There’s no doubt that emotions are running high this morning now that the not guilty verdict has come down in the case of George Zimmerman, who was charged with second-degree murder in the death of Trayvon Martin. As they were last night when the verdict was read sometime around 10pm, sending a shock wave of reaction through the Internet, with Martin supporters expressing deep outrage on Facebook, Twitter and the blogosphere, and Zimmerman supporters giving each other virtual high-fives via the same outlets.
It was in this context that I stumbled across a Facebook posting from a white acquaintance, that said simply “Yes! Yes! Yes! Not Guilty!”. That one posting erupted into an exchange that’s convinced me more than ever that our problems are much deeper than just a flawed justice system, and states who enact laws that are intended to support the kind of vigilante justice against innocent blacks that this case is so famous for – these are problems, no doubt about it. But our real problems are that there are simply not enough of us, black or white, who are willing to stand up for justice, whatever the racial dynamic, and well, call a spade a spade.
I responded openly and passionately to my white friend’s glee over the verdict, and was immediately excoriated by her Facebook friends as being, “emotional”, which I found strange. One poster even went so far as to remind me that Trayvon Martin, far from innocent child, was nothing more than a “punk, thug, druggie”, suggesting that he’d lived his life in such a way leading up to the events of that fateful night, that he somehow deserved what he got. Astonishing. There is, of course, no evidence of that whatsoever, unless recreational drug use, and being a braggadocios teenager warrants the death penalty. But it was during my exchange with the folks who piled on me as I responded to his remarks with cries of racism, that I realized why those in America – white America, Hispanic America, heck, BLACK America – that run to any extreme in these kinds of issues are actually the larger problem. Let’s face it – our laws can be, and clearly in the case of the “Stand Your Ground” law in Florida, should be changed. But the natural tendency we have to jump to racial extremes, especially in cases like this, are what perpetuate racial division, and more importantly, what make me frightened for my 16-year old son and the millions of young black men like him in America.
The sad fact is that, even before the verdict was read last night, Martin supporters were threatening bodily harm not only to George Zimmerman if he was found not guilty, but to any white person within reach. The same threats were made when it was still a question whether or not Zimmerman would be arrested at all. One racial extreme. By the same token, those who were all too eager to believe my Caucasian Facebook buddy’s description of Trayvon Martin as a “thug druggie”, and people like him have been guilty of ranting on the Internet about buying guns and protecting themselves from the likes of him, and the coming race riots. Another racial extreme. And these people, these idiots all, are the ones the news media love to report on, love to give oxygen to, while those of us with cooler heads and apparently superior intellects go unheard – so let’s just give this horrible tragedy the context that it needs, right here, right now.
Remember the O.J. Simpson trial? Of course you do. Everyone remembers how it gripped the country, and cast us all into a conversation about race and the justice system for so many, many months. Back then, people were quick to run to the same racial extremes, causing noise in a public debate that eventually drowned out any opportunity for us as a nation to learn collectively from what had transpired, and advance our understanding of the flaws in our justice system. No – you had Simpson supporters celebrating, even though there were two dead people whose killer had gone unpunished, and you had Simpson detractors swearing that the jury in the case were idiots and decrying the downfall of the American justice system. Sound familiar?
The fact of the matter is, there’s nothing here to celebrate. Nothing. Even if current Florida law is written in such a way that that jury felt it had no choice but to acquit George Zimmerman, how could the outcome possibly take on a celebratory tone for anyone, even Zimmerman’s family? An innocent kid is dead, and Zimmerman will likely spend the rest of his life under the scrutiny of those who believe he should have been convicted, or worse, that he deserves to be harmed for not being convicted. And there’s a mother, who will never get to steal another hug from her teenage son, or a kiss, who will never hear his voice again, never see him graduate from college, get married, have children, nothing. And the only way we can think to react as Americans is to go “whoo-hoo” on a social network, or threaten to burn down entire neighborhoods in frustration. Something’s got to change.
What needs to be known, is that there are those of us who are the same kind of dumbfounded over this verdict as we were over the OJ Simpson verdict. We did not jump in the air and go “whoo-hoo” when OJ Simpson was acquitted. We didn’t post messages online or anywhere else for that matter about Nicole Brown-Simpson or Ron Goldman being somehow deserving of what they got, we did none of that. We simply shook our heads at how flawed the justice system really is, and yes, marveled over the idea that it could in fact fall down on the side of an African American defendant. But in the eyes of many like me, there absolutely was nothing to celebrate, because to have done so would have been racist, pure and simple, and that’s what I couldn’t get the folks who attacked me on Facebook last night to understand.
My 16-year old son, who is about 6 feet, 1 inch tall and 240 pounds is a hugger. He hugs everybody he meets, and loves everyone he encounters, without exception. The problem is, he looks like a linebacker; he’s the quintessential gentle giant, and most frighteningly for me, as naive to the racism that exists in this country as he could possibly be. One night recently, during a sleep over with friends (both of which were white, if you’re curious), he snuck out of the house once I was asleep to “walk around the neighborhood”. When I discovered what he’d done, I exploded, trying to explain to him how dangerous it is for someone who looks like him to walk through neighbors yards at night. I’d seen the emails from my ignorant neighbors, warning fellow association members to “keep our kids off their lawns”, and how they would “shoot first and ask questions later”. And I knew what many others may not know – that the same “Stand Your Ground” law that (introduced as part of his defense or not) may have made Zimmerman’s current freedom possible is also on the books here in Georgia. What happened to Trayvon Martin could just as easily happen to my son. And knowing this sends chills down my spine, and strikes fear in my heart every time he walks out the door.
It’s this Trayvon-as-thug-deserving-to-die idea. If there is anyone out there who honestly believes that if it had been a blonde haired blue-eyed kid that had been cut down in his youth that night that these same folks would be all over the Internet accusing him of being a punk that deserved to die, please identify yourselves. Because if you’re out there, you’re probably standing next to a Unicorn and having dinner with Elvis and Tupac. No matter what your politics, your feeling about race, or your feeling about the outcome of the Zimmerman trial, at the heart of this story, there is a boy, a minor, who was at the wrong place at the wrong time by no fault of his own, who encountered someone who by his own words was eager to declare him a threat, a blight on society that needed to be eradicated. And there’s a mother and father who lost that boy, and so many broken hearts they’re too numerous to count – Trayvon’s friends, family, and all of those mothers like me, who are raising our own Trayvon Martins, and terrified to let them walk the streets. What is there to celebrate about that?
Running to either racial extreme in these kinds of cases only makes matters worse. We have to see our justice system for what it is – the best in the world, but flawed. And we have to work, always work to change the laws that make it possible for the Zimmerman’s of the world to prey on our children. We also have to change those aspects of our system that make it possible for someone with enough money to buy the most clever attorneys that money can buy to get away with murder. But what we must not do, cannot do ever, is celebrate any outcome, no matter who it favors, when a life has been taken.
That’s depraved, inhumane. Is that who we want to be?