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Of Criminals and Crackers: A Personal Essay On the Zimmerman Trial By a Grown-up Florida Boy

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The capacity for white people in America to delude themselves that they've transcended the nation's racist history is awesome to behold. I'll never forget my widower father's last words to me on the phone before he died at age 87. Speaking with his notoriously "liberal" middle son living in Philadelphia, he had suddenly veered into a rant trashing black people for something I've since forgotten. I said nothing. By then I had given up, and out of love I suppose, resigned myself to let him run. He soon sensed the dynamic and caught himself. There was a pause as if he suddenly realized who he was on the phone with and what he was saying. Then he said: "I'm not a racist." Another pause. "I just hate the bastards."

I don't mean to expose my dear father, who I had come to terms with before he died. But I've always been amazed by that remark. What could he possibly have been thinking? Was there a nuance I was missing? How could he so delude himself that he could see such a distinction? And what exactly was it that he hated or, more accurately, feared so much?

Baldwin's essay has helped me understand that moment. Because one thing you learn about James Baldwin when you read him is that he's not a hateful man. Maybe it's because he was a homosexual -- or maybe that just came as part of the baggage he accumulated in life from insisting, like a Walt Whitman before him, that he was going to walk the Earth courageously without relinquishing a love for everything that lived and breathed. In Baldwin's case, it was certainly a Christian love steeped in the Bible.

In the end, I decided to see that final phone call as an exchange between an aged father and, by-then, a well-read and experienced prodigal son with whom he had squabbled since the kid was a teenager working with black fruit pickers in the summer -- and liking them.

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My father was a very smart man, but I've come to realize he lived with great fear. I now suspect it was the very same fear Baldwin speaks of based on beloved delusions highly invested in, "where they [men like my father] certainly are not truly happy for they know they are not truly safe." I came to understand that my father truly loved me despite my rebellious nature; and I'm convinced on some level he understood how I felt and why I felt that way. I became, in a strange way, the filial manifestation of the fear he lived with. He had found the courage not to disown me, but he could not find the courage to unburden himself of what I had tried to unburdened myself from. The evidence I have for this feeling is that he often announced in some public setting or other, half-joking, that sometimes at night he wondered if I was not right.

I think he realized in that final phone conversation that he had hung himself with his own rope, and in the pregnant pause between phrases he had desperately tried to work his way out of the noose. He did that by distinguishing between being a "racist" and "hating" a class of people.

The former term has become over the decades a social epithet that connotes a pariah status. Being a "racist" in America today is even a bad thing for the farthest right conservative. So he did not want to be branded with that label; he did not want his liberal middle son to attach that label to him. And I should say my father was complicated; there was a black man named Clarence who was a janitor at the University of Miami Medical School who my father really liked. The man and his brother once came down and put a new tar roof on our house. I remember being amazed that the old man seemed to really like this guy.

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He wanted to explain himself to me in less stigmatizing, pariah-like terms. So I see his clarification, in his mind at least, as a form of mea culpa or self-deprecation. He was conceding something, that, indeed, yes, maybe he was a racist but that he was more complicated than that and, most important, he wanted me to accept him and love him as my father. And, of course, that's how it ended -- all in a very WASPy unspoken way. Then he died, and I never spoke with him again.

All this simmered in me as I watched the Zimmerman trial, bouncing back and forth evenly between MSNBC and Fox News.

The trial seemed so incredibly inadequate and absurd to me that I planned to write a "modest proposal" essay in the form of a memo to the attorney representing New England Patriots star tight-end Aaron Hernandez, a University of Florida football hero charged with one gun murder and suspected of at least two others. I was going to suggest to Mr. Hernandez's lawyer that he study the George Zimmerman defense, especially the notion that you can declare justifiable homicide when you shoot someone you had exhibited hostile intentions toward. If that person defends himself from your aggression, it's OK to shoot him dead. And since the guy's dead, he can't testify.

"Look, it was like this. The guy was on the ground and he tried to kick at me. Hard! I feared for my life. I had no choice. It was me or him." Hernandez might even do like George Zimmerman did with Sean Hannity and cozy up to Christians by saying the way things turned out was part of God's plan. With some high-priced lawyering using histrionics and maybe even a rubber dummy with a kicking leg it's not out of the realm of possibility to wedge open some key reasonable doubt space to set loose in the jury's mind so they must arrive at an acquittal.

This is America. The land of opportunity. Do it right, and you have a good shot that Hernandez will walk. Unfortunately, the trial will be in Boston, a place now famous for FBI-protected killer celebrities like Whitey Bulger. It's not Florida, a place where a killer can stand his ground and walk free.

But to realize what a really spooky place Florida is and what a crap shoot justice can be there, all one has to do is consider the all too real 2012 case of Marissa Alexander, a 31-year-old mother of three living in Jacksonville. Alexander had a protection order against her husband who had assaulted her in the past. One day in August 2010, to protect herself as he chased her around the house, she fired three rounds into a wall. Florida State Attorney Angela Corey -- the same woman who oversaw the ineffectual prosecution of George Zimmerman -- said Ms. Alexander, who is African American, was treated differently from Mr. Zimmerman because when she fired her weapon her kids were in the room.

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Here's where it gets really weird. Under Florida's mysterious legal system, firing a gun in Ms. Alexander's case meant a mandatory 20-year prison sentence, because a gun was used "during the commission of a crime" -- even though she was apparently legitimately scared and only fired warning shots to protect herself. That is, she seems to have used a gun to stand her ground and didn't hurt anyone in the process. But, then, in Zimmerman's case, the same criminal justice system says, if you're scared and feel the need to shoot a 17-year-old kid in the heart who was minding his own business -- who you had been stupidly stalking -- you walk free and clear because you were defending yourself after he stood his ground and was successfully defending himself against you.

No wonder comedic noir writers love the state so much.

Maybe there is some brilliant legal analysis from Ms. Corey to come whether if Ms. Alexander had decided to shoot her husband between the eyes she might have been able to successfully argue to a Florida judge and jury that she was standing her ground. I'm not holding my breath.

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I'm a 68-year-old American who served in Vietnam as a naive 19-year-old kid. From that moment on, I've been studying and re-thinking what US counter-insurgency war means. I live outside of Philadelphia, where I'm a writer, photographer and (more...)

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