person from lesser means been the accused in this case, I am confident the verdict would have been GUILTY.

    • Edwin Lyngar says:

      The larger point is that racial minorities face a completely different reality when relating to the criminal justice system. I come from the white, working class, so I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth. Far from it. Being born white, however poor, still confers some benefit that cannot be ignored. To correct the inequity, we have to first be willing to admit it.

      • Edwin– what you say is so true…

        In northern NJ, my ex made a turn at an intersection in a residential neighborhood…he was distracted and collided with a red sports car that was going straight…the driver of the red car was black….(he was so upset at the damage to his car since he did not have insurance)….after my ex pulled over and a police car came by, the officer looked over at us and asked if we were okay ….my ex is Caucasian and I am Asian….later, my ex told me that the officer said to him under his breath (regarding the other driver): “What is he doing in this neighborhood?”…I was so shocked to hear that…!

  12. christopher hubbard says:

    sorry mr. lynger, i reject your premise. even if one indulges in your hypothetical, the first, and far more important question, is would you want to murder somebody? and i’m not talking an emotional reaction all of us get from time to time where we think rashly, “i could just kill so and so.” that’s human nature. that you and i and the vast majority of others don’t go beyond that and never do it . . . because you and i know right from wrong, and even amidst stressful or emotional situations don’t lose our heads is what matters, not what you perceive you could or couldn’t get away with in the larger society. the focus should be on one’s character and one’s actions, not abstract hypotheticals to fill the pain in one’s heart.
    be well.

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