George Zimmerman verdict lifts the lid on depth of racist attitudes in US society

Many believe that if Trayvon Martin had been born white, he would be alive today

Jediah Jones, 3, holds a sign as her mother Keiota Jones, stands behind her during a protest the day after George Zimmerman was found not guilty in the 2012 shooting death of teenager Trayvon Marti, in Atlanta. Photograph: David Goldman/AP Photo

Jediah Jones, 3, holds a sign as her mother Keiota Jones, stands behind her during a protest the day after George Zimmerman was found not guilty in the 2012 shooting death of teenager Trayvon Marti, in Atlanta. Photograph: David Goldman/AP Photo


George Zimmerman’s acquittal of the murder of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin and the responding protests in major US cities have reheated the debate about racism in American life and whether the criminal justice system is stacked against African-Americans.

Zimmerman (29), a neighbourhood watchman in Sanford, Florida, left court a free man on Saturday night even though there was no doubt that on the night of February 26th, 2012, he shot dead a black teenager armed with a bag of Skittles returning from a nearby 7-11 store.

Siding with his self-defence claim, a jury found that Zimmerman, who said he was knocked to the ground and punched and slammed against a pavement by Martin, was justified in using his legally held gun on the teenager.

The verdict, handed down under Florida’s broad “stand your ground” self-defence law, has left millions of Americans shocked that Zimmerman could seek out what he thought was trouble that night and act, leading to the death of a 17-year-old – only to be found not to have committed a crime.

The judge barred any consideration of whether racial profiling motivated Zimmerman’s decision to confront Martin – whether he killed the teenager because he didn’t like the look of him walking through his gated community, because he was black and wore a hoodie, and wrongly assumed he was out to cause trouble.

It may not have been debated in court but race was at the heart of this trial. That a jury made a legally sound interpretation of Florida’s laws based on the evidence presented to them has proven even more shocking for Americans.

Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, the 2012 bestselling book that argued that the decades-old fight against crime in the US deliberately eroded the gains of the civil rights movement, summed up the killing simply: if Trayvon Martin had been born white, he would be alive today.

“It is the Zimmerman mindset that must be found guilty – far more than the man himself,” the law professor wrote in a post on her Facebook page on Saturday in response to the verdict.

“It is a mindset that views black men and boys as nothing but a threat, good for nothing, up to no good, no matter who they are or what they are doing. It is the Zimmerman mindset that has birthed a penal system unprecedented in world history, and relegated millions to a permanent undercaste.”

‘Stand your ground’ laws
In 2005 Florida became the first in a wave of more than 20 states to introduce “stand your ground” laws extending protection for self-defence by removing a person’s duty to retreat before they could use lethal force. In other words, you didn’t have to show that you tried to get away from a threatening person before shooting them if you reasonably believed that they were going to hurt or kill you.

The law placed a heavy burden of proof on the prosecution in the Zimmerman case and made it difficult, in light of the weak evidence, to prove that he did not act in self-defence.

The case is being cited as another statistic showing how “stand your ground” laws lead unnecessarily to higher numbers of deaths – 8 per cent or 600 homicides more a year, according to a study by Texas A&M University – and reinforce a racial bias in the wider US criminal justice system.

Whites who kill blacks in “stand your ground” states are also far more likely to be found justified in these killings.

In these states whites are 354 per cent more likely to be found justified in killing a black person than a white person killing another white person compared with 250 per cent elsewhere, according to research by John Roman, a fellow at the Urban Institute think tank in Washington DC.

Some politicians, such as the Republican governor of Texas, Rick Perry, have argued that the US justice system is blind to colour. But statistics show disproportionately more severe enforcement against black Americans.

Longer sentences
Black men received almost 20 per cent longer prison sentences than white men convicted of similar crimes, the US sentencing commission said in a report published in February.

Black Americans were nearly four times as likely as whites to be arrested on marijuana possession charges in 2010 even though both groups used the drug at similar rates, the American Civil Liberties Union said in a report published last month, citing federal data.

David Kennedy, director of the Centre for Crime Prevention and Control at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, says it is not helpful to put Martin’s death down to racial profiling, which only makes sense in the context of law enforcement; his killing comes down simply to racism.

“The Trayvon Martin- George Zimmerman case is another instance of another black man killed for no good reason by somebody and the duly constituted legal process saying that this is okay,” Kennedy says.

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