George Zimmerman trial: Race is a subtext, not the focus

Thousands streamed into Fort Mellon Park, hard against the south shore of Lake Monroe, on that night in March 2012.

An unarmed African American teenager in a “hoodie” sweatshirt had been killed the month before in this central Florida city, but the agitated crowd felt echoes of another era. “Trayvon Martin is Emmett Till!” radio commentator Mark Thompson declared, evoking the name of an African American teen murdered in 1950s Mississippi after being accused of flirting with a white woman. “This is racism perpetrated by violence.”

An uncomfortable national conversation about race and justice had been touched off — in Sanford, at a “Million Hoodie March” in New York and when President Obama called for “soul-searching” and said if he had a son, “he’d look like Trayvon.”

Yet, 16 months later, this case that was so entwined with race has produced a murder trial in which race is a subtext rather than a central theme.

Prosecutors have portrayed George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch enthusiast who shot the 17-year-old Martin, as being many things: profane, mendacious, overzealous, violent. But they haven’t called Zimmerman, who is claiming that he acted in self-defense, a racist. Instead of becoming a meditation on race, the courtroom action is unfolding as a police procedural, a saga of guns and vigilantism, a glimpse of civic rage and frustration.

Outside the courtroom, the case is still widely perceived in racial terms.

Some here had hoped for more from this trial, which entered its seventh day of testimony Tuesday. They had envisioned a trial filled with testimony that more overtly deepened our collective understanding of race in America or placed the crime more squarely in a racial paradigm. “It makes you feel kind of angry and kind of bad that race is not a part of this,” said the Rev. Harrold C. Daniels, who has been attending the trial as part of a biracial group of Sanford pastors. “It’s a missed opportunity.”

The almost complete absence of race from the proceedings stems from practical and legal considerations. Attorneys for Martin’s family explored the possibility of pressing for a hate-crime charge against Zimmerman, Daryl D. Parks, who represents Martin’s parents, said in an interview. But they kept coming up empty.

“There was not enough evidence to say that [Zimmerman] made this decision based on race,” Parks said. “On the facts of this case, you can’t say it was based on race. . . . We strategically don’t want it to be about race. . . . It wouldn’t be wise to portray him as a racist.”

The role of race was limited by Judge Debra Nelson, who is overseeing the trial, which is playing out before a courtroom jammed with spectators who line up each morning for seats. Nelson ruled that prosecutors could not say that Zimmerman, who has white and Hispanic parents, “racially profiled” Martin. Instead, she said, they could only say he was “profiled.”

“That is not a racially charged term unless it’s made so, and we do not intend to make it a racially charged term,” prosecutor John Guy told Nelson, noting that a person could be profiled for many other reasons. “We don’t intend to say that he was solely profiled because of race.”

Guy’s assurances were of little comfort to the defense, which argued that jurors would automatically think of race when they heard the word profiling, in much the same way they might instinctively link peanut butter and jelly.

“I am very concerned that we are going to infect the jury, potentially, with a racial component that is not going to show up in the facts,” defense attorney Mark O’Mara argued, to no avail.

The Martin family participated in rallies and did not dispute the claims of some speakers that the case — particularly the initial decision of authorities not to charge Zimmerman — was tinged by racism.

Parks said the rallies were “emotional” affairs and that the family and its attorneys were desperate to find any way to get Zimmerman arrested. Now that he’s on trial for second-degree murder, Parks said, they’re comfortable with race not taking center stage at the trial. “When race gets injected into a case, you don’t get a pure verdict,” Parks said. “You don’t want a case decided because of some kind of bias.”

Paradoxically, the defense — which sought to block anything hinting of racial profiling before the trial began — has seemed the more eager of the two sides to draw attention to race.

But it has done so by attempting to paint the victim, rather than the accused, as a person who harbored disparaging racial views.

Defense attorney Don West seized on the testimony of Rachel Jeantel, a Miami high-schooler who was on the phone with Martin in the moments before Zimmerman shot him in the heart.

Jeantel, who is of Haitian descent, said that Martin told her a “creepy-ass cracker” was following him.

“You don’t think creepy-ass cracker is a racial comment?” West said during a tense cross-examination. “No,” she replied.

“You don’t think calling someone a creepy-ass cracker is offensive?” West shot back. She said, “No,” again.

West also pressed Jeantel about previous comments she had made suggesting that race had something to do with the shooting.

She responded that she felt that way because Martin was being followed.

Prosecutors, while not emphasizing race, have nonetheless introduced some evidence that could be viewed through a racial lens.

In particular, they beat back defense attempts to block them from playing calls to police that Zimmerman had made over the years. In several of those calls, Zimmerman is reporting his suspicions about African Americans he spots in his community, but he does not use pejoratives.

Jurors also heard a call to a non-emergency police number that Zimmerman placed on the night he shot Martin. In that call, Zimmerman does not mention race, but he uses a curse word to describe suspects and says, “They always get away.”

The testimony in the case is unfurling in a courtroom where almost none of the key players are African American. The judge is white. None of the lead attorneys is African American. The jury and alternate pool is composed of eight whites and one Hispanic. Even the audience is decidedly non-African American. On a recent day of testimony, only three of 24 audience members were African Americans.

“The guys in the ’hood — in the ghetto — they come up and tell me they don’t want to come down here,” said H. Alexander Duncan, a local African American civic leader who has been attending the trial as a spectator. “They don’t want to become targets.”

Daniels, the African American pastor, has detected a similar sense of discomfort in the community. “You feel everybody’s watching each other,” Daniels said.

He has thought about what might happen if Zimmerman is acquitted, how the community might react. And it worries him.

“They’re going to be angry. They’re going to be disappointed. They wouldn’t be surprised,” Daniels said. “They feel, ‘Oh, he’s going to get off.’ They’ll take it as another slap against civil rights.”

But he doesn’t believe the African American community would be so angry, he says, that they’d “burn the community down.”

Daniels would rather that everyone came away from the case with the sentiments expressed in a story he likes to tell his flock. It’s about some people who see someone come around a corner. They say, “There’s a white man.” When another person walks past, they say, “There’s a black man.” When God sees the same people turning the corner, Daniels says, he only remarks: “There’s a man.”

Manuel Roig-Franzia is a writer in The Washington Post’s Style section. His long-form articles span a broad range of subjects, including politics, power and the culture of Washington, as well as profiling major political figures and authors.
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