George Zimmerman, Trayvon Martin and Where to Go From Here
Take a step back from the national outrage over the killing of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of his killer, George Zimmerman, and it’s easy to wonder just what it is about the event that has provoked such a visceral reaction.
To be sure, the senseless death of a child is always a personal tragedy. An innocent young life cut short and chronicled in painstaking detail tends to unleash all kinds of raw emotions, even if only for the duration of the evening news. And then there are the clear racial undertones of Trayvon Martin’s killing. George Zimmerman’s stalking and intimidation of an African American boy guilty of nothing more than going out to buy a pack of Skittles in an unfamiliar neighborhood highlights in a manner that’s impossible to ignore the reality of racial profiling in America. There’s enough material here to make up the basis for a college course.
That the Zimmerman trial has caused so many Americans normally apathetic about current events to take a break from tweeting cat photos in order to tackle, with various levels of sophistication, complex socio-political issues, is something to celebrate. Those who mock or dismiss the national interest in what transpired between Martin and Zimmerman display a shocking level of cynicism. Yes, “only” one person was killed in a country where thousands of people are killed by guns every year, all too often without generating much attention. But it is due to these broader societal problems that it is worth sitting up and taking notice.
Sometimes it takes a confluence of timing, publicity, and eye-catching details to humanize issues that, to many Americans, seem detached from their daily lives. The lynching of Emmett Till in 1955 on a visit to Mississippi, an event to which the Martin killing is often compared in the media, called attention to the horrors of Jim Crow and helped publicize the civil rights struggles of the time. Then, too, only one person was killed. Trayvon Martin’s death and George Zimmerman’s acquittal, although far from the “biggest” tragedy to occur in America, is larger than just the people who were involved because it so well encapsulates long-festering racial tensions.
It also highlighted the potential pitfalls of a legal system that can reflect prejudice as often as justice. And, perhaps most disconcertingly of all, the possibility of Zimmerman’s innocence under the law shows the divide between what is morally acceptable and legally admissible. Few (although still too many) would argue that Zimmerman was totally justified in his actions; even those who are sympathetic tend to admit that he, at the very least, showed poor judgment. The fact that an action so clearly morally wrong even has the possibility of being legal demonstrates that being a “nation of laws” can have its drawbacks, especially when those laws seem to affect people differently depending on their race.
Martin’s death and Zimmerman’s acquittal could represent a sea change in American law and politics, but that doesn’t mean such change is inevitable. It is crucial that Americans draw the proper lesson from what happened. And that lesson is not to seek vengeance, through legal or extralegal means. As painful as it is to accept, Zimmerman has been found innocent. It might be cathartic to rally in the street and push for a civil trial, but it’s time to broaden our focus beyond Trayvon Martin to address the issues that led to his death and the acquittal of his killer. That there will never be legal justice for Martin and his family is incredibly sad, but the interest in his case is about so much more than justice for one murder. In fact, a guilty verdict for Zimmerman at the expense of a prolonged, substantive conversation about race would be an empty victory. The best thing that can happen now is for all those people protesting in the street and sounding off on social media to channel their justified outrage into action.
Zimmerman’s acquittal has shown that stand-your-ground laws are dangerous and unjust. The presence of these laws raises the bar on the threshold of evidence needed by authorities to convict, or to successfully prosecute vigilantism run amok. And the public must, on a national basis, challenge the theoretical and unstated assumptions underpinning such laws, which played out in the worst way in this case. Zimmerman’s assumption that Martin was dangerous makes it clear that racial profiling, far from just an inconvenience, can be deadly. Many Americans’ tendency to blame the victim just for being black and “dressing like a hoodlum” speaks to a broader racist element in American culture, inextricably bound with the erosion of voting rights (witness the Supreme Court’s shameful decision on the Voting Rights Act) and the paranoid suspicion of Latino immigrants. If Trayvon Martin’s death can spark interest in addressing these issues, it will not have been for nothing. George Zimmerman is the symptom of the aforementioned problems, and to lose sight of the bigger picture to seek vengeance on him would be a tremendous waste of a historic opportunity.