Eugene Robinson Live

Jul 16, 2013

Live chat with Eugene Robinson about his latest columns and political news.

Hello, everyone, and welcome to our weekly chat. As of this writing, it looks as if the Senate has avoided the "nuclear option" -- otherwise known as majority rule -- at least for the time being. But my mind is still on the Zimmerman trial. Here's how I ended my column:


The conversation we need to have is about how black men, even black boys, are denied the right to be young, to be vulnerable, to make mistakes. We need to talk about why, for example, black men are no more likely than white men to smoke marijuana but nearly four times as likely to be arrested for it — and condemned to a dead-end cycle of incarceration and unemployment. I call this racism. What do you call it?

Trayvon Martin was fighting more than George Zimmerman that night. He was up against prejudices as old as American history, and he never had a chance.


That's my view. What's yours? Let's begin.

Guess you were right weeks ago when you wrote in a live chat that based on the demographics of the juror, George Zimmerman was headed towards an acquittal. I know a lot of talking heads will say that the verdict reached by the jury was justified, but then would those people have to say that a guilty verdict would have been unjustified? I think the interviews with juror and Zimmerman's older brother haven't helped either since they are both implying that Trayvon Martin was obviously up to no good that night.

You can say that the jury got it wrong, beecause juries sometimes do get it wrong. It is everyone's duty to respect the verdict, but that's not an obligation to think the jury was right.

Your column touched on this, but I think you may have missed the import of how the Florida stand your ground statute was applied to Trayvon Martin's murder. Judge Nelson's instructions to the jury presupposed that only George Zimmerman had a right to self-defense. The facts of the case are that Trayvon Martin was legally walking home when he was confronted by a man armed with a handgun. Beyond that, everything is conjecture and has no legal standing. Judge Nelson's instructions to the jury ignored the basic facts of the case (it was biased in favor of the defense presentation) and should be set aside.

That's a good point. My view was that the impact of "stand your ground" came the night of the shooting, when police determined that Zimmerman was covered by the law and thus shouldn't be arrested or charged. But I think you raise a valid point about the jury instructions.

Yes, I agree with your column. We need to talk about race. Where does a white middle aged woman do that? Who do I talk to? My friends on facebook know I'm outraged and saddened. My husband knows. What next? Do I start hugging delivery guys and strangers on the street? Boycott Florida? I'm just at a loss.

Well, you're talking about it now to participants and readers of this chat. My theory on the "national conversation about race" is that this is how it happens -- there's an event, people have strong feelings on both sides, we argue for a while and then we drop it. I just don't think we're going to all agree that on such-and-such a date we're all going to sit around and talk to our friends, families and neighbors about race. Ain't gonna happen. But in our scratchy, uncomfortable way, we do have an episodic dialog.

I share your view that the system let Trayvon Martin down. I don't deny that if a black 17 year old were on trial, the outcome probably would have been different. The system needs to change. What I don't agree with is your column questioning the motives of the woman on the jury. Every legal talking head on cable predicted, and agreed that when reading Florida Law, there was no other decision those on the jury could have come to. To suggest they did so out of some sort of bias is outrageous and unfair. The blame goes to George Zimmerman and Florida law.

I didn't say the jury was biased. I said I didn't know whether the jurors bought into what I consider a racist stereotype or not -- and I don't know. It is not true, however, that every legal talking head predicted an acquittal or that a conviction would have been outrageous. Most (though not all) thought second-degree murder was an overcharge but that manslaughter was not.

I feel deep sympathy for the Martin family, but the rules of evidence must prevail in court, whether we like it or not. The evidence wasn't there to convict. Instead of rioting in the streets, and wearing hoodies in solidarity, why not try to change the rules in the state courts. I also do not agree that this warrants federal intervention. Everytime someone is acquitted for murdering someone of another race, are we going to seek redress in federal courts?

Your question answers itself: Of course not. But I think it proper for there to be a federal civil rights investigation, although I share in the view that unless new evidence is found, there won't be a federal prosecution. As for your other observations, of course there should be no vandalism of the kind we've seen (not exactly "rioting in the streets" by a long shot). But I confess that I'm tempted to go out and buy a hoodie for myself. Seriously, the idea that an item of clothing is enough to get you killed -- if you are black and male -- is reprehensible.

For all the talk about "stand your ground" laws, it didn't apply here. The media really misinterpreted its use and how easy it is to get it. This was just proven by the woman who is now going to jail for 10 years because she didn't meet the very high standard. The prosecution also mislead the public about Zimmerman being on the bottom. Turns out this was pretty much settled fact from the ballistic evidence. This is a very sad case, and the killing never should have occurred, but the media really messed up on this case. It was not nearly as close to an open and shut criminal case as it was made out, nor were the facts about the actual fight portrayed in an honest manner. The media really failed the public in this case. Its analysis was horrible on multiple occassions.

Hard to comment without knowing what media outlets you're talking about, but "stand your ground" did play a huge role -- not at trial, but the night of the shooting -- because it led police not to conduct a proper investigation. For example, shouldn't Zimmerman have been tested for drugs or alcohol? He wasn't.

Thanks to the stranglehold the NRA has gotten on public debate, no one dares say that the ready availability of guns to vigilantes like Zimmermann is the real problem. Trayvon would have lived if Z hadn't had a gun.

I'm almost tempted to write a satirical column saying that what this case proves is that everyone who is young, black and male should go out and arm himself immediately. But of course more guns in general -- and more guns in African American communities -- would only increase the shocking number of gun deaths we're suffering now. So the answer is fewer guns, not more.

FOX News reported on "massive riots" showing many fires, a lot of damaged stores and overturned cars. (Curiously, they never showed footage of the participants.) They reported that the riots were in response to the Zimmerman verdict. The problem is that that the footage they showed was from hockey fans rioting in Vancouver two years ago! Being that the FOX News pundits are critical of NBC editing Zimmerman's 911 call (which was wrong, also), do you think FOX News is being hypocritical in criticizing NBC? (As NBC, they have since apologized.)

There has been some vandalism associated with a few of the protests in L.A. and Oakland. There have been no "massive riots." I don't know what Fox is reporting, but I know what's really happening.

Unlike our President, I do have two sons about the same age that look similar to Trayvon Martin. This shooting is certainly a fear of anyone with black sons, or any color sons. However, this case is an example of a lack of parental control. I have read that he was a troubled kid and the parents were having serious issues with him. If you think they were such great parents, why was he not reported missing until midday the next day? If my sons went to 7-11 at that time, they would be on the clock and I certainly would be checking and getting updates on there location.

From what I can tell, Trayvon Martin was not a "troubled kid" by any means. He was a kid. He was not perfect -- and if you've raised two sons, as I have, you probably understand that -- but both parents were actively involved with his life and doing their best to give him the kind of guidance any 17-year-old needs. That's an age, as you will recall, when you start giving kids a little more freedom, knowing that they will make mistakes. I have nothing but admiration and sympathy for Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton.

Gene, I enjoy your chats. Thanks for doing them. Florida has some strange laws. I understand why he was acquited. The state had to prove BARD that Martin was killed by Zimmerman but also prove that the shooting was not justified. This is like trying to prove someone is sane if they use the insanity defense. I thought the burden would shift to the defense. Look no further than your own paper to understand why young black boys and men are considered dangerous. An article today reported 3 people shot Tuesday and 4 on Saturday in Anacostia. Young blacks kill each other at an alarming rate. Over the 4th of July weekend, there were 73 people injured by gunfire. I admit I am projecting DC onto Chicago but I think if 73 whites had been shot in one city, in one weekend there would have been much more of an outcry. It seems it is just too normal. A couple of years ago there were several mass shootings over an imitation gold braclet. Recently a group of young black males attacked and severely beat a man riding his bike. Lets talk about how we can solve this underlying issue. One way is to dump this horrible social policy of incarcerating large numbers black males for smoking marijuana that not only costs a fortune (listen Tea Party) but also makes them virtually unemployable for such a rediculous offense. Your perspective very much appreciated.

I wrote a column about that shooting in Southeast a while ago over the faux-gold bracelet. And I mention the marijuana arrests in today's column, in the context of this disparity: According to federal government figures, equal percentages of blacks and whites smoke marijuana, but blacks are four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana use. I use that as an example of systemic bias, but it also illustrates what a waste marijuana prohibition is.

Just earlier this year I served on a jury where the defendant was being charged with a crime that resulted in a death. I thought it would be slam dunk case- it wasn't. Though we eventually found the person guilty, it took a day and a half of deliberations when I think any person that heard the evidence only would call us dumb for taking so long. The most critical part of deciding guilt is based on the rules we received from the judge that said to find a person guilty of #1 crime, we must find that sub-facts a,b,c,d,e,f,g,h,i were all true as well, and that if any of those were not true, we could not find that person guilty of #1. I'm not saying that is what happened- but it's a possibility. I find this entire case a tragedy- but I wanted to try to help inform people that hadn't sat on a jury, particulary a criminal jury dealing with a death, that it isn't so clear as A or B.

Thanks for the observation. I've never had the privilege of serving on a jury. I get called for duty, but I never get picked.

I thought Rachel Jaentel did a great job in her interview last night. I don't know if you saw it. I was frankly shocked when people, including the juror that spoke out last night, called her not credible. This from a juror who apparently swallowed every last defense line, and saw NO merit to the idea that Trayvon Martin might have been defending HIMSELF. What did you think of the interviews?

I thought she did an excellent job.

Do you agree with the people who are comparing Treyvon Martin's death to Emmit Till's? I think it's just over the top! How can there really be a serious discussion when people are are tweeting that jurors should go kill themselves and that people should take to the streets. When are cooler heads going to tell people to stop this madness and simmer down?

I don't compare Trayvon Martin to Emmit Till. That was a very different time and place. It is an injustice to the memory of both, frankly, to try to make them fit a single mold.

Yes race is a part of our history... But news flash, it's a part of every countries history. England is going through racial strife today. I spend time in Canada, Parts of Toronto are as segregated as any part of America. To suggest America is the only country where race is an issue is wrong.

Um, who suggested that?

Hi Eugene -- thanks for taking questions today. Your colleagues on the WP (Sargent, Cilizza) seem to believe that the Dems are the big winners in the filibuster standoff. What do you think? Is it a sign that the Republicans are finally seeing the big picture (2016 presidential election?) and that governing by simply saying "no" to everybody and everything is not a viable option?

Well, the Republicans had to back down, kind of. But since when is it a great victory to get an agrreement allowing the Senate to do some -- not all, but some -- of the work it's being paid to do? I think we're setting the bar pretty low.

Greetings, Mr. Robinson: As a Texan, I danced with joy to hear that Texas Gov. Rick Perry wasn't running for re-election next year. Then reality set in - he's going to make another embarrassing run for prez; and Attorney General Greg Abbott is gunning for the state job. Abbot used to be a more reasonable conservative but now, no doubt to garner arch-conservative support, leans so far right that any reason has fled. When he led the push for a voter ID law because Texas had such a "problem" with voter fraud, I submitted a FOI request for records of all instances of voter fraud in Texas for the past 10 years. Result - less than 200 cases investigated and fewer adjudicated. Of course, no one in the media thought to do the same, so no one challenged the silly notion that Texas is rife with voter fraud. Abbott is prepping for the national stage, and Perry's puppetmasters and war-chest sponsors are backing him. Neither Texas nor the nation can endure another Perry clone. Do you think Julian Castro is ready to challenge Abbott? Can he win?

All eyes are going to be on Texas for the next few years, I reckon. Democrats are going to spend real money there to register and motivate Latino voters. Texas isn't going to flip from red to blue in one year or one election cycle. But if it does eventually happen, I don't know what will become of the GOP.

Thanks, all, for a lively and interesting hour. I'm sorry but I have to duck out a few minutes early. I'll try to make it up next week!

In This Chat
Eugene Robinson
Eugene Robinson is an Associate Editor and twice-weekly columnist for The Washington Post. His column appears on Tuesdays and Fridays. In a 25-year career at The Post, Robinson has been city hall reporter, city editor, foreign correspondent in Buenos Aires and London, foreign editor, and assistant managing editor in charge of the paper's award-winning Style section. In 2005, he started writing a column for the Op-Ed page. He is the author of "Coal to Cream: A Black Man's Journey Beyond Color to an Affirmation of Race" (1999) and "Last Dance in Havana" (2004). Robinson is a member of the National Association of Black Journalists and has received numerous journalism awards.
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