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Gated nightmares

Jonathan Simon, professor of law | February 21, 2013

It has all the feel of a Twilight Zone episode, only in a setting that is unmistakably contemporary.  The nightmare is framed by this setting, a house in a gated community.  It could be a very posh house, like the one where Oscar Pistorious lived and admits he shot to death his girlfriend, the model Reeva Steenkamp, last week in South Africa [read the Guardian’s coverage here]; or a more middle class one, like the South Florida community where George Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin to death in 2012 [read the New York Times summary here].

Whatever you make of either mans’ story — whether they are liars, self deceivers, or simply loose cogs — their narratives belong to what David Garland called the “common sense” of  “high crime societies.”  Their justification/excuse defenses turn on the reasonableness of responding to uncertainty with lethal violence, a reasonableness in turn anchored in the subjective experience of crime and fear of crime.  As Pistorius’ defense statement read by his lawyers in court yesterday put it:

“I am acutely aware of violent crime being committed by intruders entering homes,” he said. “I have received death threats before. I have also been a victim of violence and of burglaries before. For that reason I kept my firearm, a 9 mm Parabellum, underneath my bed when I went to bed at night.”

It is a nightmare that anyone who has lived in late modern society can recreate at will, from a thousand half-remembered films or TV scripts if not from personal experience.  It’s the reason that lots of people you know and love, maybe you, too, keep a 9mm gun next to the bed.

What makes their nightmare complete is that even by their own accounts they killed people who posed no threat to them, in a place they chose to be in large part to keep them safe from crime.  And now they face the possibility of the ultimate contradiction in our “culture of control” (thanks again to Garland for the term), a long sentence of imprisonment during which they are likely to be exposed to cruel, inhuman, and degrading circumstances (South African law at least is more proactive in protecting Pistorius against that, although I wouldn’t want to bet on its practical implementation).

Gated communities promise to wrap consumers in an extra layer of security unprovided by the state and mutual self help of citizens.  But once embedded in such an environment, insecurity got worst.  George Zimmerman felt the need to become his own vigilante patrol officer within the gates, and Oscar Pistorius kept himself armed against the burglars in his mind.  Again Pistorius’ narrative, whether genuine or artfully contrived, speaks to (and shows us) the way our security measures implode on us, removing some threats so our minds can focus on others:

“I heard a noise and realised that someone was in the bathroom. I felt a sense of terror rushing over me. There are no burglar bars across the bathroom window and I knew that contractors who worked at my house had left the ladders outside.”

The gates around his house only made the absence of gates on his windows a vulnerability.  The hired men who labored to make his luxury home even more secure and comfortable opened yet more pathways for crime.

We should not pity Oscar Pistorius or George Zimmerman, at least not more than their victims.  But if we fail to recognize their nightmare as ours, we can expect more victims.

Cross-posted from Jonathan Simon’s blog, Governing Through Crime.

Comments to “Gated nightmares

  1. The similarities between Zimmerman and Pistorius basically start and end with the fact they both shot someone.

    In short, there is a ton of reasonable doubt within the Zimmerman case. The guy was clearly irked by the local crime and perhaps became a bit overzealous in his quest to report all suspicious activity to the police but that doesn’t necessarily equate to being a murderer.

    One of two things happened that night, Zimmerman left his truck and found Trayvon Martin and escalated a physical fight with him OR Martin became irate he was being followed and dispensed some harsh words and a beat down. We simply don’t know, there’s too many missing pieces of the puzzle and what we’re left with is a somewhat plausible account of self defense. Again, reasonable doubt is going to play a major role during the trial because the state lacks the evidence to prove he started the actual altercation and the defense is going to point out a bloodied Zimmerman and a close eye witness who will state he saw Martin on top of him for the duration of the fight.

    Pistorius, like another person mentioned just comes off as malicious and controlling. He’s going to have a heck of a time convincing people the mistook the girl as an intruder and shot her under those circumstances.

  2. Excellent commentary on the futility of building a wall of money to try to re-create a segregated society no longer in place

  3. Jonathan,

    Nonsense! Pure speculation that only the Ivory Tower, a gated community, would be entitled to embrace.

    I have been in George Zimmerman’s situation both as a victim of an aggravated assault while walking home from Ashby BART and as a south Berkeley resident following a suspicious person in order to accurately report their whereabouts to police dispatch. I was fortunate, people came to my aid during the assault, GZ was not, in his situation people were too AFRAID to intervene and locked their doors leaving him with few choices.

    See this link for a similar 2005 local story in which Oakland racial justice activists attempted to paint the situation as vigilantism. Patrick, the shooter, is an employee of the city of Berkeley and a decent, ethical person. He was fortunate that the one bullet he fired in self-defense did not hit a fatal organ and OPD did not cave to political pressure. Zimmerman is being railroaded to appease mob mentality.

    This link to a recent Texas case of a shooter claiming self-defense more closely fits your notion of vigilante justice in which fear and anger take control. The shooter is black and unlike Zimmerman she was indicted only after the grand jury completed a five month review. There was no organized protest from the Black Grievance Industry or the intervention by an elected Governor appointed by a special prosecutor to bypass the grand jury.

    If you would like to understand how ordinary folks “fight the good fight” in high crime neighborhoods, feel free to contact me for a tour of south Berkeley. I will share the facts of how residents actually take back their hood from gangs. It will not conform to the empty, stale presentation which you hosted in 2011. VICTOR RIOS “PUNISHED: POLICING THE LIVES OF BLACK AND LATINO BOYS”

  4. Two very different scenarios. Zimmerman felt violated by the constant crime in the condo community where he lived and tried to protect himself by being pro-active. We may never really know the true story here. Pistorius, I suspect, was jealous,controlling, and paranoid.

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