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‘They Always Get Away’

Jul. 17, 2013
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Since tabloid television trials often appear to revolve around the attractiveness of female victims or defendants, they seldom deal with profound social questions we all confront in our daily lives.

The trial of George Zimmerman, the amateur neighborhood watch volunteer who shot and killed Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager in a white, Florida neighborhood, was an exception.

At the heart of the Zimmerman case were negative assumptions based on race and acceptance of totally unacceptable behavior based on those assumptions.

Sadly, they may have been at the heart of the jury’s verdict exonerating Zimmerman as well.

Despite any racial progress, we still see those same negative racial assumptions locally when police officers conduct brutal rectal exams of black suspects in public streets or ignore the last desperate pleas of a black man struggling to breathe while in police custody.

One basic fact was never disputed by either side in the Florida trial regarding the deadly confrontation between Zimmerman and Martin.

It is that the 17-year-old Martin had done absolutely nothing to warrant being pursued by police “wannabe” Zimmerman other than being a black teenager in a white neighborhood.

Martin and his father were guests in a home in the neighborhood. The youth was returning with Skittles and a fruit drink from a nearby store.

The fact that Zimmerman considered Martin a threat to the neighborhood the moment he saw him tells us a whole lot about Zimmerman, but nothing factual about Martin.

In a curious legal twist, the judge in the trial permitted prosecutors to say that Zimmerman “profiled” Martin, but not that Zimmerman “racially profiled” him.

It was as if the judge thought prosecutors would somehow prejudice the trial against Zimmerman if they were allowed to suggest right out loud why Zimmerman decided to follow a young black teenager who was doing nothing wrong.

One factor that makes it so difficult to overcome negative racial attitudes in our society is that those who hold them most blindly object to any public discussion of their mindless prejudices. They call that “playing the race card.”

So Zimmerman simply “profiled” Martin. Perhaps he harbored a deep-seated fear of Skittles consumers.


The Racial Fears of Someone with a Gun

Because of a threat that existed only in Zimmerman’s mind, he took two actions. One might be acceptable behavior. The second should never be.

The first thing Zimmerman did was call the police. The police responded correctly. They said they would send someone and told Zimmerman to stop following a young black man who had done nothing wrong.

Zimmerman didn’t follow that advice. And before continuing his pursuit, he revealed his own ugly mindset. “Punks!” he was recorded saying. “They always get away!”

Zimmerman didn’t just pursue Martin. He pursued him with a loaded gun.

After that, we know there was a physical confrontation between Zimmerman and Martin, but the jury only had Zimmerman’s self-serving version of it. That’s because Martin was shot and killed by Zimmerman.

There were plenty of contradictions and holes in Zimmerman’s story. Even though Zimmerman had a deadly weapon and Martin was unarmed, Zimmerman claimed he was the one who feared for his life.

Although a medical examiner testified Zimmerman received “very insignificant” injuries to the back of his head on the sidewalk, his defense attorney described the concrete as a “deadly weapon” that Martin used to try to bludgeon Zimmerman to death.

That’s convenient, since Florida law gives wide leeway to armed gunmen who say they shot someone unarmed out of fear for their life. Apparently, in Florida, the more fearful you are of black people, the more justified you are in killing them.

It took a national outcry to even bring state charges against Zimmerman since local prosecutors saw no reason to do so. It was probably always expecting too much to think there actually might be a chance of conviction.

But the case itself became a kind of a Rorschach test for racial attitudes in America. President Barack Obama has wisely said the root of many problems in this country is our failure to see ourselves in others.

In this case, many whites, egged on as usual by conservative talk radio, were quick to identify with Zimmerman (who has a white father and a Latina mother) instead of with Martin.

That may well be because many whites, perhaps as a result of negative racial attitudes that have been passed on to them, also harbor automatic fears of black teenagers—even single, unarmed ones who’ve done absolutely nothing to provoke such fear.

But if more of us can ever start seeing ourselves in others regardless of race, it shouldn’t be that difficult for all parents and family members to put themselves in the place of a black family losing an unarmed child because of the racial fears of someone with a gun.

Until that happens, punks like George Zimmerman always get away.


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