“The Black guy they were trying to make an angel out of,” Zimmerman said dismissively of Peterson. “The next day, he wakes up with dollar signs in his eyes and George Floyd’s attorneys had already contacted him,” he said callously of Peterson’s father. And along the way there was a meandering discussion about the case and various other matters with a mostly uninterested court commissioner.
Peterson was not an angel. He reportedly was trying to sell 50 Xanax tablets and reportedly had a gun. An investigation is in the process of deciding whether that warranted deputies firing 34 shots and whether a life is the appropriate cost for such a wager. Those are important questions that touch upon policing policies and racial justice.
But in many ways, Zimmerman’s comments raise questions that are equally important. Like whether you trust the judicial system if you are Black or Hispanic or Asian or Native American. “We find ourselves wondering how we can instill confidence in our clients and ourselves that equitable access to justice is achievable in Clark County,” read a statement from the Clark County Volunteer Lawyers Program, which called for Zimmerman’s resignation.
And in many ways, Zimmerman’s comments are particularly revelatory. Because what happens in open court, when others are present and all statements are placed on the record, can mask prejudices that rest underneath. They can mask inherent biases that are just as damaging and insidious as blatant racism. Character, it is said, is what you do when nobody is watching. For most of us, the distinction is negligible; for a judge, who has the power to make life-altering decisions, it is impossible to ignore.
After The Columbian’s Editorial Board called for Zimmerman’s resignation, one reader emailed me: “What legal judgment or case law did he rule on? Was Zimmerman hearing a case involving Peterson? … Judges at all levels in our justice system make comments like this behind closed doors with courtroom employees and lawyers during a trial.”
Which in a backwards fashion proves the point. It is long past time that we stop excusing public entities or suggesting that incidents of bias are isolated and don’t influence other decisions. It is long past time for us to call out bigotry in our judicial and policing and banking and health care and education systems. These are not private businesses that can be ignored; they are public institutions that inherently reflect our values.
Getting to such a point can be difficult. But we can start by asking whether we would trust the system if we were Black. And then we can give an honest answer.