My stomach is in knots because I have seen this scene play out before. As the jury in the trial of George Zimmerman, the Florida vigilante who killed Trayvon Martin, begins deliberations my thoughts race back to the county of my birth, Bergen County in New Jersey. It was two decades ago when an all-white jury let white Teaneck police officer Gary Spath walk in the murder of Black teenager Phillip Pannell. The 16 year-old was shot in the back, with his arms raised in surrender, when Spath used deadly force to take down a child who was doing nothing but hanging out with his friends. The injustice of that verdict was framed against the backdrop of a police march through two communities in support of Spath and the arrest of a key witness for the prosecution before news cameras in the county courthouse. It was southern justice, northern suburban style.
Now, the prosecutors in the Zimmerman trial are asking the judge to allow jurors to consider lesser charges for the defendant. That decision reeks of surrender to me. It also reinforces the historical experience of African-Americans and our judicial system. In post-Reconstruction America, including the era of Jim Crow and post-segregation, the dismissal of Black claims for justice was habitual and swift. Hundreds of deaths of southern Blacks were never accorded justice because juries simply invalidated the facts and acted in accordance with white supremacy. Deliberations were an exercise in futility because race nullified any consideration of the evidence and jurors’ identification with whiteness gave killers a free get of jail card.
We have in America the continuation of the 3/5ths rule that first diluted Black voting strength but now serves to deny justice outright. While my heart aches for the parents of Trayvon Martin, and can only imagine that they want some semblance of justice for the loss of their son, a lesser charge seems to be as insulting as the proposition that somehow George Zimmerman is the victim. Throughout these proceedings Trayvon Martin has been on trial, painted as the aggressor by the defense and made out to be responsible for his own death. A lesser charge has the effect of further penalizing Trayvon Martin’s family and it sends the clear message that killing innocent and defenseless Black people is protected by law in the same manner as it was for much of the 20th century.
In my mind a lesser charge is 3/5ths justice for 100% pain, as the very act of being Black and particularly Black and male, is being treated as a criminal act. This is a human rights issue. The message that is being conveyed is the very act of existing while Black is offensive and the odds of our mortality depend upon the luck of the draw; on any given day we can be assaulted and killed upon the proposition that we have violated or invaded the “space” of an offended white. Meanwhile states pass concealed carry laws and right-wing zealots push back against handgun registration and embrace the idiocy of ‘Stand your Ground.’
The chatter throughout this trial was of course ‘if the shoe were on the other foot.’ Well, we don’t need to speculate because we know the outcome of that scenario. A Black teenage boy who brandishes a weapon against a white male and kills his attacker, and then claims protection under Florida’s idiotic vigilante law would face significant jail time or the death penalty with near certainty. In fact, the trial would be routine in its injustice as what seems to be unfolding in the Zimmerman trial.
It is always dangerous to speculate on the thinking of jurors but in this case there is some history that is weighing heavy upon this verdict. There is too much blood in the southern soil and strange fruit on the trees of Dixie to ignore the wretched connection between the killing of Trayvon Martin and Emmett Till, four little Black girls in a Black Baptist church and the hundreds of adults and children who were strung from trees for no other reason than their being Black. If nothing else, this case and the image of young Trayvon lying dead on the ground, should conjure up a sense of outrage in most of us that will give us as many sleepless nights as his parents have experienced since that dreadful day.
Walter Fields is Executive Editor of NorthStarNews.com.