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George Zimmerman: Social justice activist with a gun?

The depictions of George Zimmerman that have emerged since he killed Trayvon Martin in the Retreat at Twin Lakes neighborhood in Sanford, Fla., on Feb. 26 have trended mostly around suspicions that he is a racist vigilante, a product of a “shoot first” mentality.

But as more information about Mr. Zimmerman’s past surfaces, a contrasting picture is emerging that  suggests his values may also align closely with those of social justice activists who have sought his arrest and prosecution for murder.

Suggestions by his parents that their son worked to protect society’s have-nots raise a question: Is Zimmerman, a registered Democrat of mixed ethnicity who views himself as a Hispanic, actually a different breed of citizen altogether: a social justice activist with a gun?

At a bond hearing Friday, Zimmerman’s Hispanic mother, Gladys Zimmerman, disagreed with prosecutor Bernie de la Rionda’s suggestion that a 2005 arrest for assaulting a police officer showed a violent streak in the married 28-year-old, who stands accused by the state of second degree murder

Instead, she said it fit his personality in another way: His zeal to intervene to protect a friend who was being pushed up against a wall by men who turned out to be two plain-clothes law enforcement officers. (A first time offender, Zimmerman escaped a conviction by agreeing to a judge’s request that he take an anger management course.)

According to his mother, Zimmerman, who was once beaten up in high school, cares about the downtrodden and forgotten, going so far as to rally Sanford residents in defense of a homeless man who was beaten, eventually getting a commendation from the city’s mayor for his work on behalf of social justice.

He also ventured into what was viewed as a dangerous neighborhood in Orlando to mentor a pair of  black kids, telling his mother, “If I don’t go, they don’t have nobody.” He continued meeting the kids twice a month even after the program was shut down for lack of funds, she said.

“That was George, that was my son, who organized a meeting so that a poor man could have justice,” said Gladys Zimmerman, under oath. “He’s very protective of people, very protective of homeless people. He likes to defend people. He likes to protect people.”

"He's always been concerned about people in society, so he wanted to be able to help somehow," Robert Zimmerman, George Zimmerman’s father, told Judge Kenneth Lester in response to a question about why Zimmerman had been studying criminal justice in college.

Social justice has been at the core of the Trayvon Martin story.

It was the social justice website Change.org that introduced the petition that brought notice to the case, eventually leading to the appointment of a special prosecutor and second degree murder charges. Offshoots of the Occupy Wall Street movement have rallied for Zimmerman’s arrest and on behalf of Trayvon and his family. Civil rights activists have held vigils and protests across the country.

Certainly, suggestions by his parents that Zimmerman shares some of the values of his harshest critics doesn’t absolve the notion that racial stereotypes, specifically Zimmerman’s view of young black males, may have played a role in his decision to pursue Trayvon on foot, against the advice of a police dispatcher, leading to the confrontation where Trayvon died.

Police say Zimmerman made a mistake in “profiling” Martin as a criminal. Moreover, Zimmerman’s social justice ideals may have clashed with a desire to safeguard his neighborhood, where he had organized a neighborhood watch group after a series of burglaries.

“Zimmerman is said to have mentored two black children …. Does that prove he’s not a racist? No,” Touré, a well-known cultural critic (who uses a single name), writes this week in Time magazine. “Humans are filled with contradictions, so Zimmerman could have gotten to know those neighborhood boys and embraced their humanity but not extend the expectation of humanity to someone he didn’t know.”

Nevertheless, as more is known about Zimmerman and the circumstances that brought him to a Seminole County courtroom on Friday, the judgement of his values, which have driven much of the public debate and political division around the case, has become more complicated.

The latest revelations about Zimmerman’s social justice work come as even some progressives are looking harder at both the facts of the case and their own attitudes and prejudices about race, specifically reactions to young black males.

Blogger Sarah Milman recounts a moment where she put away a fancy new cell phone as she walked near a young black man wearing a hoodie.

“Personally, I gained a nice sense of self-satisfaction by joining a lot of other people, white and of color, in condemning Zimmerman’s apparent racism and the laws and police behavior that backed him up,” Ms. Milman writes. “After all, I don’t own a gun, I’m generally suspicious of police, I wouldn’t vote for a politician who supported pro-gun … laws. I mean, c’mon, I give money to incredible organizations that fight for equal justice.”

But then she concedes that pocketing the cellphone “was the smallest of interactions, which means this isn’t a big risk for me to admit, but in it, I could have been … George Zimmerman.”

Black New York entrepreneur Ama Yawson blogs:

"I personally can't cloak myself in absolute moral superiority because I am not yet able to observe all others in a completely neutral fashion without ascribing some negative or positive values to them based on the combination of their race, ethnicity, age, religion, clothing and or other characteristics. To the extent that George Zimmerman has come to represent prejudice then 'George Zimmerman' dwells within me. Does 'George Zimmerman' dwell within you?"

Revelations about Zimmerman’s values are important, both because they could help influence a potential jury and because they challenge a basic narrative that’s run notably along political lines: Liberal Americans and blacks largely condemn Zimmerman and a justice system that originally let him go free, while many conservatives have come to Zimmerman’s defense, saying there’s been a rush to judgment about his motives and the exact circumstances of how the fight started and Zimmerman reacted.

In what became the first personal glimpse of  Zimmerman’s character, he took the stand Friday to apologize to Trayvon’s parents, Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton.

"I wanted to say I am sorry for the loss of your son," Zimmerman said Friday from the stand. "I did not know how old he was. I thought he was a little bit younger than I was, and I did not know if he was armed or not."

The family called the apology disingeuous. But his attorney, Mark O’Mara, said he hoped that Zimmerman’s appearance on the stand and the nature of the evidence in the case would help “refocus” frustration and emotion about the handling of the case “away from George.”

Calling two previous run-ins with the law “run of the mill … for Florida,”Judge Kenneth Lester ruled that Zimmerman is not a flight risk and not a danger to society. Judge Lester allowed him to post a $150,000 bond and move out of state to a secret location while he awaits trial.

Even as his lawyer said he’s worried about Zimmerman’s safety amid numerous threats, he’s expected to be released from jail this weekend. Under the judge’s order, he must wear an electronic monitoring device, and he’s not allowed to carry a gun.

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