Let it be noted that on Saturday, July 13, 2013, it was still deemed legal in the United States to chase and then shoot an unarmed, young black man dead on his way home from the store because you didn’t like the look of him. The death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin last year was tragic. But in the age of Obama, the acquittal of George Zimmerman at the weekend offers at least that clarity.
For the salient facts in this case were not in dispute. On February 26, 2012, in Sanford, Florida, Martin was on his way home minding his own business, armed only with a can of sweet ice tea and a bag of skittles. Zimmerman pursued him, armed with a 9mm handgun, believing him to be a criminal. Trayvon resisted. They fought. Zimmerman shot him dead.
Who screamed, who was strongest, who called whom what and when and why are all details to warm the heart of a cable news producer with 24 hours to fill. Strip them all away and the truth remains that Trayvon’s heart would still be beating if Zimmerman had not chased him down and shot him.
There is no doubt about who the initial aggressor was here. In court, Zimmerman’s lawyers claimed self-defence. But the only reason the two interacted at all, physically or otherwise, is because it appears that Zimmerman believed it was his civic duty to apprehend an innocent teenager whose presence alone caused suspicion.
So a verdict has been delivered. Zimmerman has been found not guilty of murder and manslaughter. But justice has not been done. Zimmerman’s acquittal sparked demonstrations across the country most of which were peaceful. As the news came in late, the party of mainly African Americans that I was at in Chicago, turned into an embittered wake. The music stopped. The conversation started. People cried. Referring to slain icons during the civil rights era, the Martin family spokesman, Benjamin Crump, told reporters: “Trayvon Martin will forever remain in the annals of history next to Medgar Evers and Emmett Till as symbols for the fight for equal justice for all.” But there was this key difference. Back then there was a civil rights movement to take up their case. And channel the frustration.
Appeals for calm in the wake of such a verdict beg the question what calm can there possibly be in a place where such a verdict is possible? Parents of black boys are not likely to feel calm. Partners of black men are not likely to feel calm. Children with black fathers are not likely to feel calm.
Those who now fear violent social disorder must ask themselves whose interests are served by a violent social order in which young black men can be thus slain and discarded? While the acquittal was shameful, it was not a shock. It took more than six weeks after Martin’s death to arrest Zimmerman and only then after huge pressure both nationally and locally. The case was severely weakened by the fact that while the state brought the prosecution, the police who had originally dealt with him had been reluctant to arrest or charge him, providing plenty of scope for reasonable doubt.
But those who dismissed this as a political trial (a peculiar accusation in the summer that brought Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden) should bear in mind that it was the politics of the gun lobby that made the case controversial in the first place. Charging Zimmerman should have been a no-brainer. They did not originally do so because Florida has a “stand your ground” law (favoured and promoted by the National Rifle Association and its allies) whereby deadly force is permitted if the person “reasonably believes” it is necessary to protect their own life, the life of another or to prevent a forcible felony.
Politics ran through the case like a stick of rock and would have done whether Zimmerman had been arrested or not and found innocent or guilty. So it was a political trial. But it was not a show trial. There are questions to answer here. Since it was Zimmerman who stalked Martin, the question remains, what ground is a young black man entitled to? And on what grounds may he defend himself? What version of events are there for that night in which Martin gets away with his life? Or is it open season on black boys after dark? Zimmerman’s not guilty verdict will be contested for years to come. But he passed judgment on Trayvon that night summarily. “******* punks,” Zimmerman told the police dispatcher that night. “These *******. They always get away.” So true it’s painful. And so painful it hurts. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2013