I was relieved to hear the Florida special prosecutor announce that a second degree murder charge was being brought against George Zimmerman for the killing of Trayvon Martin and that the accused was in custody. The arrest of Zimmerman and the filing of formal charges come after a weeks-long tortuous wait when it appeared justice was not only blind but stupid and incompetent too. The tension in the Black community was growing at the thought of another chapter in the miscarriage of justice being added to our nation’s narrative. At least now we have crossed a minimum threshold with the hope that a Seminole County jury is up to the task of weighing the evidence, distilling the facts and rendering justice for Trayvon’s family.
In 1990 I lived through something similar; a media frenzy and law enforcement circus when a Black Teaneck, New Jersey teenager Phillip Pannell was shot in the back, with his hands raised in surrender and killed by a white police officer. In that case it took two grand juries, the second called by the state Attorney General when it became clear that an initial autopsy had been botched, to bring an indictment against Officer Gary Spath. What was clear to me then, and what I have been reminded during the Martin saga, is that there is little consideration for the life of a young Black man. Phillip was 16 at the time of his death; sharing a similar life expectancy and tragic end as Trayvon. It didn’t matter in the end. An all-white Bergen County jury acquitted Spath and set him free.
There is so much history embedded behind Prosecutor Corey’s announcement that it is hard to separate the past from the legalese of the press conference. In some ways, just the arrest of Zimmerman and the filing of formal charges against him is a victory when one considers how the murder of Blacks was so routinely dismissed by our criminal justice system for most of the 20th century. When an African-American is killed by police, the victim of a random act of violence, disappears or dies at the hands of a racist, the wheels of justice come to a complete stop or simply fall off. It is why Blacks have so little confidence in our judicial system and are skeptical of law enforcement. It is not paranoia. It is history.
This brings us back to the Trayvon Martin case and the prospects for a just outcome in this matter. There is a loud voice inside my head, and not a whisper that is raising doubts over the chances a Seminole County jury of George Zimmerman’s peers can render a guilty verdict. There are too many layers of history to ignore and a state that seems intent on restoring the social order of the past for me to feel comfortable that justice is at the end of this tale. This is Florida after all; the state of the hanging chad and presidential miscount, the home of a Black conservative congressman who claims 80 percent of the Democratic Party is Communist, and gun-slinging neighborhood watch volunteers who can kill at will under the state’s zany “Stand Your Ground” law. Whatever happened to the “Sunshine State” and Mickey, NASA and beaches? Today’s Florida bears little resemblance to the sunny paradise that was hyped during marketing blitzes in the 1970’s.
In most instances such as this I would be cautiously optimistic that fairness and justice will win the day. Not so in this case and I refuse to let my guard down simply because a prosecutor pronounces that justice will be served. Yes, that is a cynical approach but it is borne by the reality of racism in America and the lack of respect for the humanity of young Black men. Too many of the guilty have walked free and too many of the innocent have gone to the grave deprived of their rights for me to feel otherwise. For me it is the ugly reality of a society that shrugs when an African-American youth is gunned down and makes excuses for the one responsible for his death that gives me pause. Still, for now, it is somewhat satisfying that Trayvon’s parents no longer have to suffer the insult of knowing the killer of their son is sitting at home a free man. George Zimmerman sits where he belongs today.
Walter Fields is Executive Editor of NorthStarNews.com.