Point of View Columns

Lessons from the Zimmerman Trial

There is something about America and trials and court decisions. The 1733 trial of Peter Zenger in New York City laid the foundation for the First Amendment. The Dred Scott decision in 1857 shamefully affirmed the legitimacy of slavery in this country. The Brown v. Board of Education case in 1954 began to finally dismantle the infrastructure of institutionalized racism in this country.

There have been many “trials of the century” – Sacco-Vanzetti, the Scopes “monkey” trial, the trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg – but there was something about the murder trial of O.J. Simpson which mixed a rich combination of circus plus drama plus the most prodigious exploitation of racial taboos since the heyday of the Ku Klux Klan. That O.J. Simpson was acquitted of killing a blonde white woman has struck many white Americans as the greatest miscarriage of justice in the history of the planet.

This bit of retrospective is important in looking at the Zimmerman trial because even though a black man is not on trial, the defendant’s perception of black men is a central factor in this case. Unlike the O.J. Simpson case the Zimmerman case is not a whodunit. It is clear and freely admitted that George Zimmerman intentionally fired the fatal shot that killed Trayvon Martin.

The question in the Zimmerman case is whether the defendant had the legal right to kill Trayvon Martin. The defense has argued that his fear and mistrust of a “suspicious” black person caused him to confront the murder victim. The defense has further argued that once he engaged in a confrontation with Trayvon Martin he had a right to kill him since he was in fear of his life.

It is important to note that in the South it was legally impossible for a white man to be convicted of killing a black man until 1865. After that it was virtually impossible for a white man to be convicted of killing a black man and the number of exceptions to this brutal rule would not take up much space in this column.

The Zimmerman case must be seen within this historical context – in the South white men (including Latino white men) have had an historical right to kill black men even if they are the aggressors, the instigators or even the terrorists (see the Ku Klux Klan). The fear of inherent blood lust that resides in every black man has been seen as sufficient justification for killing black men who talked back to a white man, looked askance at a white man or struck a white man.

Seen within this context, it is understandable how the local police did not even arrest George Zimmerman at the time of the murder. It is understandable how the laws and public perception work in another of the benighted former Confederate States so that the killing of a young black man is considered justifiable simply because the shooter said so.

The toxicity of this situation is compounded by the almost ubiquitous presence of guns in America and in Florida in particular. Combined with the “Stand Your Ground” law which no longer requires individuals to try to avoid confrontation, it is perfectly understandable how Trayvon Martin was killed and why George Zimmerman shot him. And it is perfectly clear that if there was no gun Trayvon Martin would still be alive as it is doubtful that George Zimmerman would have ever approached him in the first place.

The only remaining question is whether the jury – a six member panel comprised of six women, five of whom are white – will somehow find George Zimmerman to have some responsibility for the death of Trayvon Martin. It is hard to believe that the devaluation of the lives of black men, a tradition that dates back to slavery, still slithers through the subconscious minds of too many white Americans.

For those who would argue against this assessment consider the Martin-Zimmerman fact pattern and reverse the racial identity of the actors. Does anyone doubt that the “black” George Zimmerman would have been arrested for killing the “white” Trayvon Martin?

The answer may be the harshest lesson that we learn from the George Zimmerman trial.

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