A Socialist Worker editorial, July 14.
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George Zimmerman, the self-declared head of a neighbourhood watch in a gated Florida community who stalked, confronted and then killed African American teenager Trayvon Martin, walked out of a Sanford, Florida, courtroom on July 13 a free man.
Zimmerman was acquitted of all charges in Martin's death in February last year -- both the initial indictment for second-degree murder and the prosecutors' "compromise" charge of manslaughter.
The verdict was delivered by six jurors -- with not a single Black member among them, nor the four alternates, even though Sanford is nearly 30% African American.
But an entire system -- racist through and through -- failed the test of bringing some measure of justice for Martin and his family: police, prosecutors, state officials and officeholders, judges, the media, and on and on.
For millions of people in the US, the shock of learning about Martin's murder in February last year will still be fresh in their memory.
Walking while Black
Martin was doing nothing more than walking through an unfamiliar neighborhood after a trip to the convenience store. But, like young African American men around the country, he was guilty of walking while Black.
And so there was nothing to protect him from being identified as a threat -- preemptively branded a criminal, to be stopped, questioned, searched, arrested ... or worse.
It took weeks for the story of Martin's killing to emerge -- after those who learned the facts of the case spread the word on the Internet, and people in Florida and around the country began holding protests.
A series of galvanizing demonstrations took place in Florida, along with expressions of solidarity far and wide. The words "I am Trayvon Martin" were repeated in city after city.
As SocialistWorker.org wrote at the time, the killing, "proves that racism is alive and well in 2012, while the first African American president sits in the White House. The widespread shock and anger over what happened to Trayvon -- and the beginnings of protest around the case -- tell us something else, too: That large numbers of people are outraged by racist injustice in this and other forms."
The basic fact that Martin had been racially profiled and stalked before his death couldn't have been clearer. For example, on tapes of 911 calls eventually released by police under pressure, Zimmerman declared: "This guy looks like he's up to no good, or he's on drugs or something."
Zimmerman explicitly defied the operator's instruction not to follow Martin.
To obscure those simple facts, Trayvon Martin was put on trial--in the media after his death, and then by defense lawyers during Zimmerman's trial.
For example, the defense team claimed that Zimmerman -- who at the time of the murder outweighed Martin by more than 100 pounds -- was attacked without provocation and feared for his life, rather the other way around.
Judge Debra Nelson allowed defense lawyers to present results from a toxicology report showing that Martin had small amounts of marijuana in his system on the night he died.
The lawyers and their champions in the right-wing media also attempted to claim that Martin had a history of violence -- based on a video on Martin's cell phone showing two men fighting, neither of whom was Martin nor anyone he knew or was connected to.
The bigotry didn't stop with the verdict, either. At a press conference after the not-guilty decision, Zimmerman's co-attorney Mark O'Mara declared that his client was the real victim -- and never would have been charged if he was African American "because those people who decided that they were going to make him the scapegoat would not have".
By contrast, prosecutor Bernie de la Rionda seemed perfectly content with the verdict, stating that the jury system is "not perfect, but it's the best of the world. And we respect the jury's verdict." Critics of the prosecutors say they made a series of mistakes and missteps throughout the trial.
One of many
This is, of course, not the first time a Black man was murdered, and his killer or killers walked free -- and were even celebrated as heroes. The US has the horrific legacy of lynching to answer for, where the perpetrators of torture and murder were pillars of the community, never even arrested, much less put on trial.
This isn't a matter of ancient history. In December 1984, Bernard Goetz shot four young African American youths on a New York City subway. Their crime: Asking Goetz for US$5.
When one of his wounded victims tried to get away, Goetz followed him. "You don't look so bad, here's another," he said as he shot the young man in the side. Goetz's victim ended up in a coma that left him with permanent brain damage.
Goetz had been carrying a weapon on the subway because he was determined to "defend" himself in a city he said was "lawless". Like Zimmerman, he became a hero to the right-wing media in New York and beyond.
He was put on trial and found guilty -- but not of murder, merely unlawful possession of a firearm, for which he served eight months.
Like Goetz, Zimmerman had powerful forces on his side, including the same conservative media that lionized Goetz as the "subway vigilante." Police bought Zimmerman's self-defense story from the start and let him go.
Martin's body, meanwhile, was taken to the morgue, but no attempt was made to identify him -- his father was still desperately calling 911 24 hours later to say that his son was missing.
Imagine for a second, had the roles been reversed, the odds of Trayvon Martin being allowed go home the same night he killed a neighborhood watch volunteer.
It took continual mobilizations in Sanford and increasingly angry protests around the country to force the appointment of a special prosecutor, who took over the investigation and eventually filed second-degree murder charges against Zimmerman. Without those protests, Zimmerman never would have faced a jury.
But that's cold comfort now that George Zimmerman has been acquitted.
Protests were already underway in cities around the country as this article was being written. There will be more in the days to come, and anyone horrified by Martin's murder a year ago and by the acquittal of his killer on Saturday night should participate and raise their voices.
That's in the days to come -- Trayvon Martin's killer should be held to account. And in the weeks and months that follow, we need to channel anger at this latest example of justice denied into an increased determination to confront the system that let it happen.
We need to build the broader challenge to a world where a young Black man's life is in danger because he was walking where someone thought he shouldn't be--and where the political and judicial establishment protect the racists, rather than the victims of racist murder.
[Reprinted from Socialist Worker.]