George Zimmerman, the Florida ‘neighborhood watch’ volunteer armed with a gun, has been acquitted of charges of second-degree murder and manslaughter in the shooting death of unarmed African American teenager, Trayvon Martin.
This verdict is at once so shocking and so expected to me that without a doubt it exposes the lie at the heart of the American ‘criminal justice’ system. We do not have, especially where African Americans are concerned, a “justice” system. It is often an injustice system that results in unequal treatment.
Perversely, in fact, it seems that 17-year old Trayvon Martin was just found guilty of his own shooting death. Is this justice? Is this right?
The Psalms teach us that threat is all around, and that human justice is not God’s justice, as in Psalm 55: For I see violence and strife in the city; making rounds on its walls day and night. Within are mischief and trouble; Treachery is in its midst; Oppression and fraud never leave its streets.
While we pray for God’s ultimate justice to prevail, this can seem far off; it can even seem that God has “forsaken” (Psalm 22) us, and the violent are winning. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. often said “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” But the arc of the moral universe is one thing, and injustice in the here and now is another.
But God’s justice must be our compass; it points to what is broken here and now, and where we have to go in order that true justice may be achieved. And right now, the unequal American justice system, especially when you are African American, is filled with “oppression and fraud.”
Consider another Florida case, this time of an African American woman: in 2012, Marissa Alexander of Jacksonville, Fla., received a 20-years prison sentence for firing warning shots against her allegedly abusive husband. The judge rejected a defense under Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law. She told police it was to escape a brutal beating by her husband, against whom she had already taken out a protective order. Alexander had never been in trouble with the law before.
Marissa Alexander, an African American woman, fired warning shots at her abusive husband, and got 20 years. George Zimmerman shot and killed an unarmed African American teenager and was acquitted.
Yet, in the up is down, “white is black” world of white racism, an hour after Zimmerman was acquitted, his attorney, Mark O’Mara, reframed the arrest and charging of his client as motivated by racism against George Zimmerman. “Things would have been different for George Zimmerman if he was black for this reason: he would never have been charged with a crime,” O’Mara said.
Really? When arrest and incarceration rates of African Americans in the U.S. are through the roof, even twice as high as as their population in the U.S.?
“There is violence and strife in the city” and “oppression and fraud” are rampant says the Psalmist.
With no apparent sense of irony, after the not-guilty verdict, the brother of George Zimmerman, Robert Zimmerman Jr., said on CNN that he was worried about the safety of his brother, George Zimmerman, because there are “people that would want to take the law into their own hands as they perceive it, or be vigilante’s in some sense.”
Yes, it’s terrible when people who are not law enforcement, like, for example, George Zimmerman, ‘take the law into their own hands as they perceive it.’
Vigilantism does violate God’s justice. It should violate human justice as well, for all Americans.
“For Trayvon to rest in peace, we should all be peaceful,” said Benjamin Crump, the Martin family lawyer, and he compared the 17-year old to Medgar Evers and Emmet Till and their role in the ongoing struggle for equal civil rights. Demonstrations around the country were, in fact, by and large peaceful despite fear-mongering that they would not.
Beyond peaceful demonstrations, however, the struggle needs to continue in and through the law. “We are outraged and heartbroken over today’s verdict,” NAACP President Benjamin Jealous said in a statement. “We will pursue civil rights charges with the Department of Justice, we will continue to fight for the removal of Stand Your Ground laws in every state, and we will not rest until racial profiling in all its forms is outlawed.”
On Sunday, Trayvon Martin’s parents went to church, “leaning on a higher authority,” said Benjamin Crump.
In truth, this is how we bend the “arc of the moral universe”. We must work from both ends, leaning on the anchor in God’s justice at one end of the arc, and pushing hard on the mechanisms of the law at the other.
And the arc of the moral universe does bend. But how long, Oh Lord. How long?