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
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.