This morning I appeared on Mid-Day with Charlie Sykes (except it was Brian Fraley) to discuss the Zimmerman verdict. From a legal perspective, the verdict was almost a forgone conclusion and manslaughter was not an appropriate alternative. If the United States Department of Justice abjures political considerations and follows it's guidelines - indeed if it wants to avoid the disaster that befell Florida's politicized prosecution - it will stand down. A civil trial, on the other hand, while unlikely to succeed, is a very different proposition. The burden of proof is lower and Zimmerman will either have to testify or, if he can still invoke his privilege against self-incrimination(due to potential federal charges) risk have his silence used against him.
Folks who are upset about the George Zimmerman verdict have been motivated by a concern about racial profiling. They are not wrong to be concerned about the issue. I don't believe that racial profiling is as frequent as it is claimed to be (there are stronger cultural sanctions against it is than is commonly supposed) and much of what is claimed to be racially motivated suspicion is not. Of course, that doesn't mean it doesn't happen or is not a problem when it does.
I don't know whether George Zimmerman followed Trayvon Martin because he was black. The evidence is not strong. The "gated community" in which he lived is a multi-ethnic, working class development with a not inconsiderable crime problem. Zimmerman appears to have been a zealous "neighborhood watch" guy who frequently called the police on "suspicious characters." He seems not to have been racially motivated as much as prompted by a (perhaps) overzealous desire to protect his community and outsized idea about himself as an instrument of law and order.
And, strictly speaking, whether or not he was racially motivated has little - not nothing, but little - to do with his guilt or innocence on the charges he faced. Even if he had singled out Martin because of his race, he was still entitled to defend himself. Why he was where he was that night matters far less than what happened while he was there.
When you examine what we know about that, it was always clear that a criminal conviction was never going to happen. It is certainly possible (if, as the evidence came in, highly unlikely) that George Zimmerman committed a crime. It is not possible to conclude that he did so beyond a reasonable doubt.
This should remind us - again - of the dangers in using a criminal trial as a form of political and social expression. Crowds chanting "no justice, no peace" are not what "democracy looks like." They are - however well intentioned - mobs bent on something that looks uncomfortably like vigilante justice. They are what demagoguery looks like.
This is not to say that George Zimmerman is a hero or even an admirable character. In this instance, it would have been better had he stayed in his car and not tried to play Cop. His conduct may reveal him as a fool. But it doesn't make him a murderer.
Cross posted at Purple Wisconsin