When I told my 91-year old mother about the not guilty verdict for George Zimmerman in the killing of 17-year old Trayvon Martin, she was unflappable. “Doesn’t surprise me,” she said. “There are places in America where there is no justice for blacks.”
My mother has a long view of American history and racial policies. When she went to Wilberforce University as a young woman in the early 1940s, the bus she took from Washington, Pa., to Wilberforce, Ohio, would stop at a restaurant in West Virginia so passengers could eat.
If the passengers were white.
Black passengers could pay for a plate of food handed out the back door of the restaurant and stand on the outside to eat. My mother never got off the bus.
This is just a single incident in a lifetime of inequalities she has experienced and continues not to be surprised by. Indeed, my mother is still stunned by interracial couples she sees on the street, because, during most of her life, this was illegal.
My perspective, being from the civil rights generation, is only slightly modified. The outcome of the trial just made me tired and sad– sad for the Martin family but, after reading some of the comments attached to the articles in various newspapers—how Zimmerman was justified in shooting this unarmed kid, etc. — just sad for America.
Race and America’s gun culture keep me sad, tired and worried.
I’m worried that my 19 year old nephew, a sweet, handsome kid who is over six feet tall and about to go off to college this fall, may not be safe as he walks around a small town in North Carolina.
This may seem inexplicable to white people because they don’t have to justify or explain their presence in a neighborhood, in a building, in a store, indeed, anywhere.
And just how big does an area have to be before some armed, self-appointed vigilante can deem my nephew or any of my male relatives “suspicious” and shoot them under some “Stand Your Ground” or “Castle Law” — which gives people the right to use lethal force if they feel threatened but free from legal responsibility for the consequences of their use of deadly force.
It’s critical to remember that Trayvon was walking in a multi-ethnic neighborhood on his way to his father’s fiance’s townhouse where he was staying when Zimmerman confronted him. Zimmerman had already called the police about Trayvon being” a real suspicious guy” in the gated community and was told by the dispatcher that police were on the way and that he should stay in his car. Instead he went after Trayvon.
No one knows what really happened during the confrontation, but we do know that Trayvon had Skittles and an iced tea and Zimmerman had a gun. Trayvon is dead; and Zimmerman, who claimed self-defense, has now been acquitted of murder under Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law.
Now contrast the Zimmerman case with the racially charged 2006 case of John White, a black man, who killed 17-year old Daniel Cicciaro, who was white. White teenagers arrived at White’s house in an upscale predominantly white neighborhood in Suffolk County late at night to challenge his son Aaron, then 19, to a fight. The gang of white teenagers screamed threats, profanities and racial epithets outside the house.
White, who had been asleep, grabbed a loaded gun he kept to protect his family and went outside. He claimed that his pistol fired accidentally when Cicciaro lunged for it.
A judge sentenced White to two years for possession of the gun, and two to four years for manslaughter. When the verdict was announced, Cicciaro’s father screamed: “Let’s see what happens when Aaron White gets shot.”
White served five months in prison for second degree manslaughter and criminal possession of a gun before his sentence was commuted by former New York Gov. David Patterson during his last days in office.
Meanwhile, back in “Stand Your Ground” Florida, Marissa Alexander, a black woman, was sentenced to 20 years in prison in 2012 for firing a warning shot into a wall to keep her abusive husband at bay after yet another beating.
Florida’s “10-20-Life” law requires that any crime committed with a gun automatically comes with a minimum 10- year sentence and if the firearm is discharged, it’s a minimum 20-year sentence. And that 20 year minimum is what Marissa Alexander is serving.
Ironically, Angela Corey, who oversaw the prosecution of Zimmerman, also tried the case against Alexander, and defended the sentencing at the time.
See how tired and sad and unequal justice can be.
(Feature photo of Baltimore demonstration by Bill Hughes)
Karen DeWitt has a long distinguished career as a journalist, covering politics, but also has worked on political campaigns. She compares the later to the labor of a Hebrew working for the Pharaoh. She’s covered the White House and the national politics for The New York Times; foreign affairs and the White House for USA TODAY before joining that newspaper’s management as an assistant managing editor. She switched to television as a senior producer for ABC’s Nightline, where she wrote and produced the award-winning, Found Voices about the digitization of 1930s and 1940s interviews with former slaves. She returned to newspapers, as Washington editor for the Examiner newspaper and eventually left to help on local political campaigns. She has several blogs, but contributes mostly to a food blog called “I don’t speak cuisine” at peacecorpsworldwide.org and theroot.com.