By Danny R. Johnson
WASHINGTON – As most of the nation smolders under the suppression of 100+ degree heat, the racial divide temperature is rising among African-Americans and White Americans around the country who are trying to comprehend the verdict and the future of race relations after a Florida jury found George Zimmerman innocent in the death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.
For more than 16 months the nation, particularly a large population of African-Americans, had waited in great anticipation for the trial of George Zimmerman, which many in the Civil Rights community thought would bring closure and justice for Trayvon Martin and his family: Instead, the five White women and one Hispanic jury delivered a July 13 “not-guilty” verdict which immediately touched off mostly peaceful protests in major cities across the country. The televised trial finally gave George Zimmerman a face and a voice—even though he did not say not one word on the witness stand, but his defense attorneys skillfully and masterfully convinced the jury that their client was defending himself when he pulled the trigger that eventually ended the life of Trayvon Martin.
Prior to the July 13 jury’s verdict being read in the Sanford, Florida courthouse, Dr. Bernice King, the eldest daughter of the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mrs. Coretta Scott King, sent a tweet to Benjamin Crump, one of the attorneys for the family of Trayvon, which contained these timely and prophetic words: “Today is a defining moment for the status of my father’s dream” and whatever the verdict, “in the words of my father, we must conduct ourselves on the higher plain of dignity and discipline.”
Would that the nation’s leaders, of both races, could find such plain but heartfelt words. Then perhaps the quiet that will return after the protests and the fury emotions being felt by millions of Americans burn themselves out–whenever that is–could cover healing. Which would make it very unlike the totally deceptive quiet that preceded the Zimmerman verdict?
It had not exactly been unknown that race relations were worsening; a hundred voices had said so over and over but fell on deft ears. But not until last week did many Whites and Blacks realize how deep an abyss had been opening at their feet. And last week’s and future demonstrations being planned by Al Sharpton and others are all too likely to make the gulf still wider and deeper. For Blacks the acquittal, and for Whites the aftermath, tended to confirm each race’s worst fears and suspicions about the other.
Blacks have far more than police brutality and perceived and documented injustices in the nation’s judicial system to worry about: high unemployment, widespread poverty, and poor schools, drug peddlers and criminals who prey on their neighborhoods. But it is no accident that nearly all the great ghetto riots since the 1960s have been triggered by some incident involving arrested Blacks and White cops in which in some cases the Black defendant ended up dying in police custody or died at the hands of a non-Black with no impunities from the courts. To an extent that Whites can barely even imagine–because it so rarely happens to them—these types of atrocities to many Blacks is an ever present threat to their bodies and lives.
Indeed, few things more vividly illustrate the extent to which Whites and Blacks live in different worlds than their reactions to the Zimmerman acquittal than the comments from the infamous Juror B37.
To be clear, no one can understand the inner workings of Juror B37’s mind, or what her intentions were. And yet, Juror B37 words reflected more sympathy and compassion for Zimmerman than Trayvon Martin. To many Blacks in particular, she helped peel back the layers of both unconscious and overt racism that underwrote the killing of Trayvon, the trial of his killer George Zimmerman, and the ultimate verdict of not guilty. A jury comprised entirely of women, sent Zimmerman free. And though many are horrified, most Blacks were not surprised.
Juror B37, a middle-class married suburban White female who says she was saddened by the death of Trayvon from her prism of the world said to herself something like, “Look what happened to that poor guy—he brought his death on himself because he did not walk away.” A Black would be almost sure to say, “My God, that could have been me or my son, nephew, or grandson.” And nothing makes Blacks feel more helpless than the thought that they cannot do anything about it. However innocent a Black may be, and however outrageously he or she may be treated, the criminal-justice system simply will not convict policemen of using excessive force or be held accountable for botching an initial investigation as was the case with the Sanford Police department.
After the Zimmerman verdict, many Blacks and criminal defense attorneys such as celebrity criminal defense attorney, Mark Geragos, said repeatedly from the onset of the trial they had always thought that Zimmerman would be acquitted. And that the prosecution failed in many areas to humanize Trayvon as if that would have made a difference.
In any case, Blacks found some consolation in the idea that many Whites also disagreed with the acquittal of Zimmerman as demonstrated by the millions who voiced their opposition on the various social media websites. To them, the White disapproval was not pallid and ineffectual and showed real understanding of their emotions.
“The inequities in the justice system are a form of oppression that Black people intimately understand, because we are the victims of it,” says Ben Jealous, President and Chief Executive Officer for the NAACP in Baltimore. “It is something that few Whites understand, because they are typically not affected by it.” Ernest Collins, an unemployed 26-year-old Black in Cleveland, Ohio, says more simply, “I don’t want to see any White people today. Every time I see a White person now I will think, `You think you can get away with anything.’ I know you can’t blame all White people for this, but there’s only so much a Black man can take.”
On a scholarly level, Robert Starks, Professor of Inner City Studies Education at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago, asserts, “The message is loud and clear. It reinforces the 1857 Dred Scott dictum that no Black man has any rights that a White man is bound to respect. African-American males feel it is open season.” Not only males, either. Akos Esia, 28, a professional nurse who has emigrated from Ghana to New York City’s Harlem, says, “I think it’s a message White America is sending, that you can do anything to a Black person, even with evidence against you, and get away with it.” She vows to tell the children she takes care of, “You are Black; the justice system is an enemy so be sure to stay out of trouble.”
Wayne DePierre, a White Civil Rights activist in Los Angeles, stated to a hundred people at a protest rally last week in Los Angeles that “in America Black life is meaningless and Black rights do not exist.” To many Blacks, the fact that the not-guilty verdict was handed down by a jury that included no Blacks (though it did have one Hispanic) virtually proves that the criminal-justice system is ruled by bias and that they cannot look to it for fair treatment. They dismiss as a sham the official contention that the trial was prosecuted by the state of Florida on behalf of Trayvon Martin and his family. In their view, the move by the defense and the prosecution to seat Juror B37 and the other jurors was made precisely for the purpose of guaranteeing that a jury excluding Blacks and that such a group of jurors was desired specifically because it would be almost certain not to convict. Not a few White observers, including some legal scholars, are inclined to agree with that judgment, at least partly. Says Douglas Colbert, a Professor of Criminal Law at the University of Maryland Law School: “I don’t believe it would have mattered what evidence was presented or not presented.” But again, White sympathy does little to reduce Black fury.”
After the Rodney King verdicts and acquittal of the White policemen in 1992, there were gulfs within as well as between the races, and Black leaders were not always in touch with the people in their respective communities, much less in control of, all their supposed followers. Mayor Tom Bradley, who was Black, drew boos and cries of “Uncle Tom” as well as cheers from a crowd who jammed the First African Methodist Episcopal Church in South Central Los Angeles during one of his frequent pleas for peace.
Worse, the Rodney King riots demonstrated again the existence of a group of mostly young, impoverished and angry ghetto Blacks who would no longer listen to the established African-American leadership–or to anybody. “There is a major communication gap between our so-called leaders and these people who have taken to the streets,” stated Johnnie Cochran, one of the most prominent lawyers in Los Angeles at the time. People who left leaving the protest rally at the First A.M.E. Church, he related, were confronted by rioters who told them, “Nothing you’re talking about is going to do any good–so come with us and let’s burn.”
Some rioters even shot at the churchgoers. “Black people shooting at other Black people,” said Cochran disconsolately. “Nobody can talk to the people in the streets. Even their parents can’t talk to them. The only thing they’re going to understand is a show of force, and I hope it’s a measured show of force.”
Flash forward 21 years later to 2013 and the reactions to the Zimmerman verdict was the complete opposite to the Rodney King verdicts. There was no mass rioting or destructive and violent civil unrest, which is largely due to the influx and influence of social media outlets such as the Internet, Twitter, Facebook, Skype, I-Phones and Smart-Phone devices. The Black youths of 2013 have become more sophisticated in addressing what they perceive as society’s injustices.
On the White side of the racial divide, the riots may tend to reinforce suspicions–or convictions–that all too many Blacks are emotionally irresponsible at best, criminals at worst. So far, it must be said, there is not much evidence of that. With the exception of people calling in to Right-Wing radio talk shows—such as Sean Hannity’s radio show, several callers characterized Al Sharpton, Attorney General Eric Holder and President Barack Obama as a “bunch of terrorists and anarchists” who would seize on any pretext to wreak the destruction they enjoy–most Whites were fairly circumspect in voicing their opinions.
Nonetheless, Tea Party/Religious Right commentators have been non-stop in their criticism of the “hypocrisy of the left in wanting to hang George Zimmerman,” as described by Right-Wing columnist Mike Gallagher who wrote this in his latest column: “Have you noticed how liberals have lined up behind the (false) narrative that George Zimmerman was a homicidal racist? From President Obama to Senator Reid to Mayor Bloomberg, the faces of America’s liberal establishment are scrunched up in a howling rage over the acquittal of the neighborhood watch volunteer. Watching liberalism’s reaction to the trial’s outcome tells you everything you need to know about the raw, ugly truth of the left’s failed ideology.”
There is some question, in fact, whether White fear and suspicion of Blacks may be higher than most will confess to pollsters because there is no reliable scientific data to actually measure White’s fears of non-Whites accurately. Some analysts think it is and worry about a vicious circle: White fear of Black and Brown crime is so high as to lead some to excuse almost any behavior on the part of the police/justice system who are supposedly protecting them against it.
That leads to verdicts like the acquittal of Zimmerman, which touch off mass protests, which further intensify White fear. Scholars of both races express this apprehension. Says Henry Louis Gates, Chairman of Afro-American Studies at Harvard: “That [Zimmerman] jury was more afraid of the potential of being mugged or attacked by some hypothetical Black male than it was of the abuse of the Constitution, of civil rights.” Jim Sleeper, author of the book The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York, is fearful that “we’re at the dividing line now, where perception becomes reality, where the prophecy becomes self-fulfilling. The fact that the very small number of looters we saw in Los Angeles who committed acts of vandalism confirms in what White people have decided: this is what the cops and the justice system are here to protect us from.”
The tragedy is that, if the polls are anywhere near accurate, the races have more in common than they think they do: the dominant strain in Black and White opinion condemns both the acquittal and the rioting. That should have offered an opportunity for creative political leadership to begin emphasizing the convergence and narrowing the differences. In particular, it offered a rare chance to President Obama, who when faced with a tough choice often tries to go both ways. This was one time he could have done so and won the applause of that majority disgusted with the acquittal.
President Obama is often perceived as a half-beat behind the mood of the moment, and so he initially was this time. Immediately after the verdict, he issued a statement which most in the liberal/progressive community considered as an utterly inadequate: “The court system has worked. What’s needed now is calm, respect for the law.”
While some in the Conservative/Religious Right would prefer President Obama to keep a low profile and not comment on the emotional aspects of the Zimmerman verdict, the President will have none of it. On Friday, July 19, at approximately 1:48 PM EST, President Obama surprised everyone in the White House Press Corps and assembled them together in the briefing room and gave extensive personal experiences on being profiled and his thoughts on the Zimmerman verdict. Here are a few excerpts from the President’s remarks at the press briefing:
- “There are very few African-American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me.”
- “The judge conducted the trial in a professional manner. The prosecution and the defense made their arguments. The juries were properly instructed that in a — in a case such as this, reasonable doubt was relevant, and they rendered a verdict. And once the jury’s spoken, that’s how our system works.”
- “You know, when Trayvon Martin was first shot, I said that this could have been my son. Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago. And when you think about why, in the African- American community at least, there’s a lot of pain around what happened here, I think it’s important to recognize that the African- American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that — that doesn’t go away.”
- “The African-American community is also knowledgeable that there is a history of racial disparities in the application of our criminal laws, everything from the death penalty to enforcement of our drug laws. And that ends up having an impact in terms of how people interpret the case.”
- “And let me just leave you with — with a final thought, that as difficult and challenging as this whole episode has been for a lot of people, I don’t want us to lose sight that things are getting better. Each successive generation seems to be making progress in changing attitudes when it comes to race. I doesn’t mean that we’re in a postracial society. It doesn’t mean that racism is eliminated. But you know, when I talk to Malia and Sasha and I listen to their friends and I see them interact, they’re better than we are. They’re better than we were on these issues. And that’s true in every community that I’ve visited all across the country.”
Leading a discussion on the Zimmerman verdict and its aftermaths poses significant risks for the President as his Achilles heel and nemesis Tavis Smiley brings out: “When you have a President who authorizes drones to murder Americans abroad, which included women and children the same age as Trayvon Martin – you have a serious problem in meeting the moral turpitude test.”
The Justice Department faces an uphill battle in trying to satisfy the Trayvon Martin family and the millions of Americans who want to see Zimmerman punished for what they perceive as the “unjustified killing of Trayvon Martin.” Attorney General Holder has ordered federal authorities to speed an investigation with a view toward starting a possible federal prosecution of George Zimmerman for violating Martin’s Civil Rights, utilizing a law enacted specifically to apply in cases where state courts and juries could or would not convict.
That move might help convince skeptical Blacks that they can after all get fair treatment from the judicial system. Better late than never–but it remains to be seen whether the racial chasm that the Zimmerman case revealed and widened can be bridged.
Danny R. Johnson is San Diego County News’ Washington, DC based Correspondent.