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There are many moments in time where no amount of empathy can ever hope to substitute for experience. For me, the day George Zimmerman got away with murder is one that will live in infamy.
As a young white man, I cannot and will not ever know what it felt like as a black person to watch Zimmerman be acquitted of all charges in the killing of Trayvon Martin. I cannot and will not ever know what it is like to fear for the safety of my children when they walk to the store — not as victims, but as a suspects. I cannot and will not ever know what it is like to be invisible to everyone until I “act up”, knowing that, once I do, my life or my reputation will be considered forfeit. I will never understand these things. But I can see them, and I know that a grave injustice was committed that day. I’m also not alone.
Not wasting time, the NAACP immediately launched a petition to pressure the Department of Justice into pressing criminal civil charges against Zimmerman shortly after the verdict was released. If at first you don’t succeed, try again, right? But what would a successful prosecution of Zimmerman accomplish, other than bragging rights and a few political points for those involved? More importantly, is it what Trayvon Martin’s family desires? Regardless of any eventual verdict, they’ve still lost a son, one who’s memory and likeness they may not wish to see used as the poster child for a movement to end racial violence, if they even have a choice in the matter.
I have difficulty citing the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. without feeling a twinge of guilt, almost like I’m misappropriating someone else’s hero. So I offer up the following quote with a caveat that, while I empathize greatly with King’s sentiment, I’m offering it only as an opinion, not as a directive.
“We must be concerned not merely about who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderers.”
-Martin Luther King, Jr. (1963)
Race relations in America has come a long way since the days of Dr. King. Much of the outward hostility against people of color has dissipated in the years since the Civil Rights Movement. But recent events have done much to expose the underpinnings of racism on an institutional level, from the rise of New York City’s Stop & Frisk program to the recent gutting of the Civil Rights Act by the Supreme Court. Zimmerman’s acquittal is merely the latest in long list of offenses, made all the more visceral because, as a literal manifestation of the death of black innocence in an absence of justice, it confirms a terrifying reality that people of color have experienced for ages: our system of law is and was never built to protect and serve them, and that violence against people of color committed by whites is more easily justifiable in a court of law than ever, regardless of circumstance or evidence.
Last July, Frontline did a report on racial bias in Stand Your Ground Laws, where they cited a study that shows just how badly the laws disproportionately favor whites in SYG cases. “[John] Roman also found that Stand Your Ground laws tend to track the existing racial disparities in homicide convictions across the U.S. — with one significant exception: Whites who kill blacks in Stand Your Ground states are far more likely to be found justified in their killings. In non-Stand Your Ground states, whites are 250 percent more likely to be found justified in killing a black person than a white person who kills another white person; in Stand Your Ground states, that number jumps to 354 percent.”
This information doesn’t make the Zimmerman acquittal any less stunning, but it does demonstrate that, when it comes to SYG laws, the verdict in this case was just “business as usual” for the Florida court system. More than any other state in the union, Florida has become the laboratory for the way Stand Your Ground laws are applied, and the results have played out with sad predictability:
Marissa Alexander – a young black woman – was convicted of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon last year, over a 2010 incident where she “stood her ground” by firing a warning shot at her abusive husband. She is now serving a twenty-year prison sentence.
Trevor Dooley, an elderly black man living in Tampa, was just convicted of manslaughter after a jury rejected his SYG defense in a case eerily similar to Zimmerman’s. Dooley claimed that he shot his white neighbor in self-defense after the man assaulted him during a verbal altercation, and was also charged with improper exhibition of a firearm and openly carrying a firearm, though he has a conceal-carry permit.
Michael Dunn, the white Florida man who shot and killed black teenager Jordan Davis during an argument over the volume of Davis’s stereo, is invoking the SYG defense in his upcoming trial. Dunn claims that he was threatened by Davis with a shotgun, despite the fact that police found no weapons at the scene of the crime. Whether he will be acquitted or not remains a mystery, but given recent precedent, the odds are not in favor of justice being served.
For millions of black people in America, freedom – true freedom – is once again a dream deferred. But there is a glimmer of hope in all of this: the widespread public outcry generated by Zimmerman’s acquittal. Hundreds of thousands of people across the nation immediately took to the streets to protest the Zimmerman verdict when the news broke. Demonstrators in L.A. have reportedly clashed with police, and demonstrations in Oakland and San Francisco were marked by widespread vandalism. Tensions are high, and a great many people are fed up with the fact that not only are people of color in America treated as second-class citizens, but that their very lives are seen as worthless by the state. They’re confused, they’re angry, they’re scared, and they all want to know: what’s next? How can this tremendous energy be directed toward a positive and productive end?
In short: now that we know what we’re up against, where do we go from here?
When Pres. Obama announced Attorney General Eric Holder’s pending retirement Thursday, our friends on the right seemed to lose their composure. The Cato Institute’s Ilya Shapiro posted an article on the organization’s website – which has since been removed – in which he compared Holder to noted segregationist George Wallace: “Holder, according to Shapiro’s column,…
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Every 28 hours a black man is killed by the police. This time it’s Cameron Tillman, a 14 year-old