Prejudice means to make a judgment before evidence, reflexively. Prejudice does not necessarily mean supporting segregation or racial subjugation, but can imply deep social feelings. Prejudice is usually negative, although I suppose we could have a prejudice towards assuming innocence in the absence of evidence. Pretend it is not so if you want, prejudice in some places, remains institutionalized.
Could this explain the whole sordid affair that took place in Florida one dreadful night when Trayvon Martin lost his life and one day when George Zimmerman won his freedom?
When George Zimmerman entered the court room, on June 10, 2013 to defend himself for killing 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, he was presumed innocent before the law.
But when Trayvon Martin was spotted by Zimmerman as he walked down that street in that gated community in Sanford, Florida, where he was temporarily staying with relatives, was he presumed innocent before the Court of Zimmerman? What about him made him suspicious? A young man, in this instance, black man, walking down a street in a gated community having no weapon in his hand, breaking into no vehicle or shop raises suspicion because...?
What did he do to make Zimmerman so concerned that he needed to follow him and call the police on him? In fact, the subsequently released details of 911 calls from Zimmerman as neighborhood watch demonstrate clearly that he thought being black was prima facie evidence of intent to do wrong.
It is a frightening thing for any of us to be presumed guilty on the basis of something that we cannot and do not want to change, like the color of our skin.
George Zimmerman's defense suggested he presumed Trayvon guilty of something. He did not afford Trayvon the luxury of presumed innocence.The jury's verdict did nothing to dispel this view.
The presumption of innocence, especially where it involves capital cases like murder, demands so high a standard of evidence that one's guilt must be proven beyond reasonable doubt. This lofty standard exists to protect our freedom. It existed to protect Zimmerman's freedom.
What if Mr. Zimmerman demanded this standard of himself to protect Trayvon's freedom? What if he said, "I cannot and will not presume this young man guilty unless that suspicion has sufficient support to remove any reasonable doubt"?
Might he have approached Trayvon in a gracious, respectable and reasonable manner and said something like, "Son, are you O.K.? I am with the neighborhood watch in this area and we had some challenges with robberies in the area and I just wanted to be sure that you are ok. Do you live in this area? May I ask where you are going?"
Even if Trayvon, a young man, turned out to be a bit agitated, he could have then called for any police help and waited for that help to come.
This Trayvon/Zimmerman incident had failures on so many fronts. On fronts of thought, prejudice, presumption, communication and conduct there were failures. The tragedy is that one man got to walk away from the failures and a child went to the grave. On the scales of justice, that is a great imbalance.
Learning from this specific incident, the legislators in Florida and perhaps in the U.S. Congress can do something to reduce the likelihood of this happening in the future. On a simple level, they can pass legislation to disallow any neighborhood watch person or private citizen from disobeying an authority once they report something suspicious to them and are told by that authority to stay put, particularly if no life is at stake.
In other words, you do not get to stand your ground when the ground you are on is common ground and when you have been told by authorities to stand down. If Zimmerman had simply obeyed the authorities he called for assistance, Trayvon might still be alive.
On this score, U.S. politicians need cry no crocodile tears for Trayvon. They can save the life of other Trayvons. They can compel would be cops and gun-toting cowboys seeking to "do go" in the words of Juror B-37 to stay put in the absence of clear and present danger where they have engaged the authorities.
Remove the idiocy of invoking self-defense in a situation where staying put creates the greatest defense. No long speeches; no long talk; just move to fix the law. Give Trayvon's life at least this dignity under the law. This is the ultimate in prejudice, when black people are considered guilty of offences worthy of death without the benefit of a trial. Zimmerman may have been found "not guilty" but he certainly was not innocent. This is the confusion that guilty before proven innocent creates in a system that espouses the exact opposite.
Zhivargo Laing is a former finance and economic development minister of The Bahamas. He is now Chief Executive Officer of the Laing Consulting and Research Group which offers business consulting, market research, training and public relations services. A graduate of economics and finance from the University of Western Ontario and Washington DC's George Washington University, this businessman, author and professional motivational speaker lives with his wife and four children in Freeport, Grand Bahama.