*It doesn’t have the cultural relevance of the September 11th attack but I vividly recall where I was when the New York police officers who shot and killed Amadou Diallo were acquitted. In the back of a van en route to a game with my teammates, the same expression of amazement came to all of our faces. And as black males living in New York City we all felt personally assaulted by the realization that our lives weren’t viewed the same as other city residents.
As time passed and I thought about the Diallo case more I came to a better understanding of how pervasive the problem was. Because there was certainly a problem with the four officers who felt the need to fire 41 rounds at an African immigrant who took our and dropped his wallet in a dark hallway; her was definitely a problem that the officers would automatically assume that Diallo was to be viewed with suspicion because of his skin color and the neighborhood he lived in. But the real problem was that the city of New York and its police department trained the officers to act in the exact manner they did. That’s why they were found innocent of any crime.
The Diallo incident revealed that as much as there has been lots of progress in race relations, institutional racism was still a force in 1999. At the end of the day New York City was OK with racial profiling and life or death decisions based on that profiling.
So I suppose in some sense I could thank George Zimmerman, the jurors of his criminal trial, and the state of Florida for making me feel young again. There can be no doubt that there is a problem that Zimmerman would profile Trayvon Martin as a potential criminal perpetrator based on nothing more than his complexion and clothing. But the real issue is that the state of Florida has created a reality in which someone can instigate a violent situation and then be justified in using deadly force. The statistics of convictions and acquittals in cases involving the “Stand Your Ground” law strongly suggest institutional racism is alive and well in Florida.
I wasn’t on the Zimmerman jury and I haven’t read trial transcripts, but all indications point to a few key facts: Zimmerman changed his version of events at least once; the physical evidence doesn’t support what Zimmerman has said; Zimmerman was acting against the advice of the 911 operator he called who said to stop following the victim. All of this information suggest that the confrontation occurred because of Zimmerman’s thoughts and actions, and that the confrontation escalated because of Zimmerman’s thoughts and actions. Yet somehow he isn’t being held responsible.
The lack of accountability is possible because of Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law which allows individuals to use deadly force in response to what they believe to be an imminent , unavoidable and deadly threat. The problem is that this law empowers people with no law enforcement training to judge when they are in lethal danger, and when that danger is immediate and unavoidable. Such judgment is difficult for officers of the law (as evidenced by the Diallo case) and is that much harder by a scared civilian.
Ultimately the Zimmerman trial and verdict bring to mind three things. First – that it is difficult to navigate liberty when personal freedoms overlap and/or bump into one another. . In addition to possibly giving authority to those who should not have it, the “Stand Your Ground” law also strengthens the rights of the person who ultimately wins the standoff. However misguided his motivations Zimmerman had the ability to be in that neighborhood and the right to defend himself; Trayvon Martin also enjoyed those rights. But in the course of the trial only Zimmerman’s side of the story was heard because Martin was no longer alive and able to provide a counter narrative.
Second – O.J. Simpson. When he initially found not guilty of killing his Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman I was happy because I thought he was innocent. Then I realized he had to have known something and should be held accountable. Then I came to think he did it. Finally I thought back on the transformation of my feelings and concluded that it’s a shame that race holds so much weight in the justice system even if someone of my race happened to benefit in this instance.
Third – black men in American society have been alienated. Perhaps it is subconscious (I’m not sure and I’m not saying it is), perhaps we are simply dealing with the legacy of our racial past and its effect on American laws (I’m not sure and I’m not saying that is definitively what’s going on here), certainly it isn’t logical, but somehow black men are not part of the default picture of American society by those in positions of leadership. So there is not much value placed on our lives and there seems to be an inherent fear of us.
To lynch simply means to implement justice without giving the accused the benefit of a trial. Martin had a trial so this incident doesn’t fit the classic definition. But when you allow one person (Zimmerman) to determine the crime, determine the guilt, determine the sentence, and carry out that sentence – we aren’t far off from lynching.
Rest in peace Trayvon.
Trevor Brookins is a free lance writer in Rockland County, New York. He is currently working on a book about American culture during the Cold War. His writing has appeared in The Journal News. You can reach him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @historictrev.