Race has once again torn a deep gash through the conscience of the United States. Protesters took to the streets across the U.S. this week after a Florida jury acquitted a gun-toting “neighbourhood watch officer” of second-degree murder despite his shooting dead an unarmed 17-year-old African-American, Trayvon Martin, in February last year. The decision to set George Zimmerman free raises troubling questions about whether this multiracial nation can ever transcend its painful history of slavery and ugly, persisting racial hatred. There are two aspects of this polarising case that matter to the debate. The first relates to the limitations of the criminal justice system stemming from the formidable legal protections that many U.S. States have instituted favouring ultra-liberal gun ownership rights. The success of conservative lobbies in hectoring into law some version of the “Stand Your Ground” provision in Florida and 33 other States has hobbled the prosecution of ‘white on black’ gun crimes. In Florida, Stand Your Ground imposed no legal duty upon Mr. Zimmerman to retreat, but granted the right to apply deadly force if he “reasonably believed” that it was necessary to prevent his death or bodily harm. Further, the Florida police anticipated Mr. Zimmerman’s sound legal standing under the aegis of this law and refused to arrest him for an astonishing 44 days after the killing, until a major national campaign forced their hand. By that time, however, some evidence was lost. When the judge banned prosecution lawyers from describing Mr. Zimmerman’s intention in going after Mr. Martin as “racial profiling,” acquittal was all but certain.
The second undercurrent — and one that President Barack Obama’s call for post-verdict calm conveniently sidestepped — is the deeper narrative of crime and punishment in the U.S., which is intimately interwoven with the fabric of racism and manifested in everything from capital sentencing to incarceration rates. What about Mr. Martin’s right to stand his ground as he faced down his abuse-hurling stalker? If the roles were reversed, would an armed African-American man have faced the same odds of acquittal? The statistics behind this sort of encounter would terrify any African-American parent. According to data compiled by the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, an African-American is killed by state-sanctioned violence every 28 hours. In 2012 alone 313 African-Americans were reportedly killed by the police, security guards and vigilantes, most of whom got off lightly. The message that emerged from this verdict was only one: if you’re African-American and are set up against someone who isn’t, then there is literally not a square inch of ground for you to stand on.