On July 13, 2013, many Americans were ruing the verdict in the trial of a man named George Zimmerman. He had been accused of having murdered a seventeen-year-old boy by the name of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida. Martin's killing has brought the question of racial justice in the United States to the fore.
On July 13, Zimmerman's jury acquitted him of all wrongdoing. The verdict recalled hundreds of years of unresolved racial antagonism in the United States and reinvigorated an ongoing the movement for civil rights in this country. Here in Florida, it led to the peaceful occupation of the Florida governor's office in the capital, Tallahassee, by a group of demonstrators who call themselves the Dream Defenders.
First, the background: On the night of February 26, 2012, George Zimmerman, a member of his neighborhood watch group, shot and killed Trayvon Martin, on suspicion that Martin was in Zimmerman's neighborhood at night to commit burglary, theft, or assault. The Retreat at Twin Lakes neighborhood is a gated townhome community northeast of Orlando. Once an affluent development, many of its homes are now empty or occupied by renters after the United States housing bust that followed the financial collapse of 2008. George Zimmerman, himself a renter, regularly patrolled the community at night against crime, something civilian police employee Wendy Dorival had warned him not to do, according to the Tampa Bay Times.
At about 7:00 p.m., on the night of July 13, Trayvon Martin was returning from a convenience store near the Retreat at Twin Lakes. He had just bought some candy and a bottle of iced tea. Although Martin was living with his mother and brother near Miami at the time, he and his father were visiting his father's girlfriend at the Retreat at Twin Lakes after Trayvon had received a ten-day suspension from his high school. Marijuana residue had been found in a plastic bag among his possessions. But according to Ryan Julison, a spokesperson for the Martin family, no substance was found, and there "was no arrest or citation from the police." For Benjamin Crump, an attorney for Martin's parents, the event was "completely irrelevant to what happened February 26".
While Martin was returning to his father's girlfriend's home, Zimmerman followed him in his car. After Martin turned around briefly to approach and look at Zimmerman, Martin ran. Quoted by the Tampa Bay Times, Cheryl Brown, a resident of the Retreat, who calls herself "mostly black," had always told her son, Austin—who, she said, looked "a lot like Trayvon"— to run if "someone's chasing you" . . . just as Martin's parents might have told him.
5 times as many Whites are using drugs as African Americans
Martin was trying to avoid violence in a society in which being young, male, and African American seems to incur violence. On November 23, 2012, for example—again in Florida—a white man named Michael Dunn "shot and killed [an African American] teen Jordan Davis" after Dunn "asked a group of teens at a gas station to turn down the loud music blaring from their car" (New York Daily News). Nowhere, to my knowledge, is excessive noise a crime punishable by death.
Such violence extends to patterns of incarceration. Witness the racial disparities in incarceration rates for African Americans in the United States. According to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), "African Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites." Yet "5 times as many Whites are using drugs as African Americans," whereas "African Americans are sent to prison for drug offenses at 10 times the rate of Whites." Social mechanisms broader and deeper than Zimmerman's attempt to play policeman helped engineer Martin's death.
When Martin ran, Zimmerman gave chase, describing Martin to a police operator he'd called as a "real suspicious guy." When Zimmerman explained that he was chasing Martin, the operator replied, "Okay, we don't need to do that." But on our warrior charged. A struggle followed after Zimmerman overtook Martin, giving Zimmerman the fantastical premise he seemed to be looking for to shoot Martin dead.
Zimmerman's face and head were bloodied by the encounter. Martin died of internal bleeding from a gunshot wound to the heart. Speaking to the Orlando Sentinel, forensic specialist Dr. William Anderson suggested that Martin likely survived for several minutes on the lawn where he lay, doubtless baffled and bewildered in the last moments of his life.
Regardless of Zimmerman's intentions, he made the racist assumption that a young, Black man had no place in the neighborhood where Martin and his father were in fact residing. Nonetheless, the jury in Zimmerman's trial declared him not guilty of Martin's murder. Five out of the six members of the jury, all women, were white.
On the night of Saturday, July 13—the same night on which the verdict was announced—the Dream Defenders demonstrated on the steps of the Florida State capitol. They called on Governor Rick Scott of Florida and on Florida's legislators to confront what they called a "crisis". This crisis involves the structural disenfranchisement of youth, especially youth of color, due to poverty, an "underfunded education system and society that criminalizes them," and an "unchecked correctional system" that increasingly relies on privatized prisons that "earn record profit as they lobby the political class to expand criminalization."
George Zimmerman had the gun, so he won
The Dream Defenders also call for overturning Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law. According to the Washington Post, "More than 30 states, including Florida, have passed 'Stand Your Ground' laws, which allow people to defend themselves with deadly force, rather than retreating, if they feel they are in danger or a serious felony is about to be committed". Critics, including United States Attorney General Eric Holder, believe that such laws may enable "violent situations to escalate."
Before Zimmerman killed Martin, he had studied Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law, although he denied in a television interview before the trial that he was familiar with it. The law makes it harder to prosecute murder cases in which defendants can claim to have acted not only in self-defense but on the suspicion that unlawful activity was about to occur. Although the law may have emboldened Zimmerman, his attorneys made no appeal to it, arguing merely that Zimmerman had a right to defend himself.
The result was a murder trial in which the prosecution was on the defensive, bearing the burden of disproving that an unarmed African American man had somehow provoked his own death by attacking a man who was better armed. As the Dream Defenders noted in one of their "talking points" at the capitol, "George Zimmerman had the gun, so he won." Might, it appears, makes right in Florida.
The Dream Defenders are also calling for an end to racial profiling —the practice of policing on the assumption that race indicates a person's propensity, or lack thereof, for crime. Zimmerman profiled Martin on the night of Martin's death.
Finally, activists are demanding that Gov. Scott call a special session of the Florida State Legislature to remedy the various problems that face Florida's youth. So far, Gov. Scott has not addressed the demonstrators. He was in New York City on July 16 when the occupation of his office began and is still, reportedly, "traveling."
The days ahead will clarify his and the legislature's position on Martin's death and on the Dream Defenders' grievances. I fear that the response will merely confirm white apathy—willful ignorance—about the widespread injustices perpetrated against people of color in the United States.
The remarkable thing about all these events is that not a single violent outburst has occurred, to date, in protest against the Zimmerman verdict, despite expectations to the contrary widely touted in the media.
As with the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, those victimized by injustice have shown themselves to be the moral superiors of those in power. They are once again raising questions pertinent for decades if not centuries in the United States: Will whites in power ignore racial injustices to the point that it becomes unbearable to tolerate them peacefully? Hasn't that moment already come? Didn't it come long ago? What can we do about it now?