How do we prepare our African-American children for the terrible consequence that the simple act of Walking While Black can be judged a criminal offense that could ultimately cost them their lives and their killers go free?
The not guilty verdict in the George Zimmerman trial is producing a shared, collective grieving. Mothers and fathers are feeling as if seventeen-year-old Trayvon could be their innocent son. Black men are sensing the reality that they, themselves, could be Trayvon, someone who is just walking along minding his own business and could get shot dead and the police protect their murderer?
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?
First of all it took six weeks, two million signatures and a national outcry and protests for Zimmerman to be charged and arrested. Drug tests were first done on Martin and not on Zimmerman who confessed to the crime.
Secondly, I would argue that the jury composed of six women without males nor blacks from Sanford, Florida a predominately conservative GOP enclave, favored Zimmerman much more than Martin. Just as I identify with Trayvon as the innocent victim because of our shared experiences the jurors no doubt could see Zimmerman as one of their own. They could see him as their white knight defending himself and white women from a menacing predator, the kind of threatening looking image of Martin that was allowed to be shown by the defense during their closing statement.
The negative insensitive portrayal of Trayvon continued after the trial was over. In a press conference Mark O’Mara, Zimmerman’s defense attorney lashed out at Trayvon as a “violent attacker” and another defense attorney continued joking about the case as he did at the opening of the trial. Even State Attorney Angela Corey, with her happy face, cavalier appearance and low-cut evening dress seemed out of place, considering the heart-breaking impact the decision had on the parents of Trayvor Martin and the rest of the country who was saddened by the decision.
What now, I wonder. Surely, the Justice Department can intervene as it did when the police were acquitted in the Rodney King beating. But more should be done to change a system that consistently violates the rights of people of color. During the civil rights era, economic boycotts were used, along with protests, as a trigger for change. Maybe that trigger could serve as an effective weapon to protect the lives of unarmed citizens.
In any event, President Obama said if he had a son he could resemble Trayvon Martin. Martin is his son and our sons. And more must be done so they will not be racially profiled and endangered just for walking down the street.
Reynolds is an ordained minister, a columnist for The RootDC and the author of six books, including “Out of Hell and Living Well, Healing From the Inside Out.” She is a former editor and columnist for USA Today.