cowboys, cops, and race

First, I’m glad George Zimmerman was arrested. Even if he’s ultimately exonerated, I think it was critical that this work its way through the criminal justice system despite what appears to have been combination of incompetence and indifference on the part of the local police department.

On the other hand, it’s possible he will be exonerated, and even if he isn’t it’s possible this will turn out to be a very sad story. I’m not just talking about the possibility, raised by Julian Sanchez, that this will turn out to be a horrible clusterfuck of bad decisions and misunderstandings. I think it’s possible that Zimmerman is actually slightly disturbed, given his recent behavior — parting ways with his attorneys, pulling a (short-lived) vanishing act, and creating a weird website to collect donations for his defense. Of course, O.J. acted weird, too, so maybe this is just what it’s like when the public is scrutinizing you for murder. But still — it seems like this guy had an obsessive hangup about black kids — and where’s the point where that ceases to be dickishness and starts to look like a mental illness?


On the other hand, it can’t be the case that every vigilante with a gun and a fuzzy understanding of the law is suffering from cognitive malfunctions:

A Harris County grand jury on Monday ended the rancorous seven-month debate over Pasadena resident Joe Horn’s decision to gun down two illegal immigrant burglars in his front yard, concluding the act was a justifiable use of deadly force and not murder.

The grand jury heard two weeks of testimony from witnesses, including Horn. They likely also heard his breathless 911 call, during which the increasingly frustrated retiree ignored a dispatcher’s pleas to stay inside and out of harm’s way. The Nov. 14 call ended with the sound of Horn racking a shell into his 12-gauge shotgun’s chamber followed by three gunshots that killed Colombians Diego Ortiz, 30, and Hernando Riascos Torres, 38.

Each man was shot in the back. They had taken about $2,000 in the burglary….

In his 911 call, Horn cited a newly enacted Texas law, the “castle doctrine,” which authorizes the use of deadly force during a home invasion.

But Sen. Jeff Wentworth, who wrote the law, said it did not apply to Horn’s case.

“It was not an issue in this case other than him saying incorrectly that he understood it to mean he could protect his neighbor’s property,” said Wentworth, R-San Antonio.

He said the castle doctrine simply didn’t apply because, although the burglars were running across Horn’s lawn, Horn’s home wasn’t under siege — his neighbor’s home was.

“It comes from the saying ‘A man’s home is his castle,’ ” Wentworth said. “But this wasn’t his castle….”

Some of Horn’s neighbors on Timberline Drive greeted news that he won’t face criminal charges with enthusiasm; others hung “no comment” signs on their front doors.

“I just praise God that he was not indicted, that our country is still behind our good, honest people,” said Velma Cabello, 61. “He is a hero in my book….”

“I would love for him to be my neighbor, for someone to watch over me like that,” Cabello said.

Yes — someone to watch over you. I think there’s a lot of romantic stuff tied up in people’s reactions to Joe Horn and George Zimmerman — to vigilantes in general. As Ta-Nehisi Coates says, quoting a story about over-excited civilian peacekeepers in the wake of Katrina, “None of us are immune to the rush that comes from the employment of righteous justice. There are whole Hollywood genres about this sort of thing. But when whole groups are branded by the wider society as outlaws, the notion of righteous justice expands.” When we brand young black men generally as outlaws (explicitly or not), we make shooting one who’s walking into your gated neighborhood an act of romantic heroism.

The Horn case is more ambiguous than the Zimmerman case, because it’s apparently uncontested that Ortiz and Torres were actually committing a crime. But Horn’s use of force was also arguably worse than Zimmerman’s because he was, as far as we know, safe in his house. Zimmerman was also safe in his car at the start of the incident, and it’s somewhat unclear so far why he chose to leave that safety; as the facts come out these cases may look more alike or more similar. But what’s clear in both cases is that the 9-1-1 operator told the shooters to stay put and let the police handle the problem. In both cases, either out of fear or out of some aggrandized sense of heroism, the shooters chose to ignore that advice. And now three people are dead — two of whom were committing a property crime, and the third of whom had committed no crime at all.


UPDATED: Well, I’ve sat on this post for too long, and now it’s the run-up to exams and I don’t have time to develop this argument more thoroughly. But let me now assert that there’s a throughline in American culture from Harry Callahan and the NRA’s successful campaign to convince us we were all under a constant threat from super-predators (despite a precipitous drop in crime in the past two decades), to the explosion of aggressive “self-defense” laws (which their proponents always insist are misunderstood by vigilantes, police, and juries alike), to the actions of Zimmerman and Horn and, arguably, all of the evil that’s now done on our behalf by the state. There was, for years, a steady drumbeat of racially-tinged horror and ginned-up outrage about “crime” that fuelled the drug war and the explosion of the prison system, until now we lock up more people than Stalin.

That drumbeat propelled the rise of Sheriff Joe Arpaio and, inevitably, contributed to the abuses that seem poised to bring him down.

It led to the urban legends about anarchy in the Superdome after Katrina and to the police shooting innocent civilians in the name of “law and order” during the hurricane’s chaotic aftermath, as well as the civilian vigilantism Coates describes above.

It has led to an America in which even former cops and corrections
officers and Marines — people you would expect would be in the “law and order” club — are not safe from overly aggressive law enforcement, which, I submit, is just the badge-wearing incarnation of our inner vigilante.

And, of course, it has led to an America in which a cop might feel so threatened by an unarmed black man lying on the ground that he might lose his bearings on the many weapons he’s carrying and shoot the unarmed black man lying on the ground instead of just tazing him.


All of which is maybe just to say that even though I’m not sure I agree with Peter Wagner that the mere availability of guns leads to more shootings, I do think that the same organizations that have pushed for greater gun freedom have done so through rhetoric that has produced catastrophically bad results. There are a few good arguments for reading the Second Amendment as including a right to keep weapons for self-defense — see, for example, Justice Alito’s arguments about black citizens defending themselves from local bullies (of both vigilante and quasi-governmental status) in McDonald v. City of Chicago. But the fetishization of that right, and — in order to drive home the need for such a right — the deliberate inflation of fears about crime (often flavored with more than a healthy dollop of racial anxiety), have unleashed demons that threaten us all.

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3 Responses to cowboys, cops, and race

  1. Pingback: “Mitt Romney believes everyone needs to be civil.” | The Handsome Camel

  2. Pingback: “He said to put the hands up….” | The Handsome Camel

  3. Pingback: i don’t see any connection to Vietnam, Walter | The Handsome Camel

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