America’s rule of law is not an exact science. And it makes no promises to heal.
The acquittal of George Zimmerman on second-degree murder charges over the weekend may have been appropriate within the narrow confines of Florida law. But the verdict left an open wound.
It did nothing to affirm the value of the life of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, or the right of a young person of color to move through society without engendering suspicion or malice.
That unfinished work is now the task of all Americans of good will.
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The six females jurors in Sanford, Fla., had a tough job. In an era where seemingly every action is recorded on a camera somewhere, they had no footage or video or consistent eyewitness accounts to tell them exactly what happened on February 26, 2012, when Zimmerman fatally shot the unarmed Martin.
Zimmerman, a 29-year-old neighborhood watch volunteer, claimed self defense, and that is the version the jury ultimately accepted.
But Zimmerman didn’t need to follow Martin that rainy night. A police dispatcher told him it was unwise. If nothing else, this case should stand as a cautionary tale for citizens who would place paranoia over good judgment.
To many Americans, Martin’s death was the terrible end result of the racial profiling that remains rampant in our nation. Only Zimmerman knows whether he zeroed in on Martin because of skin color. But racial profiling is real, and many, including many black Americans, can hardly be faulted for suspecting it as being at the root of Zimmerman’s actions.
Clearly, we still have much work to do on race relations.
Comments by Zimmerman’s lawyer, Mark O’Mara, after the verdict are not helpful. Had his client been black, O’Mara said, “he never would have been charged with a crime.”
In fact, any look at criminal justice data tells us that a black man is as likely or more so to face criminal charges as a white person or someone of a different ethnicity. (Zimmerman’s father is white and his mother is Latina.) O’Mara’s remarks were foolish and inflammatory.
It also doesn’t help that states such as Florida have encouraged vigilantism with “stand your ground” laws, which give armed citizens permission to fire weapons rather than retreating if they feel threatened. These laws support deadly force not as a last resort, but essentially at the shooter’s discretion. They are unnecessary and dangerous and states that have them on the books should repeal them.
It is necessary to remember that Trayvon Martin was one of thousands of Americans who die senselessly every year from gunshot wounds.
Kansas City Mayor Sly James addressed that point in a statement Saturday night.
“By remaining focused on the community goal of reducing gun violence, we can prevent more tragedy from taking place in our city,” he said. “That truly is the best way to honor the memory of any victim of gun violence, including Trayvon Martin and the hundreds of other lesser known victims.”
Trayvon Martin was cheated of his passage into adulthood. He died violently, but violence should not be his legacy. The best way to honor the young man is to engage in a dialogue of reconciliation and violence prevention.