Trayvon Martin’s story lost: Our view
The Editorial Board
For many who closely followed the trial of George Zimmerman, the verdict of not guilty spurred fury, heartache and, by Sunday, protests across the country. But the outcome should not have come as a surprise. Zimmerman’s attorneys managed to undermine the prosecution’s narrative that their client was the aggressor who followed Trayvon Martin and killed him with no justification. And the prosecution — which had the burden of proof — was unable to effectively refute Zimmerman’s story of self-defense.
But somewhere between Martin’s death 17 months ago in a gated community near Orlando and Saturday night’s verdict, the story line that matters the most largely got lost. It’s a tragically familiar tale of snap judgments by strangers, racial profiling and a black teenager’s needless death. And it’s the reason the trial attracted national attention and gavel-to-gavel coverage in the first place.
The verdict deserves to be respected and, as President Obama said Sunday, it should also serve as a reason for calm reflection.
Zimmerman’s successful defense depended on getting jurors to focus on the fight that occurred just before he shot the 17-year-old, unarmed Martin, and not on the events that preceded it. The lawyers established doubt about which man screamed for help, as well as other details of the confrontation — holes that invited an acquittal under Florida’s laws.
But the fact remains that Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer and cop wanna-be, instantly identified Martin as a “(expletive) punk” who “looks like he’s up to no good.” The fact remains that Martin was doing nothing wrong; he was returning from a snack run at a convenience store, heading for the house of his father’s girlfriend. And the fact remains that had Zimmerman stayed in his truck, as advised by the police, Martin would be alive today.
Those facts — and the authorities’ initial failure to charge Zimmerman — inflamed the black community. African Americans saw the case in a way that the jury of six women, five of them white and the other of uncertain ethnicity, probably couldn’t. Despite all the nation’s progress in burying its racist past, minorities are commonly stopped by authorities — or viewed by strangers as “up to no good” — for no other reason than the color of their skin.
Consider New York City’s “stop and frisk” policy, which allows officers to search anyone they see as suspicious: In 2011, 87% of those stopped were minorities. Or the shooting of three black men who did nothing more than venture into a white New Orleans community days after Hurricane Katrina. Or try to find an African-American man who hasn’t been stopped for “driving while black” or eyed suspiciously in a department store.
The Justice Department said Sunday it will weigh criminal civil rights charges against Zimmerman, as urged by the NAACP and others. That course would be satisfying on one level, presumably addressing the actions that led to the fight. But it’s no slam dunk. It raises fairness issues, and the case is too narrow to serve as an instrument for righting the racial inequities of the justice system, so long in need of attention.
Zimmerman’s fate was determined as it should have been, based on the evidence in a court of law, not the court of public opinion. But just because a verdict is legally justified doesn’t make it morally satisfying. Trayvon Martin’s death remains an avoidable American tragedy — one that Zimmerman set in motion.