A good friend remarked to me shortly after the verdict that the attention devoted to the George Zimmerman trial was way out of proportion to its significance.
He was as saddened and angered by the verdict as I was, but in his view the case served only to distract us from more pressing, global issues. And in any case, he said, the trial would not be a catalyst for change.
I have not touched base with him in the last few days to see whether his opinion has changed, but I imagine it has. Demonstrations from New York City to Los Angeles to right here in Flagler County are reflecting the anger of people who had a right to expect that, half a century after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, and with a black man in the White House, Jim Crow was dead and gone.
The message boards on this site and others are rife with accusations that the mainstream media is responsible for turning Trayvon Martin’s death into a racial contest, but nothing could be further from the truth. The moment an unarmed black teenager was pursued and ultimately shot by an armed community volunteer, this case was about race. The media attention given it was deserved. What’s more, the conversation taking place in the aftermath is essential to our understanding of what really led to the killing, and how we might prevent such outrages in the future.
The Pew Research Center took the temperature of the nation in the wake of the verdict by examining traffic on Twitter, and reported that “of the 38% of the statements offering clear views about the result, those expressing anger or opposition to the verdict (31%) outnumbered those in support of the acquittal (7%) by more than 4:1.”
Clearly, interest in the case has evolved into outrage over the verdict, and news organizations urgently need to tell that story in detail. And while they can often turn into circuses (Judge Debra Nelson prevented that from happening in the Zimmerman case), trials are the real-life theater through which we examine our prejudices, our fears, and the differences in belief that fracture our society. Our history is punctuated by sensational court cases that illuminated those divisions, and enabled us to move forward as a more tolerant society.
To read about the murder trial of Sacco and Vanzetti in the 1920s for instance is to learn a great deal about the anti-immigrant fervor of the time, judicial misconduct and investigative cover-up. The ordeal of the nine Scottsboro Boys in the 1930s threw a spotlight on racial injustice in the courtrooms of the South, and resulted in landmark Supreme Court rulings on effective representation and the racial composition of juries.
Even the fiasco of the O.J. Simpson case forced us to confront uncomfortable issues of celebrity, race, and lifestyle.
As for my friend’s second observation, it is apparent that the Zimmerman trial is indeed a transformative event. Though Zimmerman did not invoke Florida’s Stand Your Ground law during the trial, the air in the jury room must have been thick with its acrid smell. The six women were left instead to ponder Zimmerman’s assertion of self-defense, stand your ground’s close cousin in the Florida statutes. Under Florida law, the fact that Zimmerman initiated the encounter with Martin didn’t matter, nor did the fact that Zimmerman was armed and Martin was not. When jurors tell you that they acquitted the man who shot and killed an unarmed teenager because that’s what the law said they had to do, then the laws have to change. Even Senator John McCain, from the equally gun-nutty state of Arizona, is conceding that states, his included, must take a closer look at their stand your ground and self-defense laws.
A boycott of Florida by tourists and business groups might be merely symbolic, or it could be a severe blow to our state, which is slowly clawing its way out of recession. Either way, national appeals for individuals and groups to avoid Florida say a great deal about the emotions the Zimmerman case has stirred. A state government that encourages gun ownership, then tells gun owners that they have broad latitude to use their weapons, even against unarmed adversaries, may not be the best place in which to enjoy a vacation or host a convention.
As for the dialogue in the black community, the case was a slap in the face to parents who must tell their black youngsters to behave deferentially when confronted by a white man. At the same time, defenders of the Zimmerman verdict are insisting that any conversation include the terrible toll that black-on-black crime takes in many of our urban communities. If the Zimmerman case does prompt that discussion, that would be a good thing.
The trial is history, Zimmerman is purportedly in hiding, and a family is left to grieve the death of a son. And looming on the horizon is yet another case that will test our willingness to hold shooters responsible when the victim is black. In September, trial is expected to begin in the case of Michael Dunn, a white man who shot to death 17-year-old Jordan Davis while Davis sat in a car at a Jacksonville gas station. Dunn claims that after he asked Davis and his friends to turn down the music in their car, Davis threatened him and, Dunn says, he saw a gun in the car.
According to police, Dunn shot eight or nine times into the car. No gun was found in the victim’s car. Dunn is charged with first-degree murder and is being held without bail. His lawyer told CNN that Dunn “acted as any responsible firearm owner would have under the same circumstances.”
Is this starting to sound familiar? Let the conversation continue.
Steve Robinson moved to Flagler County after a 30-year career in New York and Atlanta in print, TV and the Web. Reach him by email here.