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The accumulated injustices of the Trayvon Martin case

The criminal justice system has always been at the sharp end of race relations in the United States. Not only have African Americans been treated more harshly than whites as suspects and offenders, they…

The acquittal of George Zimmerman, accused of the murder of black teenager Trayvon Martin, suggests there still exists deep-seated racial injustices in the US. EPA/Joe Burbank

The criminal justice system has always been at the sharp end of race relations in the United States. Not only have African Americans been treated more harshly than whites as suspects and offenders, they have been taken less seriously as victims.

From the thousands of lynchings that were never prosecuted to police beatings and murders that triggered riots, African Americans have historically had little reason to believe that the state values their lives as much as those of others. To this day, offenders against black victims are treated more leniently than those whose victims are white.

Against this backdrop the Trayvon Martin case was always going to be about race, regardless of how frequently people claimed it wasn’t. It was about race from the moment George Zimmerman decided, against the instructions of police, to pursue an unarmed black teenager through a Florida gated community because of his supposed resemblance to African American burglars in the area.

When police failed to arrest Zimmerman for shooting Martin dead, accepting his claim that he acted in self-defence, the pattern was all too familiar. The presumption of black criminality meant that a violent black death could be explained away. Despite subsequent concerns that the country had rushed to judge George Zimmerman, the real problem was that police and prosecutors had failed to investigate his story.

By the time protests forced an investigation six weeks later, evidence was hard to find. And by this time, the case was in the grip of an angry backlash against the suggestion that race might have anything to do with it.

Barack Obama, who had barely talked about race at all in the first term of his presidency, noted in a press conference that if he’d had a son, he would “look like Trayvon”. Even this mild expression of solidarity provoked furious accusations that Obama was politicising the case, on which he has since been nearly silent. Support for Zimmerman escalated as gun rights activists began to suspect the case was part of a conspiracy against self-defence. One Tea Party member argued that Zimmerman could have prevented the Sandy Hook massacre had he been there.

Another familiar pattern emerged: the strange but powerful political correctness of anti-anti-racism, to which the Obama White House has been particularly susceptible. From the sacking of Shirley Sherrod to the scolding of black America, Obama as president has upheld an official narrative of “colourblindness”. In colourblind mythology, black anger about racism is itself racist and must be suppressed. The burden lies on blacks to forget the racist past, not on whites to rectify it.

The colourblind narrative dominated the trial of George Zimmerman. The judge forbade any mention of “racial profiling”, forcing the prosecution to describe Zimmerman’s actions as “criminal profiling”. Zimmerman’s lawyers argued that race played no role in Zimmerman’s actions because he had not expressed racial animus towards Martin in police interviews, thus imposing the standard colourblind definition that “racism” can only refer to meetings of the Ku Klux Klan or New Black Panther Party.

Until the prosecution’s closing statement, discussion of race was limited mainly to confected outrage about the use of the term “cracker” by a witness. The same witness attracted merciless derision on social media for her perceived conformity to poor black stereotypes.

There were only two genuine eyewitnesses to the killing of Trayvon Martin. One was dead, and the other was in the dock. Under these circumstances the prosecution could never disprove to a jury that Zimmerman had acted in self-defence, even if his actions had undeniably set off the chain of events that led to the fatal confrontation. As Zimmerman’s lawyer told them:

You can’t fill in the gaps. You can’t connect the dots for the state attorney’s office in this case. You’re not allowed to. This is their burden. They have to take away reasonable doubt.

Zimmerman was acquitted of both second degree murder and manslaughter.

Authorities are justifiably worried about the possibility of civil unrest in the wake of Zimmerman’s acquittal. The failure of the state to punish the killing and wounding of African Americans has long been a potent factor in riots. Even people who feel the jury got the verdict right in legal terms may be aggrieved that, thanks to police and prosecutorial missteps, the stalking and killing of a defenceless black minor has gone completely unpunished.

If there is no unrest, it may be partly due to the efforts of the Community Relations Service of the Department of Justice, which had sent representatives to Sanford, Florida, to ensure protests remained peaceful and to mediate discussions between the community and law enforcement. Their involvement was seized upon by conservative activists as evidence that Obama “took sides once the racial furnace was sufficiently stoked”.

In the lead-up to the verdict, there was actually little to no evidence of racial animus on the part of local African Americans. Unless, as colourblind doctrine sometimes requires, you count demands for justice as dangerous racial provocations.

Once again, the public perception of responsibility for any trouble will fall on black leaders and citizens. More than four years into the Obama presidency, African Americans might wonder whether their rights as citizens will ever include the expectation of equal treatment in the criminal justice system, either as offenders or victims. Obama himself might wonder.

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31 Comments sorted by

    1. Mark Smith

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Gavin Moodie

      Did you actually follow the case? Did you see how Zimmerman's head was cut up from being grounded and pounded, or that a doctor testified that Martin was on top of Zimmerman when Zimmerman shot him? What about how the prosecution team resorted to base emotion in their final statements, realising, as they did, that the evidence was completely against them? The self-defense argument was ironclad.

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    2. Kyran Graham

      PhD Candidate: Neuropsychiatry/Neuropsychology at University of Western Australia

      In reply to Mark Smith

      Did YOU actually follow the case?

      It is great to focus on the fact that Zimmerman showed signs of being in a struggle while conveniently ignoring how he came to be in that struggle to begin with.

      Martin was walking along, unarmed and not breaking any laws. Zimmerman followed him because.... Martin was a black kid and there were some recent burglaries committed by black people. Zimmerman contacted police and was then specifically told not to continue following Martin. Zimmerman did so anyway.

      Had Zimmerman followed police instructions, we wouldn't be having this conversation today.

      Any claims of self-defence are void when, given the evidence, it would seem that Zimmerman was the instigator.

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    3. Mark Pollock

      Analyst

      In reply to Kyran Graham

      Well, not quite. Given the evidence, and the verdict of the jury, it seems that Zimmerman was perfectly entitled to defend himself.

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    4. Mark Smith

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Kyran Graham

      I did follow the case Kyran, unlike you, and what it showed is that the presumption of innocence and burden of proof still mean something. The state needed to prove beyond reasonable doubt that Zimmerman did NOT act in self defense. They couldn't, because the evidence didn't back this up. Your argument is all backwards.

      By the way, you are wrong when you say Zimmerman was specifically told not to continue following Martin. The exact words by the 911 contact (not police- this person is a civilian, not a sworn police officer) were "we don't need you to do that (follow him)". That is not a "police instruction". Get it right mate.

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    5. David Arthur

      resistance gnome

      In reply to Mark Smith

      Did Zimmerman follow Martin? Yes.
      Did Martin become aware that someone was following him? Yes.
      Did Zimmerman maintain sufficient distance from Martin to ensure no physical confrontation? No.
      Did physical confrontation result? Yes.

      Are 17 year old youths big enough and powerful enough to overpower fit healthy adult men? No.

      The facts speak for themselves. While it is certainly true that the only reliable witness was rendered unavailable by being blown away, on the basis of what has obviously, I would be quite uncomfortable should the Dept of Immigration and Citizenship deem George Zimmerman a fit and proper person to receive a visa to enter Australia.

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    6. Sean Lamb

      Science Denier

      In reply to David Arthur

      "The facts speak for themselves."
      At least one of them isn't a fact, it is rather an assertion and inaccurate assertion at that. Some 17 year olds can over power adults and there is fairly uncontroversial physical evidence on the back of Zimmerman's head that back up his account.

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    7. David Arthur

      resistance gnome

      In reply to Sean Lamb

      Actually, my line of reasoning doesn't even require that fact; I would still prefer that man to never enter Australia.

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    8. David Arthur

      resistance gnome

      In reply to Sean Lamb

      In that case, if Zimmerman couldn't hold his own against Martin without use of a weapon, then continuing to pursue Martin shows intention to use the weapon.

      Pursuing Martin at close enough distance to not avoid physical contact shows intention to use the weapon at close quarters, ie in precisely the manner in which it was used.

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    9. Mark Smith

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to David Arthur

      Please do some research before commenting on this. From the testimony of Jeantel, Martin was at the entrance to his house, but instead of entering he went away from the house, toward Zimmerman, and confronted Zimmerman. It was found that Martin initiated - at a minimum- the verbal confrontation, far from his house. The above is corroborated by the trial record, sworn testimony AND the state’s own witnesses, not just Zimmerman. You should really move beyond the headlines here mate. And 17 year olds can't overpower adults? Rofl

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    10. Sean Lamb

      Science Denier

      In reply to David Arthur

      David, I had a situation when the security manager stopped me near Sydney Casino on a public street and demanded to see the inside of my bag. I had not been in the Casino, I had not left the public footpath the whole time. I vigorously disputed his right to inspect the inside of my backpack, he said he would call the police to ask them to inspect it.
      In the end - because I was meeting people and did not what to disturb their evening while I got given the once over by NSW's notoriously bent police - I let him look inside my bag.

      One thing that never occurred to me was to start smashing the back of his head into the pavement (actually it did occur to me, but only as wishful thinking).

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    11. David Arthur

      resistance gnome

      In reply to Mark Smith

      Thanks for that clarification Mr Smith, I stand corrected.

      Did Mr Zimmerman inform Martin that he was armed, when Martin was still sufficiently far enough away? If not, why not?

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    12. David Arthur

      resistance gnome

      In reply to Sean Lamb

      ... whereas Trayvon Martin accosted his persecutor.

      Perhaps the security manager at Sydney casino should also be deported?

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    13. Sean Lamb

      Science Denier

      In reply to David Arthur

      Possibly - but if I had slammed his head into the footpath and he had then shot me, he would not have been charged with murder.

      Trayvon Martin was a person who had a habit of being found with quantities of jewelry in his possessions that did not belong to him and was found wandering around in a gated estate.
      According to the lady he was speaking to on the phone he believed he was being followed by a policeman.
      http://www.orlandosentinel.com/news/local/trayvon-martin/os-zimmerman-rachel-jeantel-20130715,0,470250.story

      This is why we have Neighbourhood Watch - to discourage the Trayvon Martin's of the world
      I have no doubt this is a tragedy for his parents, but one petty criminal less is not something for the rest of the world to dissolve in paroxysms of grief.

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    14. Eamon Vale

      eLearning Designer

      In reply to Sean Lamb

      The article you provide a link to does not say that Trayvon 'believed he was being followed by a policeman.' It says that he described the person as a 'creepy ass cracka' which Rachel Jeantel (not Trayvon) suggested means somebody who 'acts like a policeman'. Trayvon Martin was not found wandering around in a gated estate he was walking home to his father's house. Trayvon Martin did not 'have a habit of being found with jewellery that did not belong to him' you are referring to ONE allegation that is unproven. http://www.miamiherald.com/2012/03/26/2714778/thousands-expected-at-trayvon.html The last sentence of your confused and misleading comment is just plain disgusting.

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    15. Sean Lamb

      Science Denier

      In reply to Eamon Vale

      "you are referring to ONE allegation that is unproven."
      No, the allegation that is unproven is that he stole the jewelry himself, that the jewelry did not belong to Trayvon Martin is what he himself said.
      Of course, as you rightly imply, it is highly plausible that Travyon Martin did steal the jewelry himself, as tragically for his posthumous reputation the anonymous friend he claimed gave it to him has not come forward to claim his or her property.

      "'creepy ass cracka' which Rachel Jeantel…

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    16. Eamon Vale

      eLearning Designer

      In reply to Sean Lamb

      Read the article!!! http://www.miamiherald.com/2012/03/26/2714778/thousands-expected-at-trayvon.html

      He was never arrested, or charged, nor has it been officially reported that he was in possession of jewellery (stolen or otherwise). That he was in possession of stolen jewellery (regardless as to who stole it) is an unproven allegation. If your job is to be a 'Science Denier' then you are doing very well. You should definitely add 'Facts Denier' as a sub-skill.

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    17. Sean Lamb

      Science Denier

      In reply to Eamon Vale

      Eamon Vale - the claim that he was in the possession of stolen jewelry is your suggestion, not mine. Of course, I think you are very likely correct in your assessment.

      I just said the jewelry did not belong to him - this is precisely what Trayvon Martin said - he said it had been given to him by a friend who he refused to name.

      It appears this friend was a rather wealthy individual who did not feel the need to reclaim his/her property.
      Of course, people rasher than me might conclude from this the items were stolen. However, I have not said that, all I relayed was Trayvon Martin's own words that the jewelry was not his.
      Do try to read what I actually said and respond to that - not respond to what you secretly believe to be the true situation.
      Don't put into my mouth your private beliefs.

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    18. Mike Hansen

      Mr.

      In reply to Sean Lamb

      The Zimmerman narrative is unravelling. Will the racists come back and apologise - probably not

      "George Zimmerman was held in "investigative police custody" for a brief time on Monday after allegedly threatening his wife Shellie and her father with a gun at their Florida home."

      "In the call, Shellie Zimmerman, who was convicted of perjury last month for lying about the couple's finances at her husband's bail hearing last year, said he was waving a gun at her and her father, David Dean, and also assaulted him."

      "He's in his car and he continually has his hand on his gun, and he keeps saying 'step closer' and he's just threatening all of us," she said on the recording. "He punched my dad in the nose; my dad has a mark on the nose. I saw his glasses were on the floor."

      http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/sep/09/george-zimmerman-held-wife-gun

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  1. Scott Kolbe

    Research Fellow at University of Melbourne

    Australians should use this opportunity of distant observation to realize the parallels between the obvious, although consistently denied, racism in America, and that directed against indigenous Australians in this country. If this situation occurred here (white man kills black 'burglar') the exact same sequence of events could have played out.

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    1. Don McArthur

      Retired educator at McArthur Park Apiary

      In reply to Scott Kolbe

      I very much doubt it Scott. We have not got to the stage of vigilantes roaming the streets looking for bad guys. Your first sentence implies most Australians are oblivious (couldn't care less) to racism and I would have to agree.

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    2. Eamon Vale

      eLearning Designer

      In reply to Scott Kolbe

      I completely agree Scott, we, in both New Zealand and Australia, should not forget that the criminalising of racial minorities is common and ongoing in our countries. And should use the opportunity a horrific example like this gives us to address local national racism.

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    3. Eamon Vale

      eLearning Designer

      In reply to Don McArthur

      The point made by Scott is valid Don McArthur. There may not be a perfect 'like for like' example - although I imagine there probably is - however the criminalising of minorities (as the article states occurs in the US) is common to Australia. As is the subsequent leniency shown when they are killed. There are numerous examples of Aboriginals killed in police (or security services) custody: http://www.abc.net.au/local/stories/2011/09/07/3312511.htm
      So many in fact that a royal commission was established to look into it: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aboriginal_deaths_in_custody

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    4. Mark Pollock

      Analyst

      In reply to Scott Kolbe

      Isn't Zimmerman Hispanic or something? You seem to be suggesting that any violence perpetrated against "blacks" is ipso facto perpetrated by whites. I don't think the world is that simple.

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    5. Eamon Vale

      eLearning Designer

      In reply to Mark Pollock

      Really Mark? Zimmerman is half Hispanic but no one is suggesting that any violence perpetrated against blacks is perpetrated by whites. Perhaps you should read the article and/or Scott's comment a little more carefully. The article is stating that violence against blacks is not treated as seriously as that against whites and links to material to support that argument. Scott is reminding us that racism is not something that only exists in the US.

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  2. John Crest

    logged in via email @live.com.au

    We can take some comfort that despite the emotion of the race issue, the rule of law was clearly upheld.

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  3. Alex Cannara

    logged in via LinkedIn

    As with OJ, Zimmerman's troubles have just begun. Fortunately, "wrongful death" in civil suit hasn't the same requirement for elimination of doubt.

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  4. Louis Mostert

    logged in via email @yahoo.com.au

    My first response was outrage too. However, it is interesting what you find when you read wider. This blog made me stop and rethink the situation:

    http://criminaldefenseblog.blogspot.com/2013/07/the-embarrassment-of-george-zimmerman.html

    As a lawyer, I have at times followed trials closely and seen how the reality of the trial differs from the sensation that might be around it.

    It would appear that the case could just not be made out against Mr Zimmerman.

    Having said that, frightening injustices seem to occur still, such as this case:

    http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-201_162-57433184/fla-mom-gets-20-years-for-firing-warning-shots/

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  5. Sean Lamb

    Science Denier

    The jury - just like the jury in the OJ Simpson case - are the ones that heard the evidence.
    Dr Smith didn't. Who is the best position to deliver judgement?

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