Trayvon Martin’s death was a tragic and senseless harm, and fairness demands that his life should value equally with any other person’s … if you’re a progressive. (More)

Red Letter Law, Part I: Harm and Fairness

This week Morning Feature revisits Jonathan Haidt’s 2012 book The Righteous Mind by focusing on the death of Trayvon Martin and the George Zimmerman murder trial. Today we look at harm and fairness, the two of Dr. Haidt’s six moral foundations that progressives hold paramount. Tomorrow we’ll examine liberty, the libertarian touchstone, and the conservative core values of loyalty and authority. Saturday we’ll see how our moral values steer our intuitive reasoning, and fragment the public dialogue, in the Martin-Zimmerman case.

A tragic death

On the evening of February 26, 2012, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin left his father’s home in Sanford, Florida to walk to a nearby convenience store, where he bought a bag of candy and a fruit drink. As he walked home, Martin called a friend from his Miami high school, Rachel Jeantel.

At some point, neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman spotted Martin. Zimmerman called the police to report a suspicious person whom he called “a f-ing punk,” adding “these assholes always get away.” Zimmerman was armed with a 9mm pistol, for which he had a concealed carry permit. He began to follow Martin, first in his vehicle and then on foot. At trial a neighborhood watch trainer testified that volunteers are instructed not to follow suspects. A Sanford police dispatcher asked if Zimmerman was following Martin and, when Zimmerman said he was, replied “Okay, we don’t need you to do that.” At trial the dispatcher testified that they do not give direct orders, citing legal liability reasons.

Martin noticed Zimmerman following him. At trial Jeantel testified that, during their phone conversation, Martin referred to Zimmerman as “a creepy-ass cracker.” She said the phrase meant Martin feared Zimmerman may be a sexual predator, and she told him to run. Martin apparently hid behind some bushes, as Zimmerman told the dispatcher he had lost sight of Martin. Zimmerman’s call to the dispatcher ended at 7:13 pm. Martin’s conversation with Jeantel ended three minutes, at 7:16, as a neighbor called 911 to report sounds of a fight and, 45 seconds later, a gunshot.

Less than a minute later, a Sanford police officer arrived at the scene to find Zimmerman holding a gun and Martin on the ground, shot through the heart. One team of paramedics treated Zimmerman for superficial head injuries while another team tried to revive Martin. At 7:30, 13 minutes after the shooting, Trayvon Martin was pronounced dead.

A senseless harm

We don’t know what exactly what happened at 7:16pm that night, when Martin and Zimmerman met. Zimmerman told police that Martin leaped out, punched him in the nose, knocked him to the ground, jumped on him, and began to pound his head on the sidewalk. Zimmerman said he feared for his life and shot Martin in self-defense. No one else saw the fight begin and Zimmerman did not testify at the trial. With no evidence to contradict Zimmerman’s claim of self-defense, the jury acquitted him.

What we do know is that an unarmed black teenager was followed, confronted, shot, and killed by a 28-year-old volunteer watchman. His family’s grief weighs on us. Zimmerman ignored his neighborhood watch training – and an implicit instruction by the dispatcher – and followed Martin. Had he let the police handle the situation, Martin would have walked home and likely been inside before the police arrived.

Perhaps Zimmerman would have muttered, again, “these assholes always get away.” But there was no “f-ing punk” attempting a burglary that night. There was only a black teenager, walking home from the store with candy and a drink, talking with a school friend on his cell phone. Martin was doing no harm and should not have been harmed.

“This could be your son, brother, friend.”

In a Birmingham, Alabama protest after Zimmerman’s acquittal, a woman held a sign with Martin’s picture and the words “This could be your son, brother, friend. Justice. Demand it.”

In the Washington Post yesterday, Howard University theology professor Harold Dean Trulear wrote:

“Created in the image of God …” a concept lost on many in this age of disconnect between belief and practice cries out “young black men and boys are human! Young brown men and boys have value! God’s children, God’s creation has intrinsic worth even when it wears its pants low!”
Let’s face it. What happened to Trayvon Martin reflects a general lack of respect for his creation in the image of God. He was profiled by someone without the qualifications or training to do so (as a legitimate public safety enterprise) who subsequently ignored instructions not to engage the person he had profiled, but characterized him as someone whose appearance triggered (double entendre intended) a dehumanizing moment that too many of our young black and brown males face … whether from vigilantes or gang members, people who deal drugs or depositions, preachers, pimps, or politicians … Trayvon Martin was child of God, and did not have to die.

It was unfair for Zimmerman to suspect Martin simply because he was young and black and male. It was unfair for Sanford’s police officers to take Zimmerman’s word for what happened, not even charging him with a crime until public pressure forced Gov. Rick Scott to appoint a special prosecutor. It was unfair to allow the defense team to play a video that told Zimmerman’s side of the story, without the prosecution being able to cross-examine Zimmerman himself. It was unfair for the trial judge to exclude the “initial aggressor” jury instruction warning that a defendant cannot claim self-defense if he provoked the altercation. It was unfair to talk about Zimmerman’s right to “stand his ground” while arguing, as the defense did at trial, that Martin had a duty to “go along home.”

Our core values

Harm and fairness are paramount moral values for progressives. We also value Dr. Haidt’s other moral foundations – liberty, loyalty, authority, and purity – but we see those as means toward the ends of preventing harm and achieving fairness. Seen through our lens, Martin’s death was a senseless harm and his trial unfair. Justice should be blind and all of us should stand equal before the law. Even black teens wearing hoodies and walking home in the rain. We feel those wrongs and – I call it red-letter law – and our conscious analysis of the evidence is an exercise in justifying our feelings.

But we’re not alone. Tomorrow we’ll see that libertarians and conservatives also use conscious analysis to justify their emotional moral judgments … and their feelings flow from a different set of core values, a different red-letter law.


Happy Thursday!