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In a Colorblind Society, Did Trayvon Martin Have a Right to Stand His Ground?

March 30, 2012 04:53:00 am
Comments (18)

By Delores Jones-Brown

I am both a former prosecutor and the mother of a 15 year old son.  When my son was little, like most moms, I told him to beware of strangers; that even in a nice neighborhood, like ours, a pedophile might drive through looking for a child victim.  I told him to watch out for strangers, even in nice neighborhoods, because once he was inside the trunk of a car, I might not be able to help him.

Trayvon Martin was seventeen years old and, based on the photos, not very big—like my son. 

Based on media accounts and the reports of the 911 calls, he was walking through a nice, but unfamiliar neighborhood, talking on his cell phone when a strange adult male began to follow him in a SUV.  At one point, he thought he had lost him, but the male reappeared following him again.  This time the man, who was nearly twice his size (in body mass), got out of the vehicle, approached him, and had a gun.

Under Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, Trayvon was allowed to stand his ground and use force to defend himself.  If the gun was visible as George Zimmerman approached him, Trayvon would have been allowed to use deadly force against Zimmerman. 

Previous cases in Florida have upheld subjective, though mistaken, beliefs about the danger presented to the person who feels threatened.  Under the law, as the aggressor in this situation, Zimmerman had no right of self-defense.

Why was Zimmerman the aggressor?

1)    The police dispatcher had advised him not to follow or approach Trayvon Martin.

2)    On the 911 call, Zimmerman initially said that he was concerned about break-ins in the area.  Deadly force is not legally authorized to protect property.

3)    Zimmerman said that he thought the “suspect” might be high or using drugs. Both are offenses that do not warrant the use of deadly force in apprehension efforts.

4)    Zimmerman also said, “Those assholes always get away. . .,”  which clearly indicates that he had decided that Trayvon was guilty of something—he was no longer merely a “suspect.”  So his approach, whether with his gun in hand or concealed, was with the intent to confront a “criminal.” Such an approach would be aggressive rather than passive. 

To Trayvon, Zimmerman was a stranger.  The media has made much of the fact that there are no other witnesses to what happened except George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin.  That would mean that this child was being approached on an isolated street by a strange adult, with a gun, driving a big vehicle.

Zimmerman is a threat, and Trayvon is in the fight of his young life—perhaps in the belief that he is fighting for his life.

Ironically, I have not yet seen this version of the Trayvon Martin case portrayed in the media.  Standard media analysis of this incident begins with Zimmerman’s claim of self-defense and the applicability of the “stand your ground” law to Zimmerman.  Did Trayvon have no right to be afraid of this strange, large man, with a gun, who had been following him for some time, in a vehicle large enough to abduct him?

A Department of Justice report from 2002 notes that in one year nearly 800,000 children under age 18 are reported missing, nearly 60,000 of them are reported as abducted by a stranger.  Was this high school football player required to stand idly by to wait to see what this aggressive stranger planned to do to him?

 Or, did the statute allow him to defend himself, as the Sanford Police Department was satisfied that Zimmerman had a right to do?[1]

A Republican sponsor of the “stand your ground” law has indicated in media accounts that, based on the information currently available about the incident, he does not believe that the “stand your ground” law applies to Zimmerman.  It seems that no one has yet asked whether the law would have applied for the protection of Trayvon Martin.

That was a colorblind analysis of the incident for those who choose to believe that race had nothing to do with this encounter.

Now for some ugly race facts. 

For nearly two and a half centuries the right of self-defense did not apply to African Americans against attackers under the laws of many states (See Browne-Marshall, 2007) and, after emancipation a noted writer named Hinton Rowan Helper referred to African Americans as “Negroes. . .with their crime-stained Blackness” (Muhammad, 2010 at p. 16), when discussing why Blacks should not be allowed to vote and why racial segregation was paramount in social relations. 

EDITORS NOTE: sources for above references can be found at the end of this essay.

In 2004, Stanford University Professor Jennifer Eberhardt and her colleagues wrote an article titled: “Seeing Black: Race, Crime and Visual Processing,” in which she presents the results of several recent psychological studies that found race effects exist in all of our daily thinking and especially with regard to the association between Blackness, crime and perceptions of danger.

So in the end, this encounter isn’t really about the hoodie; any racial proxy will do. 

This historical and scientific background begs the question:  If the racial roles were reversed in the Trayvon Martin killing, would the criminal justice system response be the same?  

One might look to the 2006 Long Island, New York case involving John Harris White for a possible answer.  In that case, an African American father shoots a White teenager who is in his driveway.  The White teenager, Daniel Cicciaro, age 17, had come to John White’s home with a group of other White teenagers to attack John White’s 19-year-old son after an altercation that had taken place at a different location. 

Although John White claimed that he had acted in self-defense when he pointed a gun at Cicciaro and, that the gun had accidentally discharged when Cicciaro tried to grab it, John White was arrested, tried and convicted of manslaughter and was sentenced to two to four years in prison.[2]  John White served five months in prison before his sentence was commuted by Governor Patterson.

In that incident, John White’s family was under attack at their own home.  The “castle doctrine” on which the “stand your ground” law is based, provides the greatest protection for persons who are threatened at their homes, but John White was arrested, tried, convicted and sentenced to prison. 

George Zimmerman is free, and a blanket of racially-tinged controversy hovers over private and media discussions of whether George Zimmerman deserves to be punished and, in some circles, whether Trayvon Martin deserved to die. 


Browne-Marshall, G. (2007). Race, Law and American Society: 1607 to Present. Routledge Publishers.

Eberhardt, J., P. Goff, V. Purdie & P. Davies (2004). “Seeing Black: Race, Crime and Visual Processing.”Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 87(6), p. 876-893 

Muhammad, K.G. (2010). The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime and the Making of Modern Urban America.  Harvard University Press.

 Sedlak, A., D. Finkelhor, H. Hammer and D. Schultz (2002).  National Estimates of Missing Children: An Overview. U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Table 7, p. 10.

Delores Jones-Brown is a professor in the Department of Law, Police Science and Criminal Justice Administration at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, and former director of the John Jay Center on Race, Crime and Justice. The above essay is based on remarks delivered to a March 27, 2012 “Teach-in” at John Jay. She welcomes comments from readers. 

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Posted by Ann Castro
Monday, April 23, 2012 11:53

Whether or not the issue of race comes into play for the decisions concerning not charging Zimmerman for the crime he committed, the main issue has been these were two people standing up for what felt right in the oment. This doesn’t justify the outcome, however. Zimmerman was wrong for not adhering to police instruction. He shouldn’t followed the young man and even if he wanted to, it was clearly not his job to attack him. An impulsive decision to take matters into your own hands can have negative consequences as is the case here. Now there are two lives lost. The murder of a young man and the hurt that will follow his loved ones and the stigma attached to a man who may have thought he was “helping his neighborhood.”

Posted by Darn
Saturday, April 21, 2012 08:22

Let’s see…Zimmerman determined from his 911 call that: Martin looked like a druggy, was a black teen, up to no good, and was one of those “always gets away”, criminals. He says that Martin is coming towards him and staring at him, than he says he’s running away towards the back entrance. So is he coming towards him or running away? He clearly says under his breath " these F’ing Coons. He is angry that “they always get away”. He admits to chasing him. The dispatcher offers George to meet the cops by the mailboxes, first George says “fine”, and quickly retorts to just have them call him. He is obviously chasing him and doesn’t therefore know where he’ll be. My questions would be, did Martin pin him on the ground because the gun was already in Zimmermans hand? Was he trying to hold his hands down, one holding the gun, and push his head against the ground to keep from getting shot? I’ve read that Martin was holding his hands down, so if that is true, how did George manage to get his gun out of its holster or belt to shoot him?? I contend the gun was already in George’s hand. It is also possible that it was Trayvon screaming for help at the same time he was fighting for HIS life. We may not have good witnesses, but I believe the 911 call tells the story. Oh yes and I am “white”. I think that the other information the commenter’s have made regarding crime statistics, are irrelevant to this case. That is just fodder to justify a neigborhood watch man’s bad judgement and hence killing.

Posted by Russ Cole
Saturday, April 21, 2012 05:59

Be patient! Thnere is probably more to Travon than meets the eye. I realize sometimes bad things happen to good people. What was Travon doing besides “WALKING HOME”? I don’t think race is a factor here but, I do not have the savvy to prove it. The media is trying to make this a RACE issue, but, you must understand I’ve (and I’m sure you) have seen bad things happen to latino, oriental, white AND colored.

Many times, if you look for or provoke problems, you most likely will find them.

The very young photos of Travon show a nice looking little boy. He is 17 now, handsome, but…

Posted by Paul
Tuesday, April 10, 2012 02:11

This is a very insightful and helpful piece. However, this statement is incorrect: “A Department of Justice report from 2002 notes that in one year nearly….nearly 60,000 [children] are reported as abducted by a stranger.” Stranger abductions are actually extremely rare. The same report you cite above notes, “During the study year, there were an estimated 115 stereotypical kidnappings, defined as abductions perpetrated
by a stranger or slight acquaintance” That is 115— not nearly 60,000. You are confusing stranger abductions with non-family abductions.
Fear of stranger abduction leads people to be unnecessarily afraid in their own neighborhoods, so it’s important that we set the record straight.

Posted by Steve Russell
Tuesday, April 10, 2012 01:45

While there are few of us, you are not the only one to point this out: http://theragblog.blogspot.com/2012/03/steve-russell-questions-of-law-in.html
If it makes a difference, I am a state criminal court judge and associate professor emeritus of criminal justice. But this ain’t rocket science.

Posted by joe
Monday, April 09, 2012 10:48

Trayvon Martin Case Spotlights Florida Town’s History Of ‘Sloppy’ Police Work.

 “They’re notorious for mishandling investigations, not doing any follow-ups on various leads, or saying that they can’t get any leads,” said Turner Clayton, president of the local branch of the NAACP. “When a victim’s loved one asks for an update, the only thing they can say is, ‘We don’t have anything now,’" he said. "Seems like they never get anything at all.”

Sgt. David Morgenstern, a Sanford police spokesman, declined to respond to questions about the Trayvon Martin shooting or allegations of sloppy work in other cases. “We’re not going to be able to comment on any of that,” Morgenstern told The Huffington Post.

Critics of the local police are now seeing their complaints echo on a national stage, with a chorus of prominent civil rights leaders, pundits and politicians joining to denounce the initial Martin investigation as rushed and careless — and biased in favor of Zimmerman. A special state prosecutor and federal authorities are leading the probe of the Martin shooting, and local police face intense outside scrutiny over their interpretation of Florida’s Stand Your Ground law as well as what experts call a failure to follow basic police procedure.

Among other things, George Zimmerman, 28, was not subject to a criminal background check until after he was released from custody. A possible racial slur muttered by Zimmerman on a 911 call was overlooked. Nearly a week passed before important witnesses were interviewed by the police. Perhaps most crucially, investigators failed to access Martin’s cell phone records for weeks.


Posted by Lisa Simon
Wednesday, April 04, 2012 01:58

D. Tubb – February 26, was a Sunday and this happened in the evening. Neither you nor Zimmerman would know what he was doing there and it wouldn’t be either of your businesses. You hear later that the young man was suspended for possible drug possession and that means that someone has the right to kill him? You are obviously an idiot. Get back to the facts at your disposal. If it makes you feel better to take the race and names out, let’s try it that way. No one has the right to chase anyone with a gun, not at the very least be able to identify themself as law enforcement (not always to be trusted either – and I have never committed a crime) and expect the other person, black, white, short, tall, fat or skinny or whatever and expect the person being acted aggressively against to put their life in that person’s hands. I doubt you would consider yourself answerable to me. Why do you believe Trayvon needed to explain his existence to someone who looks like a gang member (even Zimmerman’s “clean” photos make him look like a gang member)? Idiot

Think about what you have heard a little more before you find some lame reason to support someone’s right to take your life into their hands. Theft, even in the Bible, is not grounds for murder. Drug possession isn’t a reason to be killed either, especially since the only drug he had on him was sugar.

Posted by D.Tubb
Wednesday, April 04, 2012 06:35

Ms.Brown makes some good points while ignoring others. Treyvon Martin was not a small kid, he was a tall kid and a kid that had been ejected from school for suspected drug possession. Why was he wandering through this area, why was he not at school?, It was because the authorities at that school felt that he was, by his very conduct, a threat to the other students at that school, and that was why he was in this area. Some might say it doesn’t matter, I would say this fact was substantially. This made him suspect I would imagine, as it would any kid, most of us see wandering around anywhere on a school day. Did race play a roll? Absolutely it did, but I believe it did on both Trevon Martains part as well as George Zimmermans, there appeared to be instant distrust of each other by both party’s, and judging from the reports from the police dispatcher and also from the girl to whom Trevon Martain was speaking to at the time. Both verbally indicated that before a word to each other was ever spoken.They were both clearly afraid of each other. Race played a part alright, both made a judgement call based on it. I don’t know what happened behind that building, did Trevon Martin in fact stand his ground and strike George Zimmerman as George Zimmerman claims because of this fear, or did George Zimmerman attack Trevon Martin because of his fear. What I do know is what led up to Trevon Martin being there in the first place, and what led George Zimmerman to be there, crime. If words been exchanged at the beginning, maybe the fear could have been stilled in both and both would be resuming their lives.

Posted by W Richards
Tuesday, April 03, 2012 09:03

This is a post from a friend of mine over on newsvine.com:

I have approached this situation just using common sense and the obligations of those involved. I know it makes little sense that way, but I’ll explain:
Treyvon Martin: 17 yrs, walking home – obligations: walk home
Zimmerman: 28 yrs, Neighborhood Watch – obligations: local laws, NW rules & policies, and per P.D.
In a situation where one of the people is acting under any color of authority, there are rules that say what he can and/or cannot do while acting under such authority.
Zimmerman, while acting as Neighborhood Watch was obligated to adhere to the rules and policies of the Neighborhood Watch. One of the rules regards engagement: Neighborhood Watch volunteers are never to engage a suspect. They are only to report and then let the Police do their jobs.
At no time, until after Zimmerman placed Martin in the position to participate in a physical altercation did Martin fail to meet his obligation to walk home. He violated no laws, committed no crime. Had Martin of been in the commission of crime Zimmerman may have been able to throw off his Neighborhood Watch cape and don the cape of Citizen making a “Citizens Arrest” but that did not happen.
So, acting under color of authority of the Neighborhood Watch, Zimmerman broke the rules of engagement and his negligence in doing so created the situation of the death of Treyvon Martin. I do not believe this a racially motivated matter. Not that Zimmerman is not racist, he appears from reports to be racist.
This appears to be more a case of stupidity in which, Zimmerman thinks it is appropriate for him to play Cop, plain clothes, unmarked car, no badge, carrying a concealed weapon. And multi-part negligence. Everybody from the agency that issued Zimmerman a CCW with his history, the Homeowners Association that allowed him to roam their streets, and the individual home owners that had knowledge of Zimmerman on their streets shares liability for Zimmerman’s negligence.
I know of no place in the U.S. that a Citizen can lawfully patrol public streets, in plain clothes, in an unmarked car, with a concealed weapon. And, there are even less places that this same person can lawfully approach/engage another Citizen, without it creating the right of self-defense for the citizen engaged. Martin clearly had the “Stand Your Ground” law on his side, and was lawful in any attempt made to use it.
Just because you lost the fight does not mean you did not have the right.

Posted by jr
Tuesday, April 03, 2012 03:26

This essay is based on spin from constantly changing media accounts and race hustlers. The professor should be focusing on due process and the rule of law and not using misinformed speculation to make such snap judgments.

Posted by Pete
Tuesday, April 03, 2012 02:02

The irony is this essay is a result of a “teach-in”.

Ms. Jones-Brown’s essay best shows that New York has a flawed judicial system in the White case. Of course that case was actually investigated and then adjudicated.

The Zimmerman case may have had some preliminary investigation, but has since become a circus that prevents the arrested Mr. Zimmerman from ever receiving a fair trial. Ms. Jones-Brown’s uninformed, speculative essay does teach a lesson that subverting our justice system is the surest way to eliminate the voice of both the victim and the accused offender.

Posted by Michael
Monday, April 02, 2012 01:49

I submit that the author, as a law professor, might want to do a little more homework. The facts in this case are unclear. Simply outlining a new set of possibilities and characterizing them in the best light for Martin doesn’t make them true or instructive. 1) We do not know if Zimmerman approached Martin with gun drawn. Zimmerman say’s he pulled it out after he was on the ground with Martin on top of him. We don’t know. They were the only two there in the dark. But it is at least plausible that Martin would not have decided upon seeing an obviously armed man twice his size approaching to “stand his ground.” 2) Zimmerman has never claimed he was trying to use deadly force to protect property, only to defend himself when over-powered by the 6’3" Martin. Showing Martin’s old little league picture seems to be a disingenuous attempt to obscure the physical realities. 3) There is no evidence Zimmerman ever tried to apprehend Martin. All we know is that ultimately, they were joined in a physical altercation. It is at least possible, that Zimmerman was, as he claimed before and after the event, trying to protect the neighborhood from yet another break-in by monitoring what he considered suspicious activity. 4) The example of New York handling a dissimilar case differently is irrelevant. First, New York isn’t Florida, and the laws of each state are very different regarding gun-carry and self-protection. Second, Zimmerman’s claim isn’t a ‘stand your ground’ defense, it’s a simple self-defense claim against a perceived threat of serious bodily injury. I don’t know what happened out there. But neither do you professor. As students of the law, who wish to inform the public of the related legal issues, I believe it’s important to make those points of law in an objective, thorough way. Sadly, that was not done in this article.

One last point. It is utterly undeniable that our country has a very tragic history of racial discrimination, and discrimination in many forms continues today. There are great and serious racial inequities across society, and in many of our institutions. The criminal justice system is certainly being one of the main areas of concern. That said, the author’s discussion of what she told her teenage son, reminded me of what I told my son and daughter, except I went further and for good reason. I told them people will respond to your appearance and behavior. You can whine that it is unfair, but if you look like a thug, or a skank, or a criminal, or a threat, people will respond to you in ways you probably won’t like. They may not hire you for instance, or the nice boy you like may not give you the time of day, and particularly in the case of my 6-foot son, I told him that if you scare people, they may go defensive, and that can be bad for you. It’s not about rights – we all have the right to be quite obnoxious – but people have a right to react, and sometimes, what happens isn’t pretty.

I don’t know what happened out there. I sure hope it wasn’t a case of a Hispanic man chasing down a black kid and killing him. But there are more lessons to be learned than just assuming it was purely a racial killing, ranting about the inequity, while also refusing to consider the other possibilities so that a more complete understanding can be gleaned.

Posted by Heather
Sunday, April 01, 2012 06:43

I have said the same from the very beginning. Assuming Trayvon beat his head into the ground and broke his nose he was clearly at liberty under the law and circumstances. Zimmerman should be in jail under a murder charge-he staled the child -he killed the child. The only one that had a clear right to self-defense was Trayvon.

Posted by ricky
Saturday, March 31, 2012 11:36

   How has the main stream media portrayed Martin ? A little 12 year old boy , and zimmerman as a racist white man . fact is martin was 6 ft 3in and 160 pounds zimmerman was 5ft8 in and 250 pounds . martin could have easily lost zimmmerman and called police with his concerns . but instead supposedly he calls his girlfriend .WHY ? because his people have told him cops are not the black mans friend ,stupid people !!! As for this article , this women is a racist her self for not seeing the facts but wanting to incite anger ,just as sharpon and jackson are doing . why is it that all the young black men of the age of 13 to 25 are so mad at the white man , ill tell you why , its because our schools are not allowed to teach history as it really was . the white man did buy the blacks as slaves however those slaves were in fact slaves to there own people in africa . but this isnt told as they would have no one to blame for thier issues in life .the democratic party has and will continue to distort history so as to keep the black man down and dependent on the goverment its thier only voteing block they can count on . there have been so many brutal black on white attacks in the past few mts yet we hear nothing about them , an 80 year old women was beaten and raped by a young black male . a white girl was attacked and severly beaten , nothing in the news . a white man was shot in his dorm by 3 black men ,nothing in the news . a white man in NC was badly beaten by 6 count them 6 black men outside a reasturant the 17 of march nothing in the news . im sick of the double standard in this country . no matter who you are or what color of your skin act like a grown up and a decent person and youll get respect act like a thug and you get thug treatment . i feel for travon and his parents no child should die in this way . but lets get then in perspective blacks commit 90% of the crime in this country , they kill thier own kind and there is no outrage from the press or the race baiters sharpton and jackson . MARTIN LUTHER KING JR would be so disappointed in his race these days .

Posted by delores jones-brown
Saturday, March 31, 2012 08:08

Im not sure of the “our” that Lara is referring to but her statistics are simply not accurate. In addition, across all racial groups the percent and number of people who engage in serious crime is extremely low. See for example a City like New York that boasts of its low crime rate but stops 700,000 mostly Black and Latino people, 90 percent of whom are innocent, claiming that that will keep the crime rate low. Why does Lara think it is okay to indict an entire race based on the activities of a few individuals? We don’t do that with white crime, we don’t even talk about white crime yet in this past week alone there have been several reports of heinous murders committed by white offenders. On a slightly different note, the information I saw indicated that Trayvon was 140 lbs. I saw no information that George Zimmerman was polite when he approached Trayvon. The fact that he took a gun to the encounter and had already referred to him as an “asshole” during the 911 call suggests otherwise.

Posted by Tara
Friday, March 30, 2012 05:16

so what makes me angry is thatn if the shoe had been on the other foot there would have been no hesitation in arresting Trayvon for shooting Zimmerman. I am further disturebed by the comments to this artical. I have a 14 year old son who is white and likes the “thug” life and thinks of crazy names to call himself all the time. Does that make him a threat to socioty because he thinks that has a cool factor. He has been raised to know the differnce between right an wrong. Does that stop him from doing tings wrong? He is a kid. I am inclined to beleive that justice should be blind but in the good ol USA there are differnt kinds of justice; one for the rich and the poor, one for the white man and the black man it’s not equal.

Posted by Lara
Friday, March 30, 2012 01:37

So you think that when you are attacked by a 6ft 3, 160 bl young black man, dressed and acting like a gangsta, who instead of answering your polite questions punches you in the face; and nobody comes to your aid, you should simply do nothing to defend yourself??

>>Black males between 16 and 36, though only 2 to 3 percent of the population, are responsible for a third of all our crimes.

“Together, blacks and Hispanics accounted for 98 percent of gun assaults. Translated: If a cabdriver is going to be mugged or murdered in New York City by a fare, 49 times out of 50 his assailant or killer will be black or Hispanic. Fernando Mateo of the New York State Federation of Taxi Drivers has told his drivers, “Profile your passengers” for your own protection. “The God’s honest truth is that 99 percent of the people that are robbing, stealing, killing these guys are blacks and Hispanics.” Fernando Mateo is himself black and Hispanic."" — Its all about race now, Townhall.com <<


Investigate: Miami Gardens residents: Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton Denial that @NO_LIMIT_NIGGA is Trayvon Martin’s twitter account.

Denying that @NO_LIMIT_NIGGA was their son’s twitter account is a lie; and an accurate represenation of their son as a ‘typical teen’, should include the representation of his sometime or frequent ‘typical wanna-be-gangsta teen’ dreams and behaviour.


Posted by Jeffrey P. Rush
Friday, March 30, 2012 11:32

I would at some level agree here. Certainly had Mr. Martin not been the initial aggressor, he would have had the right to stand his ground. This is not to say that I think he was being aggressive in any way, though there are eyewitness reports that suggest he did confront Mr. Zimmerman.

Most of the pictures I’ve seen of Mr. Martin are not of his current age and status and size. Indeed most of the reportage about him portray a sweet, little 12 yo boy. He was 17, with several school related problems and at least a fascination with the thug life (in part supported by his father, evident of some of the pictures of the two of them). Again, not reasons to be killed for.

Much is made here and elsewhere of Mr. Zimmerman being told to follow Mr. Martin. The dispatcher’s suggestion was just that. It had no weight of law, Zimmerman didn’t have to follow those directions. That said, there’s some evidence that he did just that, and in returning to his vehicle to (apparently) wait for the cops, he was confronted by Mr. Martin.

While the author here quotes several reports she conveniently ignores the stats that suggest that crime was pretty significant in Mr. Zimmerman’s community and that much crime generally, including much violent crime is committed by people who looked like Mr. Martin.

It might be refreshing to a) let the system do what it does and b) be satisfied with those results, whatever they may be.

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