As most black parents I know, I have trained my son how to avoid any sudden moves when cops pull him over while driving. And he has been pulled over more times in seven years than I have in 40 years for unexplained incidents. But the Zimmerman decision raises another alarm. Where should he not walk? Where should he not show up? Those thoughts can be overwhelming.
“I have been up all night. Just couldn’t sleep so upset about the decision,” said Rev. Keith Magee of Boston. Because this decision just sends a message that I am not safe in the space I occupy. I see it in the cabs that pass me by, the meetings I go to where I am the only black. This decision just reinforces the label that I am guilty of something even before I show my face.”
The Zimmerman acquittal of an admitted killer, supposedly in self-defense, of a young black boy armed only with a bag of Skittles and a soft drink by an armed Neighborhood Watch volunteer has captured the hearts of so many not only because of the crime itself, but because it is a continuation of a criminal justice system that continues to fail black people.
Without the intense focus of the media, the Trayvon Martin case would have fallen off the radar screen because unfortunately racial profiling and shooting unarmed black men is not unusual. Remember Amadou Diallo, the 22-year-old immigrant from Guinea, West Africa, gunned down in 1995 by a circle of white cops who said they mistook him for a rape suspect. The cops, reportedly, fired 41 shots with 19 bullets into the unarmed Diallo.
And remember Dorothy Elliott, of Prince George’s County, whose son Archie Elliott III was shot 14 times and died in the back of a police car as he sat handcuffed. Police never explained how Archie Elliott, who was reportedly unarmed, was a threat while handcuffed.
Those shootings happened in the 1990s, but the criminal justice system is just as flawed today. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Africans Americans are twice as likely to be arrested and almost four times as likely to experience the use of force during encounters with police than whites. And students of color receive harsher punishments in school than white peers, leading to a higher number of youth of color in jail.
The best way to understand the heartbreak and the outrage in the Zimmerman case is when we close our eyes and see Martin as a black man following Zimmerman, pulling a gun and killing him. Who could mount a convincing argument that the circumstances and the outcomes would be the same?