By Yohuru Williams, Ph.D.
The decision in the trial of George Zimmerman for the killing of 17-year-old Florida teen Trayvon Martin has generated concerns about the potential for violence because the jury’s not guilty verdict. The discussion itself seems a bit odd when one considers the overwhelmingly peaceful nature of the demonstrations that have accompanied the case from the very beginning. After the fatal shooting of Martin over a year ago for instance, rallies in his name were nonviolent, focusing attention instead on the problems of gun violence, racial prejudice, and the judicial process.
Largely driving these new fears is our nation’s troubling history over the last half-century with such events, including the violence that accompanied the acquittal of law enforcement officers accused in the beating of motorist Rodney King in Los Angles in 1992 and of Arthur McDuffie in Miami in 1980.
While a powerful symbol of the persistence of a particular type of de facto racial prejudice, Trayvon Martin is no Rodney King or Arthur McDuffie. For starters, the cases are very different. The King and Miami Overton riots both involved episodes of official misconduct by officers of the law.
The video of Los Angeles police officers repeatedly pummeling the body of Rodney King presented for most incontrovertible evidence that the force used was excessive. The subsequent acquittal of the officers involved in the beating by an all-white jury, made possible by a change of venue, cemented the strong feeling of racial prejudice.
The Miami riot likewise originated in an obvious case of police brutality resulting in the death of McDuffie, a Vietnam War veteran and insurance salesperson savagely beaten to death after surrendering to police after a high-speed chase. In spite of overwhelming evidence of police misconduct and the damning testimony of one of the police officers involved, an all-white and male jury nevertheless acquitted the officers, contributing to the eruption of violence that resulted in the loss of 18 lives and approximately 100 million in property damage and other losses.
Moreover, while incidents of police brutality were the triggers, both riots spoke to deep structural inequalities from staggering unemployment and inadequate housing, to poor educational opportunities and limited access to city services, which ignited pent-up frustrations percolating just beneath the surface.
These issues appear only tangential to the Martin case, notably heard by an all-female and nominally diverse (five white and one Hispanic) jury. Sanford likewise is not Los Angles, nor Miami, for that matter. The gated community in which the shooting took place is supposedly occupied and shielded from the problems of the urban poor shouldered with the responsibility for the LA and Miami riots.
Furthermore, in spite of all that has been made of George Zimmerman’s position as a “neighborhood watch” captain, he was not acting in any official capacity or under anyone’s authority except his own. In fact, one could argue that the evidence in this case illustrates the Sanford police acting with appropriate caution including advising Zimmerman on the evening of the shooting not to follow Martin.
It was George Zimmerman alone who ignored this advice and charged into the darkness as prosecutor suggested in his closing argument armed with “the great equalizer” his pistol.
For all the intrigue surrounding it, the trial itself has also been straightforward, including efforts by the defense to shift the blame for the shooting on Martin, who we now know was packing little more than a packet of candy and a soft drink. Nevertheless based on the law at least, the case was not difficult to decide. If history offers any insight, the jurors were very well not overly concerned with what may happen outside of court because of their deliberations. As most juries, they most likely decided the case based on their understanding of the law, which in this case favored Zimmerman and resulted in acquittal.
Even in that case, Trayvon Martin will remain a powerful symbol of the inherent dangers posed by our inability to talk about and deal with the issue of race. In 2009, Attorney General Eric Holder memorably referred to Americans as a nation of cowards for our unwillingness to earnestly dialogue about issues of race. That much is clear, and is often commented on. What is less discussed is something else raised by this fear of imminent Black violence — Americans’ deadly infatuation with guns and the largely illusory fears about security that drive their purchase and use. What can be worse than cowards who hide behind guns? It was up to the jury to decide George Zimmerman’s fate, but to all us to decide how we rebuild from this tragic incident in the hopes of conquering the fears that drive some to fetishize guns as the best solution to combating the dangers they see in the hoodies of young black teenagers rather than the shadows of prejudice.
If the message is for residents to remain peaceful and nonviolent, let us hope that it also registers with those who cling to the notion that access to firearms, rather than dealing openly and honestly with our fears and prejudices, is the best protection for us all.
Yohuru Williams is Chair and Professor of History and Director of Black Studies at Fairfield University. Follow him on Twitter@YohuruWilliams.