Did the ghosts of our slave-holding and Jim Crow past high-five each other in the Florida courtroom on Saturday? George Zimmerman was acquitted, but does that mean that American history was, too?
The experts who weighed in on the legal battle essentially noted that, in the absence of any witnesses other than Zimmerman, the prosecution couldn't prove what had happened, or more to the point, couldn't convincingly counter-argue his version of events -- that he was returning to his car when Trayvon Martin assaulted him and threw him to the ground, forcing him to kill the boy in self-defense. Trayvon was dead; that left him, legally, voiceless and out of luck.
Hmm ... wasn't that the case anyway?
The incident blew into a national outrage because, initially, the boy's killing was nothing at all in the eyes of the law. He was walking through a white, gated community, wearing a hoodie. Stand your ground! The police held the killer for a few hours, then let him go without charges.
"The police initially did not have evidence to disprove Zimmerman's self-defense claim," USA Today reported, quoting former Sanford, Fla. police chief Bill Lee, Jr. It hardly mattered that the victim was unarmed. Right from the start, it was obvious the state had no interest in actual justice from Trayvon Martin's point of view -- any more than the state has ever evinced interest in justice or, good Lord, healing in relation to its own past.
Our present legal system has evolved from legal and social structures that regarded certain categories of human beings as chattel. That immorality has never been officially disowned. It has never been fully and courageously addressed with any depth of remorse, either socially or legally. We've never had our moment of national atonement for slavery. We've never started over.
"Trayvon Martin's death is an American tragedy, but it will mainly be understood as an African-American one," Jelani Cobb wrote for the New Yorker.
Where is the court of justice big enough to try this case as the American tragedy that it is, and to put the whole context of Trayvon's killing on the stand? The glaring prejudices built into our legal system, even if they've been erased from the letter of the law, permeate its collective will and heart. Slavery is eradicated, but racism regroups. How in God's name do we stop this once and for all?
It's no secret that the police in most American communities focus on young black males, going out of their way to harass and intimidate them, for the ultimate purpose of corralling them into the prison system and permanent second-class citizenship. The rest of the legal system, berobed and tradition-bound, pushes that process along in a pretense of impartiality that is seldom questioned or challenged. Why is our prison population so disproportionately black and brown? The experts shrug.
Trayvon was shot and killed because he was a black person out of place, walking through a white neighborhood. In this case, the "cop" was only a neighborhood-watch guy and cop wannabe, but that didn't particularly matter. Afterward Zimmerman was treated like a cop -- debriefed and allowed to walk, no harm done.
This changed only because Trayvon's parents, in their grief and outrage, petitioned for Zimmerman's arrest and filed suit to get the public records of the case. The incident began getting media attention and, three weeks after it occurred, went national. Ka-wham! Suddenly the system was outflanked by public outrage and had no choice but to reverse itself, arrest Zimmerman and charge him with second-degree murder.
That's a victory of sorts for human decency and the latter-day civil rights movement, but not enough of one. The fact that Zimmerman was acquitted may well have an upside, in that it guarantees that public outrage over this iconic injustice will not end. The push to put American history and its legal system on trial will and must continue, in Trayvon's name and Emmett Till's name and for the nameless millions who have suffered and continue to suffer because of it. The time has come -- I hope -- to challenge our legal system all the way to its racist roots, and to demand that the state find an interest in healing the harm it has caused.
Talking about Zimmerman's search for anyone who didn't belong in his whitish 'hood, Thom Hartmann noted, on The Daily Take, that "The South has a long history of this sort of thing. Today they're called Neighborhood Watches. They used to be called Slave Patrols."
Hartmann quotes the Slave Patrol Regulations from Rowan County, N.C., circa 1825. Here's regulation no. 4: "One patroller shall have power to seize any negro slave who behaves insolently to a patroller, or otherwise unlawfully or suspiciously; and hold such slave in custody until he can bring together a requisite number of Patrollers to act in the business."
Yeah, we've buried this history. The time has come to exhume it. Racism is alive and well and embedded in our legal system. It's the soul of retributive justice, which has an interest in punishment and the culling out of human chaff. Let's find the courage to build a new system based on healing and inclusion -- and justice for the ones we've always excluded from it.
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Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His new book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound (Xenos Press) is now available. Contact him at email@example.com, visit his website at commonwonders.com or listen to him at Voices of Peace radio.
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