When I heard the George Zimmerman verdict, I sat in my living room in silence, watching the coverage for hours until it was all repeats of comments and clips that had run earlier. I was stunned, but mostly frozen in my dismay.
Most of my African-American friends who posted on social media were quick to say they were not surprised by the verdict. Intellectually, I was not either. But emotionally, I was horrified. NOT GUILTY…of anything… and yet an innocent black boy was dead. How could his killer be held not responsible?
I was more hopeful that reason and logic and even the disjointed evidence would prevail through bad lawyering. But it did not. Instead, our misguided obsession with guns combined with the lurking ghosts of racism that still surround us to create reasonable doubt about whether a man who stalked and followed an innocent African-American teen with a loaded gun was in fact criminally responsible for the boy’s death.
I have been surprised at how strongly this case has affected me. With this verdict, somehow, it feels like Trayvon Martin was killed all over again. When I first heard about this case 15 months ago on social media, I had hope for a trial and a conviction. Now, without that hope, I am in mourning for Trayvon Martin.
My pain for Trayvon, his parents, brother and family is palpable. The horrors they had to endure through the trial, the trauma that has surely torn into them individually and the pain of it all radiates to me.
Every black parent in America knows that he or she could be Tracy Martin or Sybrina Fulton. While we do not suffer as they do, we feel their pain when we look at our children today, when we imagine their futures and wonder if they will encounter someone who prejudges or profiles them based on race, and takes their life as a result. My heart trembles for my own 10-year-old black boy, and every other young black male in America.
For many of us African-American parents, this one jury of six women just sent a message that it is open season on our progeny. Shoot a black child walking freely down the street and there will be no penalty. If the shooter is not black, he can get away with it. And even worse, the verdict is just broadcasting a message that was created and sent by the state legislatures that passed Stand Your Ground laws, the National Rifle Association that promoted them, and the fearful citizens of some 24 states that supported their passage.
It is hard to believe we are still facing such an extreme illogical discrepancy between the facts and the verdict in 2013. This is what leaves many of us stunned, hurt, and angry after the Zimmerman verdict.
For us, this case is not an isolated abstraction, but a continuum of centuries of life in America where black Americans have been seen as a threat, as chattel, and have been treated as such with extreme violence. And though the violence of slavery and Jim Crow are now distant, we have constant reminders that the dangers our ancestors faced continue to threaten us today. Rodney King, James Byrd, Trayvon Martin are just a few of the many modern-day reminders that it is still dangerous to be black in America, especially a black male.
It is not 1955. Modern Florida is not segregated Mississippi. But I feel like my grandmother must have felt when Emmett Till, a 14-year-old boy, was brutally murdered for allegedly whistling at a white woman 58 years ago. At that time, my grandmother had one son who had made it out of segregated Virginia, only to face unfair biases as he worked to get an Ivy League college degree up north. Could he be so vilely killed over nothing, she must have wondered, worried.
But her other son, my uncle, was nine – just a year younger than her great-grandson is today. That day, every black boy, including my uncle, became Emmett Till. All of their parents knew such a death was possible and might be the fate of their child in the near future.
So how do you face the fear of knowing that your child can be innocently walking on a public street, but be hunted down and killed because he is perceived as a threat? How do you teach and protect your children? My grandmother had to find a way, and so will I.
Back then, black Americans held their children closer, became more strict about their children’s behavior and issued stark warnings to young ones, in desperate hope that it might save them one day. It is one thing to know of the racial bias against your son. Like in 1955, it’s another thing to have an event like this tell you that your son could be next, that he might not make it to adulthood because of the sick history of race and violence in our country. For me, it is another thing to think that my little 10-year-old, who is always cold and wears hoodies in 80 degree weather, has a target on his heart, like Trayvon did, for the rest of his life.
The story of Travyon Martin and George Zimmerman is about race and it is not a new one. It has played out over and over for hundreds of years as innocent black men and boys have been feared, hated and ultimately targeted for an early death. America has a certain history with race that we cannot ignore. We can make comments that race is not the issue, but time and time again, we see the replay of the same story; the same scenario based on fear, mistrust and social differences belies a different truth. Race is still a guiding principle in America, one that chooses who lives and who dies, who is innocent and who is guilty.
Today, as we discussed the verdict, my 13-year-old daughter said it will get better. She hypothesized that George Zimmerman’s father probably grew up in segregation, learned the racism of that time and passed it on. But the further away we get from segregation, the more generations we have born in a freer America, the less these kinds of deaths will happen, she said. I hope she is right. I hope she, and her brothers, live to see that day.
Guest contributor Kristin Wells is a policy analyst in Washington, D.C. and an attorney at Patton Boggs.