Friday, July 19, 2013

Zimmerman the Bully

It's taken me a while to figure out how to present my highly personal reaction to the case that has captivated the nation this week. I don't want to write about race; instead I am going to frame this as something at once broader and much more specific:

George Zimmerman is a bully, and this tragic case is about bullying.

Last fall, during the presidential campaign, I wrote a post called Romney the Bully, which resonated deeply with many other survivors of abuse. Like me, they picked up on an aspect of Mitt Romney's personality that apparently flew under the radar for a lot of people. From the very first, I had similar vibes about George Zimmerman. The man seemed like a bully.

An article posted on HuffPo last year confirms my suspicions. It describes Zimmerman's old MySpace page, which his lawyers acknowledged "will cast Mr. Zimmerman in a less-than-favorable light especially considering the charges he faces." On it, among other things, Zimmerman describes his delight that a judge had dropped two felony charges brought after his ex-fianceƩ, whom he calls "the ex hoe," accused him of domestic violence and took out a restraining order. He also disparages Mexican Americans in highly offensive terms. He comes across as a man itching for a fight and eager to humiliate others: the definition, in short, of a bully.

Now ask yourself whether a person who writes such things and who had domestic violence charges brought against him a few years earlier should be able to get a permit to carry a concealed weapon, and you'll realize exactly what is wrong with the lax "shall issue" concealed carry laws in Florida and many other states. People with serious attitude problems and poor impulse control can carry a weapon almost anywhere they go, and this increases their sense of power—and their actual power—over the people they disrespect and wish to humiliate.

And then there are the Stand Your Ground laws that played such a central role in this case. (True, Zimmerman did not invoke Stand You Ground, but Stand Your Ground language was in the judge's instructions to the jury.) The existence of these laws on top of concealed carry laws creates a perfect storm of enabling mechanisms that encourage bullies to provoke fights, knowing that if they encounter any resistance, they can kill and have the law on their side.

The most common advice given to bullying victims—as I know from personal experience—is to fight back and show the bully who's who. Most bullying victims are unlikely to do that, often for the very reasons that made them victims in the first place. It comes much more naturally to just suck it up and let the bully have his petty triumphs, one after another after another, day after day and year after year. Anyone who has been in an abusive relationship can also understand this trap and its implications: Someday, when it gets to be too much, you may finally let the bully have it. Previously that might have gotten him to back off. Now he can pull out a gun and shoot you, and the law will back him up.

As someone whose childhood was stolen by relentless bullying and whose entire adult life has been a long, painful arc of recovery from that devastating experience, I am horrified by the legal nightmare that the combination of concealed carry and Stand Your Ground laws has created. A civilized society cannot keep creating laws that increase the power of bullies and bullying. For those of us who have experience with abuse, this situation perpetually opens deep wounds that will never entirely heal. For all of us, it debases our society and our lives, pushing us inexorably toward brutality and ugliness.

The jury may have had no choice, based on the laws, but to acquit George Zimmerman. The rest of us must do everything we can to change those laws. As a bullying victim, I am more determined than ever not to yield another inch to the bullies of the NRA. I will spend the rest of my life struggling to regain whatever ground is still possible.

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