considering the Zimmerman trial from a Civic Studies perspective

I don’t want to seem overly intellectual about the Zimmerman trial, because I am angry about it, but I can report a relevant discussion in today’s Summer Institute of Civic Studies seminar. We have been reading thousands of pages about democratic theory, community organizing, social movements, Gandhi, etc. One question that arose this morning is whether we ought to be discouraged. All this talk about bottom-up strategies for social change, and yet the available strategies seem rather unpromising in the aftermath of the trial.

One response is that the Trayvon Martin case actually became national news only because of the skillful and organized efforts of civil rights groups. Thus it is not the case that a news event occurred and we are unable to do much about it. People first made the killing into a news event. Then again, there may be something fundamentally disempowering about “news” defined as that which is new and transitory. In some ways, the important thing about the Martin case is that it is not news.

We had read John Dewey in The Public and its Problems:

“News” signifies something which has just happened, and which is new just because it deviates from the old and regular. But its meaning depends upon relation to what it imports, to what its social consequences are. This import cannot be determined unless the new is placed in relation to the old, to what has happened and been integrated into the course of events. Without coordination and consecutiveness, events are not events, but mere occurrences, intrusions; an event implies that out of which a happening proceeds. Hence even if we discount the influence of private interests in procuring suppression, secrecy, and misrepresentation, we have an explanation of the triviality and “sensational” quality of so much of what passes as news. The catastrophic, namely, crime, accident, family rows, personal clashes and conflicts, are the most obvious forms of breaches of continuity; they supply the element of shock which is the strictest meaning of sensation; they are the new par excellence, even though only the date of the newspaper could inform us whether they happened last year or this, so completely isolated are they from their connections.

To be sure, many writers are busy placing the Martin case in broad historical perspective. Searching for Emmett Till and Trayvon Martin yields 233,000 web results, although the most prominent bear headlines like “Liberals shamelessly liken Trayvon Martin to Emmett Till.” These search results show that the broad context is being contested and debated. The question is whether that focus can be sustained in any useful way given the definition of “news” as what’s new. In other words, what happens after the Zimmerman trial moves down and then off news websites?

Another issue that are readings have addressed is the question of “root causes.” I would subscribe to the theory that racism was at the root of the Martin case. But it is a different question whether an effective citizen should generally confront causes understood to be “roots.” The word “radical” means a concern with roots; and traditionally, radicals have been the ones who advocate dealing with the root causes of problems: the control of property in Marxism, race in critical race studies. But Roberto Mangabeira Unger argues that presuming an immutable connection between one underlying cause and its consequences limits human imagination and strategic options. This limitation was most clearly displayed in the record of the communist states, which abolished the one cause they saw as a “root,” private property, but hardly innovated at all when it came to politics. They borrowed their committees, secretaries and general secretaries, police forces and jails, newspapers, and even industrial corporations from the old regime. The results were predictably bad.

Unger would advocate brainstorming all the possible changes we could make in the light of the Zimmerman verdict and then acting where we have the best chance of success.  Confronting racism is one option, but not necessarily the most promising one. Abolishing “stand your ground laws” is another. But that’s just the beginning of the brainstorm. What about: investigatory grand juries whenever anyone is killed, truth and reconciliation commissions, restorative justice, enhanced rights to civil lawsuits in response to stand-your-ground killings, no guns for anyone, armed groups of black teenagers patrolling neighborhoods to deter crime, no jury trials, juries that are twice as large …?

Hope is a scarce but renewable resource, essential in times like the present. Unger would advise that limiting our responses to root causes is an obstacle to hope.

Finally, we discussed the question of nonviolence (having just read about Gandhi). My own view is that the line between violence and non-violence is not the essential question. The essential question is how to act effectively while setting strict limits on one’s means of action, because otherwise we tend to escalate until the results are tragic. The rule, “I will not cause physical harm to you even if you harm me” is not a moral imperative all on its own. (Physically harming someone lightly is not as cruel as financially ruining them.) But nonviolence creates a relatively bright line that prevents unplanned escalation, which is almost always disastrous.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.