The digital clock

Muslim teen builds device to detect islamophobes
By now, almost everyone is bound to be aware of the story of Ahmed Mohamed, the digital clock he built and brought to school, and the #IStandWithAhmed response.

The cartoon obviously portrays this as an example of Islamophobia, but is it, and how can we tell or be sure?

There was a history of Islamophobia in Irving, Texas stemming from February 2015 when right wing Christians and others stirred up fear about Shariah Law Courts being set up.  In reality, there was a non-binding, voluntary arbitration service provided by a local mosque and other mosques in the Dallas area.  Such arbitration services have been common in Jewish and Christian practice as well, so they are nothing new [1,3]

The mayor, Beth Van Duyne spoke with various conservative pundits, stating that Shariah courts had been set up and touting her support of legislation, “American laws for American courts”, that would prevent Shariah law from being applied in her community.  She gave interviews to Dana Loesch and Glenn Beck. She also spoke with Frank Gaffney on the subject, “the founder of the anti-Muslim think tank Center for Security Policy” [1] [I’m not familiar with this group’s work].   Other articles give more details, including how she benefited from increased fundraising after becoming a national figure because of this issue and how the editorial board of her local paper that had endorsed her called her out on Islamophobia [2, 3, 4].

I think the English teacher who reported the clock as a potential bomb because she was scared was within her rights and duty.  I would like to think that she shouldn’t have been scared, but apparently she was so I suppose she had to do something.  But, I don’t understand how the situation wasn’t cleared up more quickly without involving the police or at least without resorting to handcuffs, detention at a juvenile facility, and fingerprinting.  To be clear, the police said they quickly knew it wasn’t a bomb and they were instead investigating whether or not Ahmed intended to scare people with a fake bomb, which is illegal.

The Irving police chief, Larry Boyd, gave an interview on CNN and said that the police weren’t initially aware that Ahmed had told multiple people about his clock project that day and that his engineering or robotics teacher had seen it and understood what it was.  Once they had these facts, they were able to determine that there was no bomb hoax and that Ahmed did not do anything to make people afraid [5].

I’m not sure why they didn’t have these facts right away from the principal’s and other school staff’s inquiries. Quoting Police Chief Boyd:

“There were factors and details to this that for whatever reason weren’t shared with the officers who were there initially.  So as we pursued this investigation further — as you know we didn’t file any charges on him — we dropped those charges because we were able to find out those facts that you’re [the CNN host] referring to.  Yeah, he did talk to people earlier and presented it as you described [as a clock, an engineering project].  Those were the kinds of things that allowed us to settle the matter” [5].

Another interesting take on this comes from [6] which asserts that public schools all over the country are becoming too strict and paranoid, with zero tolerance laws that unfairly mete out severe punishment to both white and minority kids.  It also makes the case that liberals tend to jump to explanations for severe punishment based on race or Islamophobia when the larger problem of zero tolerance and safety paranoia is to blame.

That author writes

I accept that it’s perfectly plausible—if not yet definitively proven—racism played a role in the specific case of Ahmed Muhamed [sic]. And it’s certainly true that poor and minority youths are at greater risk of mistreatment. Studies show schools discipline black and Latino kids more harshly and more frequently than white kids who commit the same offenses. [My note: also see references 7,8]

But it would be a grave mistake to zero-in on racism as the main problem here, because ridiculous over-enforcement of school disciplinary policies is only partly a race issue. No child is safe from having his or her rights’ trampled by assertive cops at school as long as paranoia about school safety and petty rules outlawing perfectly safe, normal teen behavior remain in place. Cops arrest kids for bringing harmless toys that vaguely resemble weapons to school. Schools suspend kids for talking, writing, or merely just thinking about said weapons while on school premises, or near school premises, or even just near the bus stop on their own front lawns.” [6]

So basically this article is saying that Islamophobia or race could be a contributing factor, and I think it was.  I think it’s a distraction to argue whether this incident was purely about Islamophobia, but I just can’t fathom the thought that Islamophobia or fear of another culture, religion, or skin color played absolutely no part somewhere in the whole chain of events.

Fortunately, Ahmed has been receiving a lot of support from notable people including the President, and has even gotten some sweet swag for his troubles.

ahmed swag

Finally, I want to end on a quick note about Islamphobia and racism.  People argue over these terms as applied to cases like this, noting Islam is a religion, not a race, so Islamophobia is different from racism.  I think they’re related because some roots of Islamophobia stem from the fact that many Muslims are from the Middle East and are not white.  Fear is often based on differences between people and unconscious or conscious labeling of people as “the Other”.  People are “Others” because of differences in culture, race, appearance, religion, and other factors.

[1]  http://talkingpointsmemo.com/muckraker/ahmed-mohamed-beth-van-duyne-sharia

[2] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2015/09/16/the-history-of-anti-islam-controversy-in-ahmed-mohameds-texas-city/

[3] https://www.slantnews.com/story/2015-09-19-islamophobia-in-irving-texas-is-more-pervasive-than-ahmed-and-his-clock

[4] http://irvingblog.dallasnews.com/2015/02/irving-not-supportive-of-islamic-group-mayor-tells-glenn-beck-but-city-hall-says-something-else.html/

[5] http://www.cnn.com/videos/us/2015/09/18/ahmed-clock-muslim-irving-police-chief-intv-newday.cnn/video/playlists/ahmed-mohamed-clock-arrest-controversy/

[6] https://reason.com/blog/2015/09/16/liberals-making-istandwithahmed-about-ra

[7] http://www.mintpressnews.com/black-and-hispanic-students-punished-more-severely-than-white-counterparts/191496/

[8] http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Education/2012/0306/Minority-students-are-punished-more-than-whites-US-reports.-Is-it-racism

Hypocritical opposition to Iranian nuclear deal

Republican opposition to the Iranian nuclear deal is at best willfully ignorant and at worst is hypocritical, as they brand themselves champions of national security yet for political and ideological reasons oppose an excellent deal.

A huge consensus of experts praises the deal. Twenty-nine prominent nuclear scientists sent President Obama a letter praising the deal, over three dozen retired generals and admirals endorsed it in a letter, and nuclear security and nonproliferation experts also praise it.

The letter by the retired generals and admirals entitled “Iran deal benefits U.S. national security” calls the deal “the most effective means currently available to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons,” explaining that it “provides for intrusive verification … and is not based on trust; the deal requires verifications and tough sanctions for failure to comply.”

The letter from the 29 scientists describes it as “the most comprehensive verification ever obtained,” including monitoring of uranium mining, milling, conversion to uranium hexafluoride, centrifuge manufacturing and R&D, and real-time monitoring of active centrifuges and spent fuel. Furthermore, it allows challenge inspections for any suspected clandestine operations.

Finally, “the deal includes important long-term verification procedures that last until 2040, and others that last indefinitely under the Nonproliferation Treaty and its Additional Protocol.”  The deal “will make it much easier … to know if and when Iran heads for a bomb, and the detection of a significant violation of this agreement will provide strong, internationally supported justification for intervention.” [still quoting frmo the scientists’ letter]

I feel strongly about this topic because I worked for the National Nuclear Security Administration before I began pursuing my PhD in Ecological Engineering.  I’ve heard my former colleagues’ frustration that politics threaten a deal that will increase the safety of our country.

The deal will also end the suffering of everyday Iranians under the sanctions, as they have played a major role in harming the economy and leading to massive inflation.  Some articles on this are here (AlJazeera), here (PBS), and here (NY Times).

Far too often, Republicans are proving themselves to be the party of “no,” aiming to block everything and anything Obama does in a zero-sum race to the bottom.

Finally, here’s an video an Iranian friend shared with me, showing how much everyday Iranians know about our Republican candidates for president!

http://www.cnn.com/videos/world/2015/09/17/republicans-iran-mos-pleitgen-orig.cnn

Day after Memorial Day reflection

It’s hard to have a rational, compassionate discussion about violence on Memorial Day, the day after, or any day in a country in which we strongly believe that violence solves problems without creating new ones.  It is uncomfortable for many when we question the role of our military in foreign affairs and the way we have supported dictators, toppled democratically elected governments, and created false pretenses for war.

The focus should never be on criticizing the rank and file of our armed forces.  They are indeed brave and courageous people, most of whom have noble reasons for joining the military such as fighting for freedom.

The questions we have to ask are those directed to our leaders.  Are our leaders’ motivations for war accurate and true?  Is the worldview their motivations stem from actually supported by evidence (i.e. do their wars actually solve problems they say they will, or any problems at all)?  Are they really just interested in establishing and broadening control over other countries?

And more broadly, how does power tend to corrupt people?  What is the role of power in bringing peace?  Is there a role?  If so, what is the potential role of armed or unarmed peacekeeping forces as opposed to invading forces?

And let’s look for parallels in our own lives, because all around the world people are people, are human beings.  So maybe people in other countries respond to violence similarly to how we might.

Does force solve disputes, problems, and differences within our families and friendships, with people who are close to us and understand us pretty well?  I don’t think so.  Will force then work in other countries, where people don’t understand us well and there are pronounced differences in race, religion, and culture?  Sounds worse to me.

It’s difficult to have our worldviews shaken, and to see that the United States has a very real dark side in addition to the freedom and prosperity many of us experience.  But recognizing and addressing this dark side is actually more patriotic than ignoring it, because we can express our love of country by making it better.

Science to dispel fear

fear

Fear is a powerful emotion.  It can be used to control others, to gain power, to gain money, or to gain recognition as an “expert”.  It can also motivate us to action, and even to do the right thing in some cases.

Science can help us know what we should and should not fear, and what potentially to do about the things we fear.  Thus, science can help to dispel fear.  (Too much fear is not a good thing – it distracts us from other things we should give more of our attention to, and it can prevent us from enjoying the good things around us.)

What prompted my thoughts on this right now?  I just learned that on Feb. 19, there was a small release of radioactivity from the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP – click to see their summary) in Carlsbad, NM.  (WIPP is a long-term storage site for nuclear waste materials related to past nuclear weapons activities – it’s not used for commercial waste produced by nuclear power plants.)

What frustrates me is that so many people have an “expert opinion” on this topic through the blogosphere, with people citing SECRET SOURCES and NEW CALCULATIONS that reveal that we’re all going to die from this event.  (I am exaggerating…barely…but you get the point.)

There are many people who consider themselves progressives, or just care about the environment and have an opinion on various nuclear issues.  But who you trust for your info means a lot.  My dad is a great and wonderful person, but he gets his news and analysis of current events through very conservative sources, so he frequently surprises me with the ideas that he absorbs and accepts when he’s otherwise also an extremely intelligent person.  I think this phenomenon is much more recognized as occurring on the far right, but it actually happens just as much (or at least a lot) on the far left, and this (in my opinion) really contributes to discrediting progressive causes and movements.

There is money to be made in fear.  Here is one example.  A blog that purports to do its own (fatally flawed) calculations on the WIPP radiation release, with a nice “Donate via Paypal” button that says the money will go to testing of food for radiation.  Yeah right.  When I click on it, its paypal label is just the name of the blogger, like any other donation link anywhere else on the site.

radiation_ripoff

The first blog I saw on this topic is here.  It attracted over 90 comments, which I’m jealous of!  😉   Look at all the experts responding with new calculations, insider reports, etc. about how we’re gonna die.   Below is my response:

_______________________________________________________________

I’m new to your site, just having stumbled upon it doing some google searching on this WIPP incident.

One thing I find lacking in much discussion about radioactivity is context – specifically, what do the numbers cited mean, and how do they compare to other numbers related to radioactivity that we routinely experience?

A Bq (becquerel) is an absolutely minuscule measure of radioactivity. The release of a handful of Bq’s truly poses no health risks. I think we should actually feel *safer* and *more secure* knowing that WIPP can detect and respond to minuscule releases, giving us confidence that it won’t release larger quantities.

And here’s some perspective on numbers. Many radioactive materials are naturally occurring. C-14, for instance, is everywhere. That’s how we do carbon dating. Life has evolved in the presence of background radiation, so background radiation levels are not harmful. The levels cited in this WIPP incident and your article here – 0.64 Bq and 0.092 Bq – are much less than natural background, and much less even than the amount of radiation *contained in any banana*. A banana has on average 15 Bq of radioactive potassium. A banana explosion would release much more radiation than this event.

And I’m not trying to say the release of radiation is not a concern. It is! But it’s a concern for the WIPP people, too, and they managed it quite well. I haven’t read your blog, so I don’t know, but I would think you should be much more concerned about the rail accidents involving trains carrying oil from the Canadian tar sands. These have actually killed people!

As for the criticism of offering free radiation testing, this is a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situation. People hype up radiation because it’s scary. People get afraid over events like this. If WIPP does nothing and offers no concrete way of assuring people they are safe (through free testing of anyone who’s worried they were exposed) they will be criticized. If they *do* offer this testing as a means of public reassurance, people will criticize that too (as is done in many of these comments).

Here’s info on the bananas: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Banana_equivalent_dose

Looking forward to some good discussion.

____________________________________

We’ll see what happens.

More on the Keystone XL

Keystone XL protest in front of the White House.  Source: National Geographic,.  Photographer: JEWEL SAMAD, AFP/GETTY

Keystone XL protest in front of the White House. Source: National Geographic,. Photographer: JEWEL SAMAD, AFP/GETTY

There’s a lot of anger and frustration toward the US State Department for its recent determination that the Keystone XL Pipeline (KXL) would not significantly increase carbon emissions. The Obama Administration promised to reject the KXL if their studies showed it would contribute significantly to global emissions. This is where science can get tricky. From the perspective that tar sands oil is being produced independently of the US and any US action on it (i.e. Canada could sell it to other countries), the State Department is technically correct. The KXL may even slightly lower emissions overall because it’s more efficient to transport oil by pipeline than by rail and shipment overseas.

But of course this is just one side of the story. The larger concern is that tar sands oil is being produced in the first place and that it’s a larger threat to climate change than many other fossil fuels. In this sense, people are justified in being upset. But is this bigger concern really the fault of the Obama Administration and the State Department? Yes and no. No, in the sense stated before: the tar sands oil will be produced, sold, and burned regardless of the KXL and American decisions. Yes, in the sense that the US could be a lot more serious about reducing our demand for oil and exerting world leadership on climate issues. Groups like Friends of the Earth, the Green Party, and so forth should think more about joining and pushing hard for movements like the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Half the Oil campaign to halve US oil demand within 20 years, which is practical and actionable. People should be talking about this like crazy because it begins to address the root problem of demand.

 

How to save the world

The winner of the Buckminster Fuller Challenge was recently announced, and it’s a company called Ecovative.  But before we get into how awesome it is and how it relates to saving the world, here’s a science lesson.

Have you ever heard of mycelium?  Mycelium are white strands of fungi that spread out like roots in soil or on organic material.

Mycelium

 Mycelium in soil 

mycelium2

 

 

 

Mycelium growing on a decaying log

Imagine a thick slab of this mycelium — it would look kind of like a block of Styrofoam, right?  It turns out it has very similar properties, too.  But instead of being made from fossil fuels and sticking around forever in our landfills, it’s made from decomposable, renewable fungi and organic material usually considered a waste.

This is where Ecovative enters in.  About 6 years ago, they realized that if they could grow mycelium in particular shapes it would be an ideal replacement for Styrofoam.  What do they need in order to do this?  Just “waste” biomass like agricultural residues (leftover cornstalks, etc.), cellulose sludge from paper mills, lobster shells and even textile wastes.  These materials would ordinarily be thrown out and cost money to be landfilled.

Ecovative instead buys these wastes products from farms and businesses, feeding them to fungi.  It’s a closed-loop system creating new value out of waste products. Ecovative has been able to make all sorts of things out of it, like packing/shipping materials, surfboards, and cups. They say the cost of their final products is cheaper than Styrofoam and other materials they replace, so hopefully we’ll be seeing Ecovative’s products everywhere soon.

Growing products we need out of fungi from "waste" biomass this company buys from farms, paper mills, etc.  A win-win for everyone and the planet, it seems!

Ecovative is using fungi to grow products we need using  “waste” biomass bought from farms, paper mills, etc.   A win-win for everyone and the planet!  The guy carrying just one Ecovative product is obviously a slacker.

How does this tie into the saving the world and the Buckminster Fuller Challenge?  The visionary architect, inventor, and systems theorist Buckminster Fuller (“Bucky”) said, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality.  To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

Ecovative is successful because they aren’t merely fighting against our wasteful consumerist culture and lack of sustainable materials.  They are filling a niche for a new product that meets our needs in a sustainable way.  They know if they can make a desirable product for a wide range of industries and consumers then it will gain a strong foothold in the market.

In summary, Bucky tells us that change happens when a new, better alternative comes about and not just by fighting the existing system.  This insight makes me think of other environmental challenges we face.

There is significant effort directed against hydrofracking and new pipelines to carry oil from Canadian tar sands through the US.  Tar sands are a less concentrated source of oil than conventional sources, so it takes a lot more energy and effort to extract and refine it.  Thus it has a larger carbon footprint than than many other fossil fuels and is an energy-intensive and polluting process as well.

NPR recently reported that oil produced from Canadian tar sands (as well as from fracking in the US) is being shipped on trains because opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline has (so far) prevented its construction.  According to this article, in 2008 about 9,500 train cars were used to ship crude oil to refineries in the US.  In 2012, this had skyrocketed to 234,000 train cars.  There are also safety concerns associated with train derailments and aging track infrastructure like the July 2013 derailment in Quebec that killed dozens of people.

A train pulls oil tank units on its way to a refinery in Delaware. As U.S. oil production outpaces its pipeline capacity, more and more companies are looking to the railways to transport crude oil.

A train pulls oil tank units on its way to a refinery in Delaware.  As U.S. oil production outpaces its pipeline capacity, more and more companies are looking to the railways to transport crude oil.”

Many people are standing up and saying they don’t want to expand new fossil fuel sources in our already warming climate.  But how can activists, scientists, and other concerned people focus on solutions — on what to be for instead of only what to be against?

But demand is the key, say most economists. If you can get American drivers to buy less gas — by raising fuel efficiency standards … you stand a much better chance of slowing production in the oil sands.”

The key is to change the system: to focus on alternatives to fossil fuels combined with energy and fuel efficiency.  Some ways to do this are to promote local renewable energy, especially community-owned projects that keep more money and jobs local; advocate for investment, subsidies, and better policy for renewables; and to support the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Half the Oil Plan, a multi-faceted plan that will cut our oil use in half within just 20 years.

Here’s an example of the disparity in subsidies between fossil fuels and renewables.

From 2002 to 2008, the U.S. government gave the mature fossil fuel industry more than $72 billion in subsidies while investments in the emerging renewable-energy industry totaled $12.2 billion.” [underlining emphasis mine]

How much could renewables grow with equivalent (or superior) support compared to fossil fuels?

Two of my favorite groups working on these issues are the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and the Union of Concerned Scientists.  Check them out and read up on some of these issues.  You can use their websites to quickly write letters to Congress, the President, and so forth.  You could also bring up the idea of community-owned renewable energy with your own local officials and those running for local office.

 

The Man of Steel and the Man of Love

Note: I wrote this in early fall and tried to submit it to the Huffington Post, but to no avail. 

If the flag wasn't enough, the 7-11 behind Superman really makes this patriotic!

If the flag wasn’t enough, the 7-11 behind Superman really makes this patriotic!

This summer’s movie, The Man of Steel, deeply and beautifully focused on Clark Kent’s (Superman’s) struggles and moral development. Christian pastors were invited to free advance screenings and were provided with sermon notes titled “Jesus as the First Superhero”. Was Jesus like an American superhero? Did he endorse violence as a way to fight evil and bring about righteousness?

The Man of Steel and Jesus, the Man of Love, are not the same. Instead of Superman, Jonathan Kent (Clark or Superman’s father) was actually the Jesus figure, and Superman’s task was to deeply learn and embody his father’s spirit.

Accordingly, the Christian Church is like Superman not because it’s the hero that saved the day but because its most fundamental task is to deeply learn, imbibe, and embody Jesus’ spirit. The Superman of this movie did a much better job of it than the Christian Church as a whole.

Clark was different, so he was bullied as a young child. His x-ray vision and super hearing led to panic attacks and he’d run out of class desperately searching for peace from his overwhelming senses. He seemed weak, especially because Jonathan taught him never to fight back. As Clark got older, Jonathan emphasized that how he responded to the hatred, fear, and arrogance of others was his choice and would determine what kind of a man he would grow up to be.

Jonathan was real with Clark about the difficulties of nonviolence. He wanted the bullies to get what was coming to them but knew this was a dangerous path for anyone and especially for Clark. When those with overwhelming power retaliate, it only creates more fear, mistrust, and alienation. Clark would never gain the trust and admiration of humanity this way.

Jesus’ disciples also struggled with issues of violence, retributive justice, and power. They (and their culture) expected the Messiah to be a king who would inflict vengeance upon Israel’s enemies. They wanted Jesus to zap people who failed to show them hospitality and to defend Jesus with the sword. Peter couldn’t bear to have his feet washed by Jesus because he so strongly thought only servants should wash their master’s feet and not vice versa. Jesus rebuked the disciples each time.

Jesus represented a different relationship to power, violence, and status; he likened his way to a narrow gate that few enter but leads to life. The gate that leads to destruction (violence, control, and power over others) is a wide gate that many enter (Matt. 7:13-14).

In the movie, Jonathan risked his life to help others during a tornado. He knew it was dangerous but felt the risk of Clark revealing his powers was too great. Jonathan saved the people but died in the process, teaching Clark what love looks like and that true strength comes from within.

Jesus also seemed to think that his best hope of getting through to the disciples – of showing them once and for all who he was and what he stood for – was to accept his death at the hands of the religious and political authorities. His death would shock them out of their old ways of thinking, making room for a new Spirit to thrive within them. For a few centuries Christianity held on to the spirit of Jesus, represented a radically different way of life based on love, and refused to take part in violence.

Although there’s been a push to equate Jesus and Superman, the movie provides a much stronger case for Jonathan as Jesus, with Superman being similar to Christianity because they share the fundamental task of becoming like Jonathan or Jesus.

Nonviolence and kicking some alien butt
Kryptonians – people from Clark’s planet – arrived at Earth and wanted vengeance on Clark for the past actions of his parents. They broke their promise to spare humanity if Clark turned himself over. Clark, now Superman, fought back and killed the Kryptonian leader with his own hands.

To create the violent plot and justify the massive destruction caused by Superman (his fighting leveled several towns), the Kryptonians had to be portrayed as purely evil, possessing no conscience, and having technology that could quickly and easily wipe out the human race. It reminds me of how war is often framed and justified in public debate…

Superman was nonviolent toward humanity and turned to violence only as a last resort against genocidal invading aliens: a far-fetched occurrence. What would the world be like if Christianity was committed to justice and righteousness based on nonviolence?

Superman’s real strength was reflected in his refusal to retaliate against the arrogance and evil inside humanity. He had imbibed his father’s vision to be a beacon of hope and light. Without this, he could never win the hearts and minds of the whole human race.

Nonviolence and its foundation, radical love, at first make us weak but invite us into the knowledge and experience of a power that gives us strength, passion, purpose, and hope even in the midst of suffering.

Moral training and spiritual practices fuel and nourish us. Deep reflection and contemplation of the life, teaching, and spirit of Jesus is one such practice. Gandhi studied the New Testament daily and was further transformed by Jesus’ love, spirituality, and power despite (or because of?) his rejection of dogmatic Christianity.

Jesus told a parable of two sons that should challenge the traditional dogma of salvation for Christians alone. A father told his two sons to work in his vineyard. The first said yes, but didn’t do it. The second said no, but changed his mind and worked. Jesus used this parable to point out that the religious leaders – those who said the right things and acted righteous – were actually far less righteous than the tax collectors and prostitutes they considered outcasts (Matt. 21:28-32). Gandhi was like the second son because he rejected Christian doctrine but imbibed and lived out the radical love of Jesus.

Jesus also told a parable in which he is the vine and the disciples are the branches drawing life and energy from him. He warns them that if they aren’t truly attached to the vine they “cannot bear fruit” and “cannot do anything” (John 15) – essentially that they would make a mess of the world, as Christianity has often done.

We can still embrace the worldview of a cosmic battle of good versus evil so prevalent in human cultures and religions, but we have to fight in a way that’s pure and increases the goodness in the world. Nonviolence is good, life-giving, and with discipline and creativity it’s practical. In this way, we can all see Jesus as a savior of the world.

Trayvon Martin Revisited

When the verdict for the George Zimmerman trial came out several weeks ago on the killing of Trayvon Martin, I passionately hopped onto the bandwagon of anger and frustration. Previously, I had signed the petitions calling for federal investigation into the case, I was shocked at the backwardness of the Stand Your Ground law, and I was flabbergasted at how long it took for Zimmerman to be arrested in the first place.

At some point, I realized I knew very little about Zimmerman himself and about the trial other than the media’s short media segments. I did a little research and that research has led me to change my mind on the case and question the media’s biased handling of it. This is extremely controversial and puts me at odds with many progressives (a label I’m usually happy to associate with), but I feel it’s important to lay out some of the facts and context.

The picture of Zimmerman often used on TV is several years old, and he looks more thuggish and overweight than his current picture (seen further below when I discuss the actual confrontation of George and Trayvon). Trayvon is shown a few years younger as a super innocent looking kid. http://www.nbcmiami.com/news/local/Old-Photos-May-Have-Shaped-Public-Reaction-In-Trayvon-Martin-Case-145223895.html

First off, what do we know about Zimmerman before the shooting? Was he a racist bigot? I was at the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington in which Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech and there were many signs about Zimmerman saying he was.

We know that he was a leader/captain of the Neighborhood Watch for his neighborhood. What I didn’t see in TV media coverage was that there had been a string of thefts in his neighborhood, and that residents were concerned. As a leader of the Neighborhood Watch, it would make sense for him to keep an eye on things. And, a couple of years back, there was an incident where the son of a white policeman had beaten up a black homeless man and went largely unpunished because of his ties to the police establishment. There was a public meeting about the incident, which Zimmerman apparently put major effort into organizing and informing the black community about, and Zimmerman spoke boldly at it, criticizing the police and their actions in covering it up (accusing them of trying to be above the law). This leads me to think, no, he probably wasn’t a racist bigot.

In general, Zimmerman seemed to have a positive relationship with the police because he worked with them in conjunction with the Neighborhood Watch, sent them positive emails, and even received advice from them to “report suspicious persons”. I also don’t think he was so angry at the police that he felt he had to completely take matters into his own hands. He showed he could cooperate with them.

Zimmerman’s call to the police also provides insights. (This call and all of the 911 calls reporting the actual fight and gunshot are on the Wikipedia page. The page in general is excellent). In his call, Zimmerman is calm and collected. He expresses some frustration that the robbers in his neighborhood always get away (“these assholes always get away”) and didn’t say anything bad about black people. He only mentioned Trayvon’s skin color when asked, and responded very simply with “black” and had no malice or other intonations (that I heard…you can listen yourself). He also said that Trayvon was watching him and approaching him. Then Zimmerman says that Trayvon starts running, and you can hear Zimmerman get out of his car, and Zimmerman starts running as well. You hear noise and wind in the recording – which seems to correspond with Zimmerman running – and the dispatcher asks if he’s following the person. Zimmerman says yes, and the dispatcher says “Ok, we don’t need you to do that”. Zimmerman says “ok”. The noise/wind stops and Zimmerman catches his breath, with the dispatcher asking him more questions for another 90 seconds. It’s clear that Zimmerman isn’t pursuing Trayvon (there is no wind sound and his voice is just like at the beginning). The dispatcher says police are on the way, and Zimmerman asked that he be called directly by the arriving cop and the dispatcher said he had Zimmerman’s phone number and would make sure that happened. It is not proveable, but it seemed like Zimmerman was dutifully following the advice of the dispatcher and was waiting for the police officer to arrive.

As for what happened next, Zimmerman’s testimony was that he was returning to his vehicle when Trayvon approached him from the left rear (unseen), punched him in the face (knocking him down), then Trayvon got on top and began hitting him. But in media coverage of the case, it seemed like it was unclear who was on top. The evidence – no injuries on Trayvon other than the shot and a small slash on his knuckle consistent with hitting someone – and Zimmerman’s broken nose and gashes on the back of his head – to me shows that clearly Trayvon was on top.

George Zimmerman immediately after being taken in for questioning on the night of Trayvon Martin’s shooting. Notice also that he looks significantly older and slimmer than the previous picture which was mostly used on TV.

If Zimmerman instigated the confrontation, how would they even end up in a close-range fight on the ground with Trayvon on top, especially if Zimmerman could have drawn his gun before this happened?  Zimmerman was bigger than Trayvon and had practiced mixed martial arts fighting (although he wasn’t very good at it: he started in 2010 mainly for weight loss and was successful in that regard) so overall I think it seems unlikely that Trayvon would end up on top with no injuries at all if Zimmerman was the person who started the fight. These to me show that he was taken by surprise by a punch to the face, which is consistent with the medical record and his story. Zimmerman also testified that he only went for his gun when Trayvon saw it and started to reach for it. Then all of a sudden the confrontation was of lethal proportions for Zimmerman and he grabbed his gun first and shot Trayvon.  The sad thing is that without the gun present, the confrontation might have ended only with injuries (even if very serious ones) as opposed to death. (Also, the Stand Your Ground law wasn’t actually used in Zimmerman’s defense or by the police in their decision not to arrest him initially. It’s clear, of course, he was taken in for questioning. It’s not like they just let him walk away from the scene after killing someone.)

Conclusions
So to me, the evidence gives Zimmerman a lot of credibility. I have a hard time piecing together the story portrayed on TV of Zimmerman pursuing and confronting Trayvon as a vigilante and/or racist but ending up on the bottom with injuries while Trayvon had none other than the bullet wound and the knuckle cut. The police also stated that with the evidence and story they had, they believed Zimmerman and that he also passed a stress or lie-detector test. (I don’t necessarily give lie detector tests any credibility). But what’s clear is that they didn’t arrest him because they believed him, not because it was a huge conspiracy or cover-up.

One lesson from this, as Sam Harris’ post on guns and gun violence also shows, is that the presence of a gun in any confrontation actually increases the overall chances of fatal injuries. Once it’s known that a deadly weapon is present in a confrontation, usually both people instinctively “click” into the psychology of a battle to the death.

The other lesson is that we need to carefully weigh evidence and not jump to conclusions. I certainly jumped to conclusions because the only coverage of this I saw on TV was biased toward Zimmerman as a racist who pursued Trayvon with ill-will and shot him down in cold blood.