Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Zimmerman getting out of the car

Bob "the Daily Howler" Somerby has been very upset over supposed liberal tribalism around the Martin Zimmerman trial. His close reading of media reports and his seemingly hyper-positivist outlook in doing so allow him to catch some important points.

But they also make him blind to how white racism operates in the justice system.

And more generally, as well. As I've noted in the past, Somerby seems to go on the assumption that if someone isn't yelling "Ah hate n*****s!!" on video and in front of multiple eyewitnesses that it's completely illegitimate to draw any inferences about their racial attitudes at all. The nudge-nudge-wink-wink commonplaces and the "dog-whistle" slogans don't count as anything other that the explicit text of the words.

Most people can walk and talk at the same time. Most people can understand that a trend that is visible over a large number of instances or cases may not be so clear in a particular instance. Most liberals, I would say, can manage to have an opinion on a case based on what they see of it and still support a defendant's right to a fair trial including those they find unsympathetic.

In approaching issues involving white racism this way, Somerby effectively favors the non-colorblind "colorblind" approach taken by Republican segregationists, including the Roberts Court's Segregation Five who just gutted the Voting Right Acts. Unless someone explicitly declares their racism and intent to discriminate, neither discriminatory results nor the most obvious, long-standing expressions of white racism can be taken as evidence of the same.

It's a variation of the elaborate segregation manners of the Deep South under the old segregation system, Segregation 1.0 we might call it. Saying "nigger" was low-class and evidence of crude prejudice, but the fact that not a single black citizen was registered to vote in your county wasn't the slightest evidence of white racism. No, the nigras could register to vote if they wanted to. They just don't want to!

In The New York Times’ latest hapless professor! 07/16/2013, Somerby plays the game of toggling between the specifics of the trial and the larger context of how racism operates in the justice system. He quotes a law professor, Ekow Yankah (The Truth About Trayvon 07/15/2013), talking about racial bias in the justice system who, among other things, says this:

The anger felt by so many African-Americans speaks to the simplest of truths: that race and law cannot be cleanly separated. We are tired of hearing that race is a conversation for another day. We are tired of pretending that "reasonable doubt" is not, in every sense of the word, colored.
Somerby highlights the last sentence, saying he finds it unclear. Which is telling. Even excerpted as he does, it's clear to me that he's talking about how racial assumptions that stigmatize blackness go into how jurors go about getting to a judgment on reasonable doubt in a criminal case. Having by his own account taken philosophy classes at Harvard, surely Somerby can parse this sentence of Yankah which he also quotes, "But what this case reveals in its overall shape is precisely what the law is unable to see in its narrow focus on the details."

In a later sentence Somerby does not quote, Yankah writes, "This is about more than one case. Our reasons for presuming, profiling and acting are always deeply racialized, and the Zimmerman trial, in ignoring that, left those reasons unexplored and unrefuted."

That seems pretty clear to me. Yankah is addressing the larger question of how white racism affects both process and outcomes in the real existing American justice system. He does not argue that the jurors made an incorrect judgment based on the evidence presented to them and their jury instructions. Nor does he specifically criticize the prosecution or defense for not making race explicit, or any other aspect of that specific trial procedure.

Somerby's closing of that post is worth quoting at length, because it is a good example of where this approach gets you in deal with the issue of racism in the criminal justice system, the issue Yankah is addressing very coherently, though Somerby in his introduction of quotes from the article says, "his column makes almost no sense — and the New York Times couldn't see that. So it goes as society's standards keep getting dumbed way down."

I can only suppose from his perspective, a serious and well-written attempt to address the real problems of white racial bias in the US justice system is senseless and dumbed-down on the face of it.

In his closing argument, Somerby toggles back to the specifics of the trial, which (continuing the courtroom drama theme), Yankah did introduce with a counterfactual example of a white man defending himself from an armed black man following him. Somerby (italics his):

What helped create reasonable doubt in the Zimmerman case? These elements, all of which have been disappeared from this professor's imagined account:

Zimmerman says he was sucker-punched by Martin.
Zimmerman sustained injuries before the shooting occurred. Martin did not.
The eyewitness with the best access told police that he saw Martin wailing away at Zimmerman, MMA style, in the moments before the gunshot.

In his imagined account of that white teenager, Yankah imagines several things which aren’t known to have occurred in the Zimmerman-Martin event. He imagines that the white teen-ager is "trying to get away" from the militant black man. He imagines that the white teen-ager only decides to hold his ground when he is "unable to elude his black stalker."

It isn't known that Martin behaved in those ways; the professor is simply imagining. Beyond that, he disappears several things which are known to have occurred.

He disappears Zimmerman's injuries. He disappears What John Good Said.

Is Professor Yankah competent? If so, he's being dishonest today. So too with the editor who decided to publish this crap.

But alas! This is the way pseudo-liberal elites have routinely behaved as they pretend to reconstruct the events of that evening. They imagine events not known to have happened. They disappear events that did occur.

Lord, how good it makes the tribe feel when our leaders deceive us this way! In the end, it only means that our moral standards are being dumbed way down. [my emphasis in bold]
Thus with tendentious close reading, Somerby converts a serious and focused introduction of the very real problem of how racial bias operates in our criminal justice system into "crap" characteristic of "pseudo-liberal elites" just trying to make "the tribe" (?!) feel good deliberate dishonesty and dumbing down of the issues.

So why did I title this post, "Zimmerman getting out of the car"?

Because this is one issue that Somerby usefully highlighted that numerous media narratives have been sloppy about reporting. But for anyone not addicted to Somerby's literalist, positivist approach (in which George Zimmerman's self-interested account deserves to be taken on its face and alternative scenarios more favorable to the only other eyewitness to the full event, the kid Zimmerman murdered, are dismissed as self-evident "crap") makes it difficult to get to Somerby's more legitimate points about the reporting.

And one point he emphasizes is significant for the case, the point of exactly when the police dispatcher told Zimmerman not to pursue. As Somerby delights in chronicling, a number of accounts have said that the dispatcher told Zimmerman not to get out of his car.

But here's the account as presented last year by Dan Barry et al, Race, Tragedy and Outrage Collide After a Shot in Florida New York Times 04/01/2012, an account which Somerby finds acceptable on this point and that was apparently established in the trial that just concluded:

Mr. Zimmerman told the dispatcher that the hooded figure was now running. He jumped out of his car to follow him, the beep-beep of his car, as recorded on the 911 call, announcing the instant that he moved beyond his understood mandate as neighborhood watch coordinator.

The wind could be heard whooshing through Mr. Zimmerman's cellphone as he tried to keep the visitor in view. Also heard is a garbled epithet that some have interpreted to be a racial slur, though his father insisted that his son would never say anything like that. Dispatcher: "Are you following him?"

Mr. Zimmerman: "Yeah."

Dispatcher: "O.K., we don’t need you to do that."

Mr. Zimmerman: "O.K."

He and the dispatcher arranged for Mr. Zimmerman to meet a police officer near the mailboxes at the development's clubhouse, and the call ended with a "thank you" and a "you're welcome." [my emphasis]
This doesn't change by basic view of the case, or my opinion that in recklessly initiating a sequence of events which culminated in his killing Trayvon Martin, the law should hold Zimmerman legally culpable.

But it is a point that some accounts get wrong. Not all of them, though. Ana Kasparian in this video statement of her reaction describes that same sequence of events as the Times article of which Somerby approves, in George Zimmerman Verdict on Shooting Trayvon Martin: My Reaction 07/16/2013:

Since we're emphasizing close reading in this post, I'll note that Ana stumbles a bit there on the role of Stand Your Ground in the Zimmerman case. It did play a role. Stand Your Ground was part of the jury's instructions and Juror B37 did tell Anderson Cooper that it played a part in their Not Guilty verdict.

Here's a report that gets it wrong, from Greg Botelho and Holly Yan, George Zimmerman found not guilty of murder in Trayvon Martin's death CNN 07/14/2013:

Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, spotted him and called police.

A 911 dispatcher told Zimmerman that officers were on the way and not to follow the allegedly suspicious person. But Zimmerman still got out of his car, later telling police he just wanted to get a definitive address to relay to authorities.

Sometime after that, Zimmerman and Martin got into a physical altercation. Questions later arose about who was the aggressor, about whether Martin may have seen or reached for Zimmerman's gun, and about whether Zimmerman should have had more injuries if he was pummeled, as he claims. [my emphasis]
Rem Rieder in Column: Media got Zimmerman story wrong from start 07/14/2013 notes some issues in the reporting of the Zimmerman case and his criticism generally is helpful to Zimmerman's image. But he also reports the sequence of the we-don't-need-you-to-do-that warning incorrectly: "It was his [Zimmerman's] reckless behavior that set this tragedy in motion. If he had stayed in his vehicle as he was told to do by the police, Trayvon Martin would be alive today."

Here are the kinds of lessons Somerby draws from this error in various posts.

Zimmerman directed to stay in his car again! Daily Howler 07/03/2013:

But good God! As everyone knows except MSNBC pundits, Zimmerman wasn't told by the dispatcher that he should stay in his car. The exchange in question came later, after he was out of his truck, following Martin on foot.

The claim that Zimmerman was told to stay in his car is a highly visible part of this case's propaganda. It’s a familiar, basic part of the misinformation cycle. It's astounding that the New York Times could still be making such basic errors at such a very late date. [my emphasis]
In CAN WE TALK: Al Gore was told to stay in his car at the Salem witch trials! Daily Howler 07/11/2013, he writes, "the Iconic False Statement: George Zimmerman was told to stay in the car!" Here, Somerby embraces the notion - which by his own literalist, positivist close-reading style we could fairly say is strikingly similar to that of Zimmerman's defenders like Newt Gingrich who rhetorically position Zimmerman as the victim of a Klan-style lynching:

George Zimmerman was told to stay in the car! In the pundit corps' current witch trial, that Iconic False Statement takes the place of their earlier hit, "Al Gore said he invented the Internet." It's the bogus fact all pundits repeat as they work to make the case against the current witch sound stronger.

(Quick note: When sociopaths start dunking witches, this is always the way they do it. They've always dunked their witches this way. As Woody Guthrie wrote about Pretty Boy Floyd: "Every crime in Oklahoma was added to his name.")

This is the way the sociopaths went after black people in the Old South. (Just reread To Kill A Mockingbird.) This is the way the sociopaths perform on cable today. [my emphasis]
In Your "press corps" is almost completely incompetent! 07/14/2013, Somerby presents an instance of misreporting this sequence as more evidence of a press "witch hunt" against poor George Zimmerman:

If the claim in question is false, why have so many people made it? Sadly, this is standard procedure when a witch trial begins:

Partisans start inventing false facts to make the case against the witch stronger. Pundits and journalists stampede to repeat the false facts.

Often, it is "journalists" who invented the false claims in the first place. No one invents fake facts more often than upper-end "journalists" do.

George Zimmerman was never told to stay in his car! Any newspaper worth its salt would have made a point of correcting this bogus claim long ago. [my emphasis]
Pundits and reporters who bungle the exact sequence of the police dispatcher's instruction to Zimmerman to stop following Trayvon are "sociopaths" who "start inventing facts" to promote a "witch trial"? And poor ole George Zimmerman is the target of this lynch-mob like witch-hunt carried on by The Media and pointy-headed professors from "the tribe" of the "pseudo-liberal elites"?

Please. Bob Somerby's up to more than close reading of court reporting here.

Tags: , , ,

No comments: