(Swans - July 29, 2013) I've been somewhat reluctant to speak out about the verdict recently handed down by a Sanford, Florida, jury clearing George Zimmerman of murder charges in the death of Trayvon Martin. Florida has established itself in recent years as a national eyesore -- from the 2000 election voter suppression, to its back and forth struggle to maintain a working feeding tube for a woman permanently confined to a vegetable state, its massive foreclosures which still are creating a drag on the economy, etc. -- so why should this case be any different for its unsightly spectacle? (1) As readers know, George Zimmerman, 29, was the Latino neighborhood watch vigilante who shot and killed seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin, an African American, in a Sanford neighborhood last February. Zimmerman claimed he thought Martin was up to no good as he walked through the neighborhood. He then followed Martin, fought with him, and then shot him to death. The case has been framed by the legal experts as an issue of whether Zimmerman was justified in defending himself by shooting and killing Martin or whether Zimmerman provoked this situation by profiling and following Martin as he walked through the neighborhood to his father's fiancée's home.
My reluctance to discuss this topic stems from my annoyance with those who have wanted to make the case speak to broader national issues, such as gun rights and whether the justice system still disproportionately disfavors African American defendants and/or African American victims. Moreover, my reluctance to talk about the Zimmerman verdict stems from my observation that political groups have failed to take the case at face value. Conservatives and gun rights advocates have rejoiced at the verdict, claiming that it was a victory for gun rights and "Stand your ground laws" that allow for gun owners to use lethal force in the face of perceived threat to their person or property. Liberals and proponents of gun control have predictably lamented the verdict as a victory for broader gun rights and "Stand your ground laws." Additionally, the outcry from the African American community has been persistent with the claim that the Zimmerman verdict is another instance in which the criminal justice system has failed to render justice for a black victim: that racism has indeed won out again in the American criminal justice system with this verdict.
This latter issue of race resonates with me simply because I am African American and I am sensitive to issues regarding how African Americans are profiled by law enforcement more than persons of other racial groups. Zimmerman, who has never been a police officer, profiled Trayvon Martin, which is what many African Americans, including myself, keyed in on: no doubt because many of us have been profiled in our lives and been subject to unjustified searches or ill treatment by the police.
Unfortunately, the national dialogue on this case has reached an all-time low, for the pundits now ask if George Zimmerman will now earn a living from the donations from conservatives or the gun rights lobby. Why is such a question worthy of a national discussion? In the same breath, media speculation about what the jurors in this case stand to make from book deals and/or interviews reveals our lack of sympathy for the victim's family, as well as revealing our own poisonous fatal attraction to the almighty dollar. Can we for a moment squarely focus on the fact that a seventeen-year-old kid is dead?
Out of respect for the victim and his family, our national conversations about this issue should focus on the tragedy itself and that a young man who had much to live for is no longer with us. The business of using this case to validate or invalidate a political or ideological agenda, or using this case to talk about the potential riches that people involved in the case stand to earn, cheapens Trayvon Martin's life (and death).
So can we please stop trying to make the Trayvon Martin case into some sort of "victory" for this or that political creed or ideology or a defeat for some other social agenda? A young man died senselessly and that is a loss for society as a whole.
1. No, I can't leave out Florida's Tea Party governor Rick Scott as another unsightly spectacle in his own right, a demagogue who has assaulted state funding for higher education with bravado equally unsightly. (back)
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About the Author
Harvey E. Whitney, Jr. is a doctoral candidate in history at Florida State University and teaches medieval and modern global history at Howard Community College in Maryland. To learn more, please visit his Web site at http://hewhitney.com/. (back)