One of the most painful aspects of the George Zimmerman verdict is not that he was found not guilty, but that the verdict was so unsurprising. The message this verdict sent, that killing an unarmed African-American man for no particular or rational reason, is not a crime, is not new. On the contrary, it is a message that the criminal justice system has sent over and over again through the years, and only occasionally in the context of high-profile trials like that of George Zimmerman. Zimmerman's acquittal is a reminder that regardless of what our constitution or laws say, or of the ethnic background of the occupant of the White House, our criminal justice still does not treat all people as equal.
The notion that Zimmerman acted in self-defense is absurd, but less absurd when considered in the context of a society that has long criminalized the state of being young, male and African-American. Trayvon Martin, the victim of this attack, did not brandish a gun, threaten Zimmerman or otherwise seek to harm him, but it is also apparent that Zimmerman, being a product of his own culture, could have seen Martin as a threat regardless of how the young African-American male behaved or what he said.
It is difficult to read about the Zimmerman trial and not have other names such as Rodney King or even Bernard Goetz come to mind. These cases, while far from being the same, all meet at the intersection of race, perceived threats, gun laws and the criminal justice system. They are also all reminders of how this system has failed us. Two decades ago, the acquittal of the police officers who viciously beat Rodney King led to widespread riots in Los Angeles. Thus far the demonstrations surrounding this verdict have been smaller and more peaceful. Some might say that this shows how far we have come, but is also demonstrates how the outrageous has become routine.
Since Zimmerman shot Martin more than a year ago, gun regulation has come and gone as a subject of political interest and possible legislation. Martin's death is also a reminder of how the ease with which guns are available can lead to unnecessary deaths. Had Zimmerman not had a gun, any conflict with Martin would have ended in a shouting match or perhaps fisticuffs not a death. More likely, without the false sense of security and machismo gained from carrying a gun, Zimmerman would have felt less compelled to be a one man vigilante and would have stayed home.
Too frequently it takes a high-profile criminal case or trial to draw attention to issues of race and racism. This is a deeply imperfect approach as the details of the case obscure the bigger issues. The bigger issue here is that in 2013 it is still permissible to shoot an African-American person because of some abstract and obscure sense of threat. This insidious reasoning, to use that word loosely, is also tautological because Zimmerman's acquittal is a reminder that in 2013 all young African-American men are still generally viewed as threatening.
This case is evidence, despite impressive gains over the last half century, of the enduring power and racism in America. Trayvon Martin's death and George Zimmerman's trial are both unambiguous rebuttals to those who claim, or would like to believe, that racism is something that belongs to our country's past. Zimmerman's assertions of self-defense and the invocation of stand your ground laws as part of his defense must be seen through the prism of race. Zimmerman's alleged fear of Martin and need to act in self-defense were deeply rooted in racial prejudice and the identifying of a young black man, first and foremost, as a potential criminal. Sadly, these prejudices are reinforced regularly through the media, criminal justice system and elsewhere.
Zimmerman was acquitted by one jury in one courtroom, but the case nonetheless resonated nationally. For African-Americans, particularly those who are younger and male, it was a reminder that real equality in the face of the law, specifically in the face of the criminal justice system, has not yet been achieved. The verdict reminds us that the default setting for the criminal justice setting is that young male African-Americans are primarily either criminals or potential criminals. This case is also, unfortunately, a reminder to white people that the criminal justice system is still stacked in their favor. It sends a relatively clear message that if a white person shoots an African-American, the white person will get every benefit of the doubt in the eyes of the law.
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