Two days before the third anniversary of the killing of Travvon Martin by rogue, one-time, self-styled neighborhood-watch captain George Zimmerman, the Justice Department said in a terse announcement that it would not file federal civil-rights charges against Zimmerman in connection with the Martin slaying. The announcement was denounced by Martin's parents and civil-rights leaders as yet another gross miscarriage of justice in the Martin saga. Zimmerman's attorney predictably hailed it as final vindication for his client. The polar opposite pronouncements of both sides were yet more proof that the Martin killing again brought the ugly racial polarization seemingly endemic in American society raging to the surface.
Before, during and after Zimmerman's acquittal, countless polls and surveys found that the majority of whites thought that Zimmerman had done no wrong, while the majority of African Americans said just the opposite. The split in racial attitudes around the Martin case was no different from that found in other controversial cases, from Michael Jackson to O.J. Simpson. But in Martin's case there was a difference. Martin was clearly the victim, and other than a vicious campaign of character assassination against Martin, often fanned by the media, there was not a scintilla of evidence that he had committed any crime to warrant Zimmerman's assault. And it was Zimmerman who was on trial, not Martin, yet Martin brought out a level of passion and hate that topped the other controversial cases where race lurked just below the public surface.
This was a stark warning that the election and reelection of President Obama was hardly the turning point in race relations that many thought and hoped it would be. The negative attitudes toward and stereotyping, typecasting and outright criminalization of blacks, especially young African-American males, by a wide swath of Americans was still just as deep and alarming as ever. In fact, Obama himself has been the relentless target of a vile, vicious and non-stop campaign of digs, taunts, vilification and insults from ultraconservatives, tea-party acolytes and right-wing bloggers, websites and radio talk jocks, undergirded by the GOP. This includes even questioning his patriotism and loyalty to America. The Martin case stood front and center in the middle of the racial baiting and bickering among many Americans.
The Martin killing also cast an ugly glare on the proliferation of the Stand Your Ground laws in state after state. The key provision of these laws states that an individual may shoot if he or she honestly and reasonably believes that the use of deadly force is necessary to prevent the imminent death of or imminent great bodily harm to himself or herself or to another individual. The operative words that virtually give anyone a license to use such force are "honestly and reasonably." That's a murky legal minefield that's wide open to individual interpretation, and prosecutors know this. Given the vicious racial baiting and stereotyping of young blacks such as Martin, when they are the victims of this type of violence, the law in effect becomes a virtual license to kill.
The good thing in Martin's case was that civil-rights leaders and even a number of police, prosecutors and some legislators condemned the peril of vigilantism inherent in the law and in some places took the first tepid steps toward the modification of the law. The killing also had another positive consequence: It propelled thousands into action that included street protests, marches, petitions and calls for legislative changes against racial violence. This laid the groundwork for the later mass protests and outrage that erupted over the wanton killings of mostly unarmed young black males by police.
Though the Justice Department declined to file charges against Zimmerman, the Martin killing compelled the department to take a very public and activist role in challenging law enforcement and prosecutors to do greater due diligence when it comes to reforming the use of force, racial profiling and police training and improving relations with minority communities. Attorney General Eric Holder and President Obama repeatedly spoke out against racial profiling and for the need to rein in the overuse of deadly force by police agencies.
There was one more positive takeaway from the Martin killing. Martin's parents and supporters were determined that he not be yet another tragic victim of violence and then forgotten. They and their legions of supporters established the Trayvon Martin Foundation, which networks with other families who have lost children to violence. It also awards scholarships and collects school supplies for poor students. There is little doubt that they will be an active and visible presence to remind the nation that young people, even children, are routinely brutalized and even killed, and far too often they receive scant to no redress in the criminal-justice system.
Martin was more than just another young black male gunned down in an act of senseless violence. He became and will remain a challenge to the nation to do something about that violence.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is a weekly co-host of Al Sharpton's show on American Urban Radio Network, and the host of the Hutchinson Report Newsmaker Hour, heard weekly on the nationally broadcast Hutchinson Newsmaker Network. He is also an associate editor of New America Media. His forthcoming book is From King to Obama: Witness to a Turbulent History (Middle Passage Press).