Until now, I have refrained from writing or tweeting about the Trayvon Martin case. As the mother of a murdered son, this story was too close for comfort. So I watched the trial only intermittently and from a safe distance, trying to avoid a goaded reaction to the superfluity of opinions and analyses that just about everyone had to offer.
In fact, it was only by chance that I happened to have the television on when the verdict came in. And when I heard the words "not guilty" -- although I wasn't surprised -- the sadness that I've felt all along for this teenager and his family, deepened into something resembling depression.
When I look at the criminal justice system from the perspective of an activist, as I often do, I see glaring disparities at every turn. Although there is a mound of evidence to support my assertion, I will not resort to the usual facts and figures. Instead I will recall the ubiquitous image of George Zimmerman sitting in the Florida courtroom day after day in a white shirt, dark suit, and tie. The first time I observed this image I thought for a split second, Wait a minute. Zimmerman is charged with second degree murder. Why isn't he wearing an orange jumpsuit and why isn't he in handcuffs and shackles? The answer highlights a basic and systemic disparity between how the justice system treats those with money and those without. A person charged with murder who can pay thousands to post bail is able to enjoy his freedom, keep his job, and go about living his life while he waits for this trial. And when the trial date comes, he is able to appear in court wearing a suit and tie, unassisted by armed police officers, and by doing so, retain his humanity and the presumption of innocence. On the other hand, one who can't post bail must sit in jail, lose his job, and perhaps most incriminating of all, may be forced to attend his trial wearing the damnable garb of a criminal, shuffling along in shackles with an armed officer at his side, sending the strong message he is dangerous, and negating the presumption of innocence.
It seems to me that equitable treatment should not depend on the ability to pay, but then I may be confusing equity with justice.
Precisely because the justice system is rife with injustice, survivors must be careful of expecting more than the system can deliver. There really are two Americas and the gulf between them is widening. Jurors, prosecutors, and judges may not leave their prejudices, insensitivities, and social environments at the door when they enter the court house. Had the jurors convicted George Zimmerman of second degree murder or manslaughter, those women would have had to explain themselves to their gun-toting husbands, fathers, and others in their conservative, pro-gun community. The wheels of justice don't turn in a vacuum.
I know what the months and years ahead will be like for Trayvon's parents. They will awaken in the middle of the night wondering how their son's trip to the store for ice tea and Skittles could have led to a struggle in which he would lose his life. They will bristle at the thought that their son, the unarmed, deceased victim, was actually on trial and judged so harshly. And they will struggle with the sense of guilt and impotence so common among African-American parents, which is born of the reality that this is not a society that welcomes, nurtures, or affirms their sons.
For obvious reasons, I feel a boatload of compassion for these parents. And although there's nothing I can do to take away their pain, I offer them this -- for what it's worth:
As a survivor, I believe that I have three responsibilities. Despite what happens or doesn't happen at the courthouse, my first responsibility is to heal my life.
My second responsibility is to actively work for positive change. All systems created by human beings are imperfect. And I believe that survivors have a special role to play in the never-ending task of perfecting the criminal justice system.
And my third responsibility is to reach out to other survivors with a special sense of compassion and to allow them to benefit from what I've learned from my incredible journey.
If Trayvon Martin's parents can do this, then what may look today like a tragedy punctuated by a gross miscarriage of justice, can be transformed into a triumph overflowing with meaning and purpose.
My prayers will remain with them.