Trayvon Martin’s Death: The Opportunity to Reform Justice

In our version of justice in America, we seek far more than righting the wrong. We seek that the perpetrator serves their time, is thrown behind bars, pays for what they did.

In short, we like to see the perp suffer.

We seek revenge.

But why do we call for revenge when we know deep in our hearts that it’s wrong? That two wrongs don’t make a right? That eye for an eye makes the world go blind?

Recently, a friend on Facebook asked that George Zimmerman, the man who shot and killed 17 year old Trayvon Martin, be prosecuted. I commented, “What good would come from prosecuting him?”  Another woman answered, “He should absolutely be punished for his actions… Not punishing him, if guilty, sends a clear message that this kid’s life is worth nothing.”

I think she hit the nail on the head.

To her—to many others as well—revenge has come to define justice. And if Zimmerman was to be left alone it would mean we don’t care about Trayvon. But here’s a newsflash for this kind of thinking: Trayvon’s life is a great loss regardless of what happens to Zimmerman. Zimmerman’s punishment does not validate Trayvon as a worthwhile human.

But we connect these two very strongly and doing so causes a lot of problems.

First we see the angry reactions and demands tainted with revenge, (some extraordinarily so like the Black Panthers’ bounty and Spike Lee’s tweet of what he thought was Zimmerman’s address, resulting in the wrong family—an elderly couple—being terrorized with threats and forcing them out of their home). Meanwhile, much of the media coverage, under similar influence, is skewed to favor demands of arrest and prosecution of Zimmerman.

What has all this done but to cause an ever-greater reaction from those with racist tendencies?—but also non-racists who go over the top to compensate for the skew. Either way, we see the character assassination of Trayvon, an ugly attempt to straighten things out. How terrible it is trying to make a murder victim look bad!

Then as a reaction to this, many angry over Trayvon’s death sweep under the rug any information that shines negatively on Trayvon and refer to it as smear—‘cause sometimes it is. But it’s also important information to acknowledge if we want a well-rounded view of this case.

Unfortunately, well-rounded has turned into polars—capped off with terrorizing elderly innocents and smearing a dead innocent.

It’s disturbingly political.

And taking it to this point is our connecting revenge to justice.

Cut that cord. It’s an insult to Trayvon to suggest his life was worthwhile if only we avenge his death.

Prosecution has also come to represent the only action that can appease the crowds who cry for equality in this nation. But by bringing to light the harm of racial stereotyping, this tragic case has done much to bring awareness to this issue already.

This is not to say that people shouldn’t have consequences for their actions. It is to say, though, that we ought to reconsider our ideas of justice. Beyond compulsory compensation for harms done, we ought not take action against the perpetrator unless the safety of people is at risk.

If Zimmerman is found to be irresponsible with his weapon, take away his gun, and demand an action that directs him toward righting his wrong. If he’s deemed irresponsible regardless of a firearm, then put him in jail. But prison should be a last resort as it harms those imprisoned, their families, and all of us as the weight of supporting our one million prisoners is extraordinary. Plus, plenty have served decades for being falsely accused.

By leaning on persecution as the appeasement to our need for justice, we favor imprisonment and punishment all too often and see the needless imprisonment of men and women at everyone’s cost. And it prevents those guilty the ability to try and right the wrongs they’ve caused.

All this gets ignored, though, when we confuse the notion of justice with  revenge; when we believe that Zimmerman’s payback is in some way a remedy; when we mistakingly assume that Trayvon is somehow not worthwhile—or that racism isn’t a crucial issue—unless we punish Zimmerman.

C’mon now.

Ridding all these extraneous factors, we just might see that imprisoning Zimmerman serves no productive function except to continue to warp our idea of justice.

See, this case can be about more than racism and racial divides. It can serve as a jumping off point for looking at justice in a whole new way, by identifying and removing the toxin that interferes with the unifying process—revenge.

It can help us redefine justice to be about healing and love and how to best move forward when tragedy occurs.

Now this would truly leave a legacy to honor the life of Trayvon Martin.



  1. Interesting Brandon. The more things that come out about Trayvon, and Mr. Zimmerman, the more we realize that we should get “the rest of the story”. When the Rev. Sharpton and Rev. Jackson jump in before getting any facts it reminds me of the lacross team at Duke, and the case of the supposed rape in NYC that they so wrongly jumped into before getting the facts. Also, since when do we allow people to post a $10,000 lbounty on someone.

  2. It’s not true that ‘an eye for an eye’ makes the world go blind. Unrestrained retaliation will make the world go blind. The principle of ‘an eye for an eye’ is the essence of restraint. It means that punishment must be commensurate to the crime. It means that you may not blind a man because he steps on your foot, or kill his family because he pokes your eye out. The principle of ‘an eye for an eye’ is meant to check Spike Lee and the other modern day lynch-mob demagogues.

    Do you believe a wronged person does not have a right to vengeance? If a wronged person chooses to forgive their enemy and renounce vengeance that may be very noble, but is it your place to do that for them?

    If you don’t believe that people have a right of vengeance, then do you accept that the desire for vengeance is a natural desire? When some degree of punishment is enacted through the justice system, is this not mitigating the vengeance that would otherwise exist? Is it not preventing the feud cycle that would carry on and grow over the generations?

    If you disregard the principle of an ‘an eye for an eye’, then you open the door to something far more sinister. Without a restrained form of justice, people will desire lynch-mob style ‘justice’. This is what the demagogues play into. The demagogues are not calling for ‘an eye for an eye’ but for an unleashing of irrational, blind, and wicked rage under the guise of justice.

    1. NathanWH, thank you so much for the comment. You know, I never thought of eye-for-en-eye as a maxim of restraint. I only ever considered it a call for revenge. Thanks for the totally new perspective!

      I do believe it’s very natural or innate for us to seek revenge. But I see it as a natural tendency that is harmful, such as a natural desire a child may have to simply take what they want.

      But your perspective does make me consider the benefit of doling out punishment with a justice system in place of vigilantism or as you say, the “feud cycle”. Here’s where you’re advocating for a law to help be better people, and I want us to do that on our own. I do admit that this stance may be over-idealistic, but morals evolve and I think with the harm we’re seeing of legalized revenge–innocents imprisoned, non-threatening people imprisoned–we can evolve and try to live in a world with less revenge.

  3. Your point is well made and I also believe we should focus on the bigger picture here. I want to also include one slight point that may help everyone to understand why the outcry in the African American community has been so immediate even though the complete story is not known.

    As you mentioned in the first line “justice” is an issue, of many, at play here but I think what we must understand that “justice” as how the country sees it and then how the African American community sees it are evidently not the same and could be defined as culturally different.

    I will give you an example of what I mean. I am born and raised in Oregon, but my cultural background is Mexican. Recently my brother and I brought in a roommate who is a white American from Indiana, a well educated and open minded individual who is also bilingual. After a month of living here, he announced that we would be having a visitor at our place and that he would stay for 10 days. My brother and I were not in agreement so we let our roommate know that we would not be comfortable with his visitor. I should note that Latino families, while gracious and polite, do not readily bring visitors to their homes unless they are very good friends or family members, a point we articulated to our roommate. His response was unfortunate as he accused us as being “hypocrites, discriminating on his right to host a vistor and unequal”. If we took HIS definition of each of these themes, then we were being that. However, we used our own definitions which were based on our culture. Our roomate didn’t see it this way and brought his visitor thus souring our relationship.
    My point here, via this seemingly inconsequential story, is that definitions of values vary and that we need to be careful when imposing our own value system on a community.

      1. Public punishment, or in this case, punishment publicized in media is hoped to be a deterent, not revenge. Put the drunkard in the stocks and let kids throw garbage at him. Others see what will happen to them if they are publicly drunk. Punish vigilantes for the same reason. It isn’t perfect, but having an idea about what might happen if a crime is committed must keep some people from doing it.

  4. Trayvon Martin is just part of the challenge. People in the Twin Cities have had “repeated” cases of Trayvon Martin – why march for a death 2000- miles away? It’s safe…Minnesota Nice doesn’t want to address the hard issues of race and racism in its back yard.

  5. It’s refreshing to read an article about Trayvon, and read everyones comments, and NOT have every single one of the be full of hatred. I give props to all of you. Great Job. Now, one interesting story I read, seeing we very well may never know the whole story, made quite the point to me. I have five children. Losing any of them would destroy my wife and I. As is the case with most parents I imagine. However, 49 people were shot on St Patricks Day in Chicago. I’m unsure how many died, however, I think the point can be made that the mainstream media missed that entirely. Those were peoples parents, children and friends. But they don’t matter as much as Trayvon? This story has made me even more skeptical of the news being spewed across the airwaves. They talk abou this boy, as if he’s an angelic 10 year old in the picture they are showing all over TV, when that wasn’t even the case. So i propose to everyone, white, black, purple, whatever you want to call yourself…. why is the media so involved in this one, why was there no outrage over the Black Panthers putting essentially a bounty on Zimmerman’s head….why attempt to destroy already fragile race relations in a country that is on the border of major instability? I’m just venting, and found this….and again, I so do apprecaite reading a story and comments that aren’t so hateful. God Bless you all!

  6. Crayon Martin caused his own death. He was a gansta nigga wannabe whose mother sent him to live with his father because he was acting out. Martin had previously thrown a punch at a bus driver, been found with jewelry not belonging to him, was found carrying a deadly weapon on school property (screwdriver), and was tossed from school three times. The kid was on his way to trouble FAST. Crayon Martin COULD’VE CALLED THE COPS to report Zimmerman was following him. But Crayon Martin CHOOSE TO NOT CALL THE COPS. Zimmerman, on the othe had, DID CALL THE COPS on Martin…..because Zimmerman WANTED TO COPS TO COME INVESTIGATE WHAT HE THOUGHT WAS SUSPICIOUS BEHAVIOR. Zimmerman had a LEGAL right to FOLLOW ANYBODY IN ANY NEIGHBORHOOD. Crayon Martin also had a legal right to FOLLOW ANY PERSON IN ANY NEIGHBORHOOD. Zimmerman had a legal right to carry a firearm. Zimmerman told the police dispatcher that he’d lost sight of Martin. At that moment Martin came up behind Zimmerman, ANGRILY CONFRONTED ZIMMERMAN….AND THEN PUNCHED ZIMMERMAN IN THE FACE AND KNOCKED ZIMMERMAN DOWN…..CRAYON MARTIN THEN JUMPED ON ZIMMERMAN AND PROCEEDED TO SMASH ZIMMERMANS HEAD INTO THE CONCRETE. Florida law is very clear and says deadly force can be legally used when a person reasonably believes his life is in danger. Zimmerman claims he was in fear for his life when he shot the man who was violently smashing his head onto the road. NOT A PROSECUTOR IN THE WORLD CAN DISPROVE THAT ZIMMERMAN WAS AFRAID FOR HIS LIFE. THAT’S WHY THERE WILL BE NO ARREST….AND IF THERE *IS* AND ARREST THERE WILL BE NO CONVICTION….AND ZIMMERMAN WILL THEN SUE FOR WRONGFUL ARREST. Crayon Martin killed himself.

  7. Will it still be considered “justice” (should a trial ensue) and Zimmerman is found not guilty? I found this on the news.

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