In 1921, July Perry wanted to vote. He wanted his neighbors to vote, too. But he was black, and his neighbors were black. One night, a group of armed whites marched to Perry’s house in Ocoee. A battle ensued, and two whites died. Perry was wounded, then arrested. Not content to wait for a show trial, a white mob kidnapped Perry either from the Orlando jail or as he was being led out of the city. They killed him. Then they systematically torched Ocoee’s black community. As many as 30 people were killed.
In 1922, Oscar Mack wanted a job. He was a black World War I vet, and he bid on, and received, a federal contract to deliver mail between a railroad depot and the post office in Kissimmee. But whites wanted that job, too. In July, two probable Klansmen decided to put Mack in his place. Mack caught wind of their plans, and when they showed up to murder him, he opened fire and killed them both. It was, quite plainly, self-defense. But blacks couldn’t claim self-defense against whites back then. After a kangaroo trial, he was taken to Orlando by an angry mob and hanged at Lake Jennie Jewel. Nobody was ever arrested for his lynching.
In 1923, Fannie Coleman Taylor wanted a scapegoat. Her lover had assaulted her, and she didn’t want her husband to find out. So she blamed a black man. Her husband summoned a mob of as many as 500 Klansmen, who marched in the black community of Rosewood looking for the supposed assailant. A week of violence followed, leaving six blacks and two whites dead, and Rosewood’s homes, stores and churches in ruins.
In 1951, Harry T. Moore just wanted to sleep. Moore founded the Brevard County NAACP, and had spent decades investigating every lynching in Florida (there were many) and fighting rampant police corruption and brutality. But on Christmas night, 1951, three pounds of dynamite exploded from under the floor joists directly beneath his bed. He and his wife, Harriette, died. Evidence pointed toward three or four Klan members, but no one was ever arrested for his murder. Eleven other known race-related bombings occurred in Florida that year.
These events, just a few of countless examples of racist violence in Florida’s history books, occurred during the nadir of race relations in the 20th century, in the aftermath of Woodrow Wilson’s virulently racist administration, with the Ku Klux Klan resurgent in the Deep South and Midwest, before the civil rights movement took hold. Things like this don’t happen anymore. Things are better now. The decades that have passed have seen the end of segregation, the civil rights movement, the first black president. Just a few weeks ago, in fact, the Supreme Court struck down a key section of the Voting Rights Act because, in the words of Chief Justice John Roberts, “our country has changed.”
This is all in the past. And the past is dead.
In 2012, Trayvon Martin wanted some candy. He walked from his father’s girlfriend’s house in Sanford to the local 7-Eleven, where he purchased Skittles and iced tea. On his way back, an armed white man deemed him suspicious, and decided to follow him. There was an altercation. Trayvon, who had recently turned 17, was 6 feet tall and weighed 158 pounds. He took aviation courses at night during his freshman year at Carol City High. He wanted to be an engineer, and his teachers described him as cheerful and creative. He ended up lying on the wet grass that night, eyes open, a hollow-point bullet hole in his chest.
On Saturday, a Seminole County jury decided that this neighborhood watchman, George Zimmerman, had acted in self-defense.
Not since O.J. Simpson has a murder case so polarized America. It did so from the start. In polling done a few weeks after Trayvon’s death, 80 percent of blacks said that the shooting was not justified; only 38 percent of whites said the same. This division – more interesting in some respects than the case itself – has become a Rorschach test, underscoring the very different experiences and outlooks of white and black America, and demonstrating how race generally, and white privilege specifically, has constructed the prism through which we still view current events.
In one corner, you have black Americans and liberals, who look at this trial as yet another injustice, yet more proof that the system is stacked against them; yet more evidence that, for all the lip service, the underlying elements of institutional racism remain. Trayvon was gunned down, and his killer let go.
It’s as simple as that.
In the other, you have the aggrieved whites, who believe Zimmerman – who is, as his supporters often point out, half-Hispanic – did nothing wrong, that he is the victim of a bloodlust cooked up by “race hustlers” like Al Sharpton, that those who demanded his arrest are the real racists. In their view, racism – at least, white racism – is an anachronism, and those who see its influence lurking around every corner are just making excuses for their station in life. Even talking about race here is a form of “reverse racism,” they argue. And so these conservatives rejoiced in Zimmerman’s acquittal – “Hallelujah!” tweeted Ann Coulter; “Race card came up snake eyes,” tweeted the Washington Post’s Jen Rubin – and many of them predicted that blacks would riot in its wake.
Whatever your thoughts on George Zimmerman, whether you believe him to be a racist, an overzealous wannabe cop or simply a concerned neighbor; and whatever your feelings on Trayvon Martin, whether you think him a violent, wannabe thug, a scared teenager who made poor decisions that night or a young man whose future was stolen from him on account of his skin color, you ignore this case’s racial dimensions at your own peril. Trayvon’s death, the widespread protests that finally compelled Zimmerman’s arrest and the media circus that surrounded his trial didn’t occur in a vacuum.
As William Faulkner once wrote, “The past is never dead. It isn’t even past.”
After the verdict was announced, Zimmerman’s attorneys held a victory-lap press conference in which Mark O’Mara offered this curious assessment: “Things would have been different if George Zimmerman was black because he never would have been charged with a crime.”
This statement wasn’t just stunningly tone-deaf. It’s empirically wrong.
Consider the case of Marissa Alexander, a black woman from Jacksonville facing a 20-year sentence for firing a warning shot into the ceiling during a confrontation with her allegedly abusive husband in 2010. Alexander claimed a Stand Your Ground defense, and said she fired that shot to force her husband to leave her house. Her claim was rejected, and she was convicted of three counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.
Or the case of Trevor Dooley, a black man from Valrico sentenced to eight years for manslaughter in a case that in some ways parallels Zimmerman’s. In 2010 the elderly Dooley initiated a confrontation with David James, a white 41-year-old, to complain about a teenage skateboarder whom James had given permission to use a community basketball court James and his eight-year-old daughter were playing on as well. Their argument became heated, and at one point Dooley lifted his T-shirt to show off the handgun tucked in his waistband. As Dooley turned to leave, James – who had four inches and 80 pounds on Dooley, and was three decades younger than him – spun him around and reached for his gun. They wrestled, and Dooley, who said after James grabbed his throat that he feared for his life, shot and killed James. A judge rejected Dooley’s Stand Your Ground claim, and a jury rejected his self-defense plea.
Both state and nationwide data tell us that white-on-black killings are much more likely to be deemed justified than white-on-white, black-on-black or, especially, black-on-white killings. In states with Stand Your Ground laws such as Florida, white-on-black killings are 354 times more likely to be considered justifiable than white-on-white killings, according to a recent investigation by PBS’s Frontline. Blacks who kill whites, meanwhile, are about 70 percent more likely to have their justification claims rejected than whites who kill whites.
The race of the victim plays a role too. Last year, the Tampa Bay Times conducted an exhaustive analysis of Stand Your Ground cases in Florida. In 73 percent of cases with a black victim, the killer faced no penalty, compared to 59 percent of those who killed a white person.
Zimmerman didn’t exert a Stand Your Ground defense. But that Frontline report found that the same pattern holds true even in states without these laws, albeit to a lesser extent: White killers are given the benefit of the doubt, especially if their victim is black. Black killers aren’t so lucky, especially if their victim is white.
Imagine for a second the races were reversed here, and a black man deemed an unarmed white teenager suspicious, followed him against police advice, shot and killed him, and claimed self-defense. Is there any chance the cops would believe him, or that he wouldn’t have found himself in handcuffs that night? Is there any chance this black neighborhood watchman would become a cause celebre on Fox News? Is there any chance that crowds of white people would show up at the courthouse, claiming him as a Second Amendment champion? Is there any chance he would have gotten away with it?
The evidence suggests it’s unlikely. Like it or not – and whether Zimmerman is a racist or not – the issue of race permeates this case, just as it does our entire criminal justice system.
If you look at the forest, not the trees or weeds, the jury’s verdict is almost unimaginable: an armed man profiles, stalks and kills an unarmed boy. Open and shut. But those trees and weeds – the ugly, confusing, disputed details – are where these cases get decided. And if you look at Florida law, which puts the burden on the state to prove the defendant wasn’t acting in self-defense, rather than forcing the defendant to prove the shooting was justified, the jury’s decision was almost preordained (it’s important to note that this is the case in 49 out of 50 states – Florida law is not unusual in this regard).
There were no eyewitnesses to contradict Zimmerman’s story, and Trayvon obviously couldn’t give his side of the story. Zimmerman’s defense team, meanwhile, effectively put Trayvon on trial, both in the courtroom and in the media. On their website in the days leading up to jury selection, Zimmerman’s lawyers released text messages and photos portraying Trayvon as a pot-smoking, gun-copping, gold-teeth-wearing, middle-finger-waving thug who had a propensity for violence and probably had it coming [“A portrait of Trayvon Martin as a young black thug,” June 12]. In court, they alleged that Trayvon might indeed have been up to no good, citing a discarded piece of awning found nearby a week after the shooting that could, conceivably, have been used as a jimmy, and argued that Trayvon had viciously attacked Zimmerman without provocation, using the sidewalk as a deadly weapon. They also contended that Zimmerman’s suspicions were reasonable, since a few weeks earlier a young black male had been arrested breaking into houses in the neighborhood.
In short, Trayvon became a defendant in this murder trial, too.
The prosecution simply couldn’t counter. The state’s case was a bumbling train wreck of contradictions and incoherence and lackluster, disinterested police work. Maybe prosecutors didn’t have much to work with, or maybe reasonable doubt was too high a mountain to climb. Either way, they didn’t do Trayvon any favors.
In any event, the deck was stacked against them. As Dan Gelber, a former prosecutor and Democratic attorney general candidate, pointed out on his blog (dangelber.com), prior to 2005, when the state legislature passed the Stand Your Ground law (which he opposed while in the state House), juries in self-defense cases were instructed that a defendant “cannot justify the use of force … unless he used every reasonable means within his power and consistent with his own safety to avoid the danger before resorting to that force.” Zimmerman’s jury – even though he argued self-defense, and not explicitly Stand Your Ground – was instructed that Zimmerman “had no duty to retreat and had the right to stand his ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he reasonably believed that it was necessary to do so …” (all italics mine).
“By taking away from the jury the simple notion that people have an obligation to ‘avoid the danger’ or retreat if they could do so safely,” Gelber writes, “[the state was], essentially, authorizing stupid, venal and, as in this case, often tragic behavior.”
In 1870, A.T. Morgan wanted to get married. He was a white state senator from Hinds County, Miss., on the southern edge of the Mississippi Delta. His intended, however, was a black Northern woman at a time when, you’d think, these things weren’t acceptable, especially in the heart of the Old Confederacy. This was just five years after the Civil War, 13 years after the Dred Scott v. Sandford decision in which the Supreme Court decided that even free blacks couldn’t be citizens and had no rights, and a century before a more progressive court found that so-called miscegenation was constitutionally protected. But this marriage didn’t provoke a scandal, let alone violence. That year, in fact, Morgan was re-elected.
If this country’s race relations always charted a linear course, if we were always progressing, if things were always better now than they were in the past, this event wouldn’t be worth mentioning. Martin Luther King Jr.’s claim that the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice notwithstanding, the path toward equality – true equality, not just equality on paper – has been fraught with fits and starts, progress and regress, setbacks and letdowns.
There’s a reason the Zimmerman verdict prompted massive protests all over the country – in New York and Philadelphia and Los Angeles and Chicago and Oakland and Sanford. It’s not because black Americans and civil rights supporters are inherently predisposed to vengeance or agitation. It’s because they see a dead teenage boy and a system that shrugged. After all, had they not protested en masse last year, Zimmerman would have never been arrested, let alone stood trial.
Are things better now than they once were? Sure. Is racism – whether explicit or institutional – no longer relevant? To draw that conclusion requires considerable, and willful, naiveté.
George Zimmerman is not guilty. But he is most certainly not innocent. Had he stayed in his truck that night, Trayvon Martin would still be alive. Had he not appointed himself armed protector of his neighborhood, had he not ignored the police dispatcher’s admonition, had he not presumed that a black kid walking in his neighborhood was up to no good, none of this would have happened. And for that, Zimmerman will spend the rest of his days as a “pariah,” as O’Mara told the Los Angeles Times. There is, at least, some justice in that.
But not enough.
I understand the verdict. But I don’t have to like it. As someone once said, “Those assholes, they always get away.”
Follow Jeffrey C. Billman on Twitter: @jeffreybillman