Zimmerman trial: Race is a constant in US life – as elsewhere

The death of Trayvon Martin has proved that race is still a factor in national life – but name one country on earth which has a significant racial minority where it is not

Share

Every now and then, America generates the perfect media storm. The death of Trayvon Martin was one such, featuring just about every hot-button law and order issue you could imagine: guns and neighbourhood vigilantes, self-defence and the right to carry concealed weapons. And of course, permeating everything, race.

Out loud, race was barely mentioned during the month-long trial, but it hung over proceedings like a poisonous vapour. History is likely to add the Martin case to a long line stretching from the pre-civil rights era show trials of blacks subjected to Jim Crow justice, through to the acquittal of the Los Angeles police officers in the beating of black motorist Rodney King in 1992, and the ultimate media circus of the OJ Simpson trial two years later.

And if the topic of race was not explicitly raised, that was because no one needed to be reminded that had Trayvon Martin been white, his fatal confrontation with George Zimmerman might never have happened. And, of course, had the six-person jury been all-black instead of all-white, the verdict might well have been different. But not necessarily. The difference is that, unlike in the parodies of justice in the segregated South where blacks were automatically convicted if accused of a crime against a white, or in the King and Simpson cases, this time the strictly legal outcome – the acquittal of Zimmerman by his peers – feels right.

But what about the spirit of the law, one may ask, as opposed to its letter? Trials though are not morality plays; those who seek such catharsis should go to the theatre, not to a courtroom. On this occasion the law has not been an ass.

Well before Saturday evening’s verdict, impartial expert opinion leant to the view that even if Florida’s permissive self-defence laws were removed from the equation, the case for second-degree murder – requiring proof that even if the crime was not premeditated, Mr Zimmerman had displayed evil intent and hatred when he shot Mr Martin – simply was not being made.

Nonetheless, the judge allowed the prosecution to seek conviction on the lesser charge of manslaughter. But the jury threw that out too. The plain truth is that no one can say for sure what happened on that rainy Sunday evening of 26 February 2012 in the gated community of Sanford, Florida. There were no eyewitnesses, and it was never established whose voice, whether Zimmerman’s or Martin’s, was screaming for help in the background of the call to the emergency services. In a criminal court, a defendant’s guilt must be shown “beyond reasonable doubt”. Prosecutors failed to clear that fundamental hurdle.

Given America’s multi-tiered legal system, this may not be the end of the affair. Under the criminal law of Florida, Zimmerman has been acquitted. But the Justice Department in Washington faces intense pressure from civil rights groups to bring federal charges against him, under existing hate-crime legislation.

It is also possible that the Martin family could seek monetary redress for the loss of their son in civil court, where evidentiary standards are much lower. That indeed occurred in the Simpson case. This time, however, there has been no similar travesty of justice, and either course – whether civil or federal – would smack of double jeopardy. “The jury has spoken,” President Obama said at the weekend, as he urged calm. And, he could have added, one jury is enough.

As it is, and despite the acquittal, George Zimmerman’s life has probably been changed for ever. He is currently in hiding, a marked man who is now a target for a hothead’s vigilante justice – what he was accused of meting out to Trayvon Martin. He will, it appears, get his gun back, and as his lawyer Mark O’Mara drily noted: “There’s even more reason now, isn’t there?”

Even so, this case will surely not have the same impact on race relations in the US as the Rodney King case did, still less the 1968 murder of Martin Luther King, when entire cities went up in flames. Yes, there has been heated rhetoric, claims that the bad old days were never truly banished. But the protests and demonstrations in the 24 hours after the verdict was handed down – heartfelt yet almost entirely peaceful – surely tell a more accurate story.

The death of Trayvon Martin has proved that race is still a factor in national life – but name one country on earth which has a significant racial minority where it is not a factor. Beyond doubt race relations in the US have greatly improved. But there is still much to be done. If it is nonsense to argue that Zimmerman’s acquittal proves that the “New South” is as bad as the bigoted old one, it is equally absurd to pretend that, even after the election of a black president, the US has advanced to sunlit, post-racial uplands. “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon,” Obama remarked when the case first hit the headlines, 15 months ago. The worries of minority parents about how their children will be treated by a society whose institutions were forged and still mostly run by whites, persist even now, half a century after America’s civil rights revolution.

And one final, depressing thought. If the US had sensible gun laws, Trayvon Martin would not have died, and no one would have heard of George Zimmerman. Alas, even if you got rid of race in America, you’d never get rid of guns.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

English Teacher

£120 - £162 per day: Randstad Education Hull: ENGLISH TEACHER REQUIRED - Humbe...

Chemistry Teacher

£120 - £162 per day: Randstad Education Hull: We are looking for a Qualified C...

Year 6 Teacher

£100 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Hull: Randstad Education are currently...

Year 1 Teacher

£90 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Hull: Year 1 Primary Supply Teachers ne...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

i Editor's Letter: Take a moment to imagine you're Ed Miliband...

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
 

Letters: No vote poses difficult questions – so why rush?

Independent Voices
Secret politics of the weekly shop

The politics of the weekly shop

New app reveals political leanings of food companies
Beam me up, Scottie!

Beam me up, Scottie!

Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

Beware Wet Paint

The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
Sanctuary for the suicidal

Sanctuary for the suicidal

One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits