Protesters rally in response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the Trayvon Martin trial in Times Square in New York, July 14, 2013. (REUTERS/Keith Bedford)
There isn’t a good reason for me to be as angry as I am over the not-guilty verdict handed down for George Zimmerman in the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. I always knew that would be the outcome. No amount of inconsistencies in Zimmerman’s story, nor compassion for two grieving parents who lost their son in the most heinous of ways, could override the lack of respect the US justice system has for black bodies. Disappointment is for people who have faith in the system. I know that better than I know my own name. And yet there I was, crying rage-filled tears as Zimmerman Not Guilty scrolled across the TV screen. Because no amount of cynicism can override the pain of knowing that a 17-year-old boy is dead through no fault of his own, and that no one will be held accountable.
Perhaps the State of Florida is at fault: the prosecutors could have put together a stronger case. Perhaps the jury is at fault: they didn’t call Zimmerman’s version of events into question the way they could have. But in truth, the whole damn country is at fault for continuing to allow the racist ideology that renders blackness a threat to the American way of life. The auction blocks and Colored Only signs are in the past, but we haven’t learned the lessons of our history; we are merely products of it.
George Zimmerman was prosecuted, yes, but he was never really on trial. Trayvon Martin’s lifeless body was put on trial for having the audacity to exist and be black. Zimmerman started that the night he killed Trayvon, profiling the lanky teen for being “up to no good,” and not belonging in his gated community—when he had nothing to go on other than that Trayvon was walking in the rain. During the trial, defense attorneys Mark O’Mara and Don West trotted out every racist stereotype attached to black boys throughout history, suggesting that Trayvon used preternatural size, strength and speed to beat Zimmerman. To my disgust, O’Mara actually invoked the same justification for killing Trayvon that was used to justify lynchings. He called to the witness stand Olivia Bertalan, Zimmerman’s former neighbor, who told the story of her home being burglarized by two young African-Americans while she and her son feared for their lives. It was terrifying—and it had absolutely no connection to the case at hand. But O’Mara presented the jury with the “perfect victim,” which Trayvon could never be: a white woman living in fear of black criminals. Zimmerman had offered to help her the night her home was robbed. Implicit in the defense’s closing argument: he was also protecting her the night he killed Trayvon Martin.
In a statement released the day after the verdict was announced, President Obama said, “I know this case has elicited strong passions. And in the wake of the verdict, I know those passions may be running even higher. But we are a nation of laws, and a jury has spoken. I now ask every American to respect the call for calm reflection from two parents who lost their young son.” I ask him: How long are we supposed to remain calm when the laws we are called on to respect are an open assault on our humanity? The arc of the moral universe bends slowly. Our lives are on the line right now.
But if we are, as I suggested, merely products of our history, then alongside our history of injustice exists a history of resistance, and this, too, has taken shape in the aftermath. I was in New York City to witness and participate in the rally turned march that took over the streets of Midtown, as thousands of people marched from Union Square to Times Square. Parents brought their children; one wore a homemade sign that read Don’t Shoot Me. People cheered from the sidelines, and some joined in. Cars respected the new traffic laws or were met with fierce opposition. A man stood asking, “Have you ever considered Zimmerman was not guilty?” His question went ignored.