Like many Americans, I watched the press conferences about the Zimmerman arrest with great interest. I was at the gym at my Tribeca apartment building when the news came on, and everyone looked up to the televisions to follow what was going on. They listened to the prosecutor give her explanation succinctly and professionally.
Then Al Sharpton came on.
Now, Sharpton certainly deserves credit for this arrest. It would not have happened without him, leaders like him, and the average citizens who could not bear the enormity of the injustice. Finally, marching did something besides messing up people's shoes. I love Al but he is polarizing. One man at the gym rolled his eyes before one sentence was out of Sharpton's mouth. Many people perceive Sharpton the same way that I perceive, say, Bill O'Reilly. Whenever I hear O'Reilly, I assume that what he is presenting as "fact" is heavily skewed propaganda. Even when I agree with him -- and though it's rare, it does happen -- I am simply not receptive to the messenger.
To his further great credit, Sharpton was aware of how he's perceived and spoke accordingly. He went out of his way to praise Rick Scott, Florida's Tea Party Republican governor. He admitted that he did not trust Scott, and was proven wrong. In calm, level tones, Shaprton admonished those watching him that this was not a time to celebrate. Then he did the exact right thing: he stepped away from the mike.
When the family's attorney Benjamin Crump came on the television, I could barely believe how long he went on. I watched the people in the gym, and I saw the looks on their faces. It was a look I knew well. In my stand-up career, I've experienced what it's like to lose the audience by running my mouth for too long -- and those were people who had paid to see me. One by one, the people at the gym tuned the press conference out.
Finally, Trayvon Martin's mother Sybrina Fulton spoke. This was the way to appeal to people's humanity and their sense of right and wrong. Nothing is as American as a mother -- and nothing is as human. That was when the press conference should have ended.
But it did not.
The Zimmerman trial won't be held in Harlem or Baltimore. It will not be held in the court of public opinion, either. It will be held in Sanford, which is 57 percent white. It will be held in Florida, which is Southern. People tend not to think of Florida as a "Southern" state because they don't speak with an accent there. But it was the third state to secede, months before Arkansas and Kentucky. It was also the very state where Casey Anthony got acquitted of murdering her own child.
Look what's at stake in this case. This country is divided by race at a time when so much is on the line. No one could be more pleased than I that George Zimmerman has been arrested--but I am also aware of the optics of the situation. Even if Lady Justice is blind, every so often she does take a peek. If the case is perceived as "us versus them," every human being always chooses "us." OJ walked when it became "us versus them." If it becomes "us versus them," the prosecution doesn't have the numbers. If a color blind society is the goal, then people must become blind to color.
There are already those who believe Zimmerman was only charged due to political pressure. Many are waiting to exploit racial fears for political purposes. It's already begun. Those who believe Zimmerman's side could have defended him while expressing sorrow that a kid died needlessly, under tragic circumstances. But instead they are dragging this poor boy's body through the mud. It's not enough that he's dead. They are making sure that he's denigrated, too, lest he become a symbol.
If this trial bears any resemblance to a rally, I fear that the jury will lose a great deal of sympathy. Everyone relates to parents mourning the loss of their child. The only way to win this trial is to make it about people and families, not about civil rights and politics. I can guarantee that there will be people of all ideological stripes on that jury, and they will need to persuaded just as much as everyone else. How? By calling to their decency and humanity, as opposed to whatever their voting biases may be. People generally want to do the ethical thing, but they have to be listening to what you're saying first. But if it becomes a "black thing," they simply grow disinterested. A disinterested jury will not send a man to jail. If one, just one, juror sees a bunch of upset black people and thinks "there goes the neighborhood," this case is lost.
And frankly, that's something I don't want to think about.