Race, guns and justice


The acquittal of George Zimmerman, a Florida neighbourhood watch volunteer, for the murder of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed 17 year-old African-American, has reignited America’s ever-combustible debates on race and gun violence. The verdict triggered mostly peaceful demonstrations across the country and reinforced the view of many African-Americans that the justice system remains tilted against people of colour. Many white conservatives, on the other hand, have welcomed the collapse of a prosecution they believe should never have been taken as a defeat for “race baiters” in the black community.

Martin was walking home from a convenience store in February 2012, carrying only iced tea and fruit sweets, when Zimmerman called the police to say that the hoodie-wearing teenager was acting suspiciously. Despite a police warning to remain in his truck, Zimmerman followed Martin and they engaged in a tussle that ended with the black teenager being shot dead. It was almost six weeks before police charged Zimmerman, who insisted he shot Martin in self-defence because he thought his life was in danger. The jury accepted the defence argument.

The US justice department has revived an investigation into the incident that it put on hold during Zimmerman’s trial and he could yet face criminal civil rights charges, though most legal experts believe that such federal action is unlikely. President Barack Obama, who said after the killing that “if I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon,” has called for calm but questioned whether Americans have done enough to stem the tide of gun violence that claims the lives of so many Americans each day.

The truth is that US lawmakers, cowed by a powerful and well-funded gun lobby, have done almost nothing to combat gun violence. And the election of the country’s first black president has neither ushered in a post-racial America nor significantly diminished the injustice faced by many black Americans, particularly young men, in their own country.