“Until the killing of black men, black mothers’ sons, becomes as important to the rest of the country as the killing of a white mother’s son, we who believe in freedom [& justice] cannot rest until this happens.” –Ella Baker, 1964
In a way, the not-guilty verdict in the trial of George Zimmerman for his killing of Trayvon Martin was more powerful than a guilty verdict could ever have been. It was the perfect wrenching coda to a story that illustrates just how utterly and completely our system of justice — both moral and legal — failed Martin and his family.
This is not to dispute the jury’s finding — one can intellectually rationalize the decision — as much as it is to howl at the moon, to yearn for a brighter reality for the politics around dark bodies, to raise a voice and say, this case is a rallying call, not a death dirge.
The system began to fail Martin long before that night.
The system failed him when Florida’s self-defense laws were written, allowing an aggressor to claim self-defense in the middle of an altercation — and to use deadly force in that defense — with no culpability for his role in the events that led to that point.
The system failed him because of the disproportionate force that he and the neighborhood watchman could legally bring to the altercation — Zimmerman could legally carry a concealed firearm, while Martin, who was only 17, could not.
The system failed him when the neighborhood watchman grafted on stereotypes the moment he saw him, ascribing motive and behavior and intent and criminal history to a boy who was just walking home.
The system failed him when the bullet ripped through his chest, and the man who shot him said he mounted him and stretched his arms out wide, preventing him from even clutching the spot that hurt.
The system failed him in those moments just after he was shot when he was surely aware that he was about to die, but before life’s light fully passed from his body — and no one came to comfort him or try to save him.
The system failed him when the slapdash Sanford police did a horrible job of collecting and preserving evidence.
The system failed him when those officers apparently didn’t even value his dead body enough to adequately canvass the complex to make sure that no one was missing a teen.
The system failed him when he was labeled a John Doe and his lifeless body spent the night alone and unclaimed.
The system failed him when the man who the police found standing over the body of a dead teenager, a man who admitted to shooting him and still had the weapon, was taken in for questioning and then allowed to walk out of the precinct without an arrest or even a charge, to go home after taking a life and take to his bed.
The system failed him when it took more than 40 days and an outpouring of national outrage to get an arrest.
The system failed him when a strangely homogenous jury — who may well have been Zimmerman’s peers but were certainly not the peers of the teenager, who was in effect being tried in absentia — was seated.
The system failed him when the prosecution put on a case for the Martin family that many court-watchers found wanting.
The system failed him when the discussion about bias became so reductive as to be either-or rather than about situational fluidity and the possibility of varying responses to varying levels of perceived threat.
The system failed him when everyone in the courtroom raised racial bias in roundabout ways, but almost never directly — for example, when the defense held up a picture of a shirtless Martin and told the jurors that this was the person Zimmerman encountered the night he shot him. But in fact it was not the way Zimmerman had seen Martin. Consciously or subconsciously, the defense played on an old racial trope: asking the all-female jury — mostly white — to fear the image of the glistening black buck, as Zimmerman had.
This case is not about an extraordinary death of an extraordinary person. Unfortunately, in America, people are lost to gun violence every day. Many of them look like Martin and have parents who presumably grieve for them. This case is about extraordinary inequality in the presumption of innocence and the application of justice: why was Martin deemed suspicious and why was his killer allowed to go home?
Sometimes people just need a focal point. Sometimes that focal point becomes a breaking point.
The idea of universal suspicion without individual evidence is what Americans find abhorrent and what black men in America must constantly fight. It is pervasive in policing policies — like stop-and-frisk, and in this case neighborhood watch — regardless of the collateral damage done to the majority of innocents. It’s like burning down a house to rid it of mice.
As a parent, particularly a parent of black teenage boys, I am left with the question, “Now, what do I tell my boys?”
We used to say not to run in public because that might be seen as suspicious, like they’d stolen something. But according to Zimmerman, Martin drew his suspicion at least in part because he was walking too slowly.
So what do I tell my boys now? At what precise pace should a black man walk to avoid suspicion?
And can they ever stop walking away, or running away, and simply stand their ground? Can they become righteously indignant without being fatally wounded?
Is there anyplace safe enough, or any cargo innocent enough, for a black man in this country? Martin was where he was supposed to be — in a gated community — carrying candy and a canned drink.
The whole system failed Martin. What prevents it from failing my children, or yours?
I feel that I must tell my boys that, but I can’t. It’s stuck in my throat. It’s an impossibly heartbreaking conversation to have. So, I sit and watch in silence, and occasionally mouth the word, “breathe,” because I keep forgetting to.
RELATED, RECOMMENDED READING (with excerpts):
National Bar Association Issues Statement on Zimmerman Trial Verdict| NBA (Press Release)
We are extremely disappointed by the verdict in the case of State of Florida v. George Zimmerman. As lawyers we respect the rule of law, but in this instance the Zimmerman verdict sadly highlights the continued injustices Black Americans face in the U.S. legal system.
An Open Letter to George Zimmerman | Alex Fraser
Dear George Zimmerman, For the rest of your life you are now going to feel what its like to be a black man in America.
…I bet you never thought that by shooting a black male you’d end up inheriting all of his struggles.
For Trayvon, Is There No Justice? –By Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite | WashPost
This verdict is at once so shocking and so expected to me that without a doubt it exposes the lie at the heart of the American ‘criminal justice’ system. We do not have, especially where African Americans are concerned, a “justice” system. It is often an injustice system that results in unequal treatment.
Perversely, in fact, it seems that 17-year old Trayvon Martin was just found guilty of his own shooting death. Is this justice? Is this right?
No Peace for Zimmerman, Because the Rest of Us Suffer | Stephen Henderson
My job is typically to make policy sense of news events. But here, I’m at a loss. As a parent, as an African American, I can’t get much past thinking Zimmerman has earned every day of the hell his life should be from here on out. Injustice? I hope it visits with him often.
…Zimmerman just proved that even in 2012, if you get out of your car to chase and kill a black teen who was committing no crime, you will not be called to answer for it. Any 17-year-old should be able to walk home from the store and not get shot. The Florida jury denied that basic right to Martin, and to millions of other American kids.
An Open Letter to Juror B-37 on Zimmerman | Trial Social Court TV
…I find your desire to write a book after you set a child murderer free to be disgusting and that’s why I repeat the insult. You are a racist and could never think about what Trayvon Martin might have been thinking or feeling. Perhaps you need to read my Closing Argument.
You talked about how sorry you felt for George Zimmerman’s life, through your tears. Anderson Cooper had to collect himself when he realized you were only crying for “Georgie” and asked, “Do you feel sorry for Trayvon?,” to which you replied, “I feel sorry for both.”
That’s how we know you’re a disgusting human being. I’m glad you said you will never serve on another jury. Please don’t. There is enough injustice in this world.
Ugly Echoes of Subway Vigilante Case in George Zimmerman Acquittal -By Randolph McLaughlin | Guardian UK
And just as in Goetz’s trial, the nearly all-white jury in Zimmerman’s was asked to empathize with the source of their fears, a demographic that New Yorkers and all Americans have been socialized to associate with crime, even though Trayvon Martin was an honors’ student with a promising future. The closest person to a witness the prosecution had, Rachel Jeantel, was viciously torn apart by both the defense and the public for her use of slang, and her inability to read cursive. Meanwhile, Zimmerman’s white, upper-middle-class character witnesses vouched for his good standing.
It is easy to claim “beyond a reasonable doubt” is the sole reason why George Zimmerman walks free. And it may help us to feel assured that he had a legal right to shoot the boy he pursued that night with a pistol tucked into his waistband.
But from the duration of prison sentences and rates of conviction for non-violent offenses, to the disparities in application of the death penalty, to the hundreds of thousands of stops-and-frisks that are documented in New York each year, evidence of racial bias in our criminal justice system is impossible to overlook, absent willful blindness. Race is a factor in the courts whether we acknowledge it or not.
Open Season on Black Boys After a Verdict Like This -By Gary Younge, in Chicago | Guardian UK
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 is there for that night in which Martin gets away with his life? Or is it open season on black boys after dark?
SUSPICIOUS: The Death of Trayvon Martin (Short Documentary)