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July 14, 2013 9:30 AM Here we go again: the Trayvon Martin verdict, and the white supremacist Groundhog Day that is American history

By Kathleen Geier

I woke up this morning to the horrible news that George Zimmerman has gotten away with murder. Sadly, this verdict was not unexpected. At the beginning of the trial, I allowed myself to hope against hope that maybe, for once in America’s history, some simulacrum of justice would be served, in a case where a young African-American man, with his whole life ahead of him, was murdered, without any justification whatsoever, under circumstances that all but screamed “outrageous racism.”

After all, the United States is a less racist country than it once was. Wasn’t there a possibility that, for once in my lifetime, one of these trials would not degenerate into a bitter farce? Could we break the endlessly repeating Groundhog Day cycle of white supremacist American history, for once? We now have a president who famously said that “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon Martin” — doesn’t that count for something?

Even after it became clear where this trial was headed, I held out some hope until the end. The jury was allowed to consider a manslaughter verdict; didn’t that provide them with a face-saving way to do something? Even if it wasn’t the murder verdict that George Zimmerman’s actions so obviously seem to merit?

But alas, that was not to be.

There are, of course, some explanations as to how this trial ended like it did, that don’t necessarily hinge on racism. As any true crime fan can tell you, trials are weird. Some combination of the circumstances of the crime, the evidence available, the vagaries of the law, the relative strength and quality of the defense lawyers vs. the prosecution, and the quirks of a judge or individual jurors means that many things can go wrong and seemingly inexplicable things can happen. Casey Anthony beat the rap, for heaven’s sake!

Law professor Paul Campos has pointed out that, although race was obviously the central and overwhelming factor in this case, it does not necessarily follow that the verdict was wrong as a matter of law: “Florida’s laws, in their majestic equality, formally extend the right to engage in vigilante killing that eliminates the sole witness to that killing to people of all colors and creeds etc.” So yes, Florida’s infamous “stand your ground” law, and the bloodthirsty, barking mad gun culture it represents, obviously played a large contributing role in this.

Even Ta-Nehisi Coates says he thinks “the jury basically got it right.” He explains:

The only real eyewitness to the death of Trayvon Martin was the man who killed him. At no point did I think that the state proved second degree murder. I also never thought they proved beyond a reasonable doubt that he acted recklessly. They had no ability to counter his basic narrative, because there were no other eye-witnesses.

But in the end, this trial was always about race. One of the ways you know this is by looking at the gleeful, utterly unhinged celebration with which the verdict has been greeted by conservatives. As always, Ann Coulter leads the a-hole parade. “Hallelujah!” she tweeted.

Decent people, on the other hand, are outraged. My Facebook and Twitter feeds are burning up with expressions of sorrow, solidarity, and righteous fury. The NAACP has started a MoveOn petition urging that the Justice Department to open a civil rights case against George Zimmerman. I urge you all to sign it. (If you can get on the webpage, that is — the page is not loading, hopefully because it’s being overwhelmed by traffic).

I suppose it is some kind of arctic-temperature comfort that the Trayvon Martin case even came to trial. Again, here’s Ta-Nehisi Coates:

[I]t’s worth remembering that what caused a national outcry was not the possibility of George Zimmerman being found innocent, but that there would be no trial at all. This case was really unique because of what happened with the Sanford police. If you doubt this, ask yourself if you know the name “Jordan Davis.” Then ask yourself how many protests and national media reports you’ve seen about him.

Mostly, though, what I’m left with is a sense of impotent fury about the way our country perpetuates the seemingly endless cycle of officially sanctioned executions of people of color. In writing this, I’ve cast my mind back, and I remembered many names:

Willie Turks, 1948-1982.

Michael Stewart, 1958-1983.

Eleanor Bumpurs, 1918-1984.

Michael Griffith, 1963-1986.

Yusuf Hawkins, 1973-1989.

James Byrd, Jr., 1949-1998.

Amadou Diallo, 1975-1999.

Patrick Dorismond, 1974-2000.

Ken Tillery, 1958-2002.

Sean Bell, 1983-2006.

Flint Farmer, 1981(?)-2011.

I could go on, and on, and on. But I will stop here.

I hardly need to point out that these killings did not take place in the deep, dark recesses of our pre-civil rights past. They all occurred within living memory, in the decades following the civil rights movement.

In the majority of the above cases, the people with blood on their hands never saw the inside of a prison cell. In some cases they never even stood trial.

When will it end? You tell me.

UPDATE: Contrary to what I implied earlier, apparently, the “stand your ground” law may not have played all that much of a role in the “not guilty” verdict. But other quirks of Florida’s self-defense statutes may have come into play..

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee

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