Hours, days, perhaps even years before he met his death, Trayvon Martin was a marked man. Had the judge in the trial of George Zimmerman permitted discussion of racial profiling, the prosecution could have argued that, of all the people who walked through his gated housing community, Zimmerman was looking for certain type of person. And on the night of 26 February he spotted a man that fitted the bill. A man who simply didn’t belong there.
The case would have hinged on the conversation Zimmerman had with the police dispatcher. “They always get away,” he said. He, like so many before him, had already profiled who “they” were. “They” are not just Trayvon Martin. Trayvon Martin is part of “they”. “They” are those that arouse suspicion. “They” are those that are deemed to struggle in a society that still uses appearances to dictate whether we could be criminal or not.
This verdict shows racial profiling is still alive. Martin was young. He was black. He was wearing hip-hop attire. He fitted a profile. So much so that George Zimmerman did not just call the police, but took it upon himself to confront him with a gun on the grounds of criminal suspicion.
There is an even more alarming repetition of history.
Even though Trayvon Martin was confronted and shot to death he had no recourse or justice or protection because his confronter was armed – something that asks deep questions about Florida’s “stand your ground” laws. It is hard not to recall a similar strategy adopted by the Ku Klux Klan to try to instigate a response among those it sought to oppress.
We must move to learn from this case and make changes happen. The Justice Department must conduct an investigation into the civil rights violations committed against Trayvon Martin. We’re going to have to repeal the “stand your ground” law other dangerous “self defence” policies. We’re going to have to return to the painfully divisive issue of gun laws, as firearms remain too easily obtainable and able to fall into the wrong hands. We need to pass anti-racial-profiling policies.
But most of all we need to look deep within ourselves – to get past our own prejudices of those who we perceive as different because of how they dress, how they walk or the colour of their skin.
Hilary Shelton is the president of the Washington bureau of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People