Jim Crow Justice: Trayvon Martin and the Generational Burden of Black Boys

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     The history of America is still being written and the acquittal of George Zimmerman of second degree murder by a Florida jury of five White women and one Hispanic female in the mindless shooting death of 17-year-old African American teenager Trayvon Martin is now an important chapter in that history that gave birth to centuries of slavery and Jim Crow.

    Like so many, I was shocked by the verdict and could not comprehend how in 2013, a jury purporting to be part of balancing the scales of justice would let go a martial arts trained man with a gun who got out of his car, soaked in his prejudice and tired of seeing Black youths in the neighborhood, followd an innocent teenager and killed him. The prejudiced jury, as evidenced by the interview juror B-37 gave to CNN Monday night, revealed the dark character of a system of justice that has long been failing young Black boys. How long will this continue before those who administer justice finally right the wrongs of the criminal justice system?

    Even though juror B-37 admitted that Zimmerman went too far and should not have gotten out of his car with his gun and followed Trayvon, she still believed “George,” as she referred to Zimmerman repeatedly, was on the right side of the law. Then she said both Trayvon and Zimmerman were responsible for what happened, but she assigned no culpability to Zimmerman. More troubling for the juror was when she described Trayvon’s female friend, Rachel Jeantel, as not “credible” because of her “communication skills,” and that she was “using phrases I never heard before,” showing the deep-seated prejudice of a jury whose life experiences do not equate to Trayvon, his female friend or any other Black person.

    Apparently, by referring to a Black witness as not credible and using phrases she claimed she does not understand, juror B-37 confirmed to us that the jury members have had limited or no dealings whatsoever with the Black experience.

    They have no inkling of the life of a Black teenager and sought to compare the behavior of 17-year-old Trayvon to that of a grown man like Zimmerman.

    Makes us wonder why the prosecutors would, in the first place, if they were really interested in winning this case and given the national attention it received, allow a jury that is not diverse in thought, belief systems and life experiences to examine one of the most important racial justice cases in history.

    Did the prosecutors conclude that Trayvon’s life was not worth vigorously fighting to convict his killer by throwing the entire book, including racial animus, at Zimmerman? Did the prosecutors decide because of national attention they would just charge Zimmernan for the sake of charging but not put up a strategic and strong fight since their own Sanford Police Department showed no value in a dead Black boy’s life by letting his killer talk his way out of an arrest and go home to sleep on the night he killed Trayvon Martin?

    Why didn’t the prosecutors object when their own witness, Chris Serino, the lead detective from the Sandford Police Department, on the witness seat converted into a glowing character witness for Zimmerman? Given what they knew and the information they were privy to, including forensic evidence regarding how Trayvon was killed, why did the prosecution allow their witness, Serino, to collapse their case and not even object? Were the prosecutors, Sanford Police Department and the jury eating from the same plate of racism?

    The fact is, if young Trayvon Martin was a White boy, Zimmerman would never have followed him in the first place. But even if he had followed him and shot him to death, he would never have gone home that night. He would have had a lot of explaining to do in the interrogation room and the prosecution would have moved heaven and earth and even planet Jupiter to convict this killer. Everyone from the prosecution, to the Sanford Police Department to the jury would have all identified with a young White boy killed because he could be any of their sons. Their pursuit for justice would been a personal mission to uphold the law and they would make sure Zimmerman did the time for the crime.

    But in Trayvon’s case, he became a tragic victim of his skin color which Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said five decades ago should not be used to judge people. King said on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial that people should be judged by the content of their character. Trayvon’s only crime was that he fit the description as has been the case with most young Black boys who come into contact with the criminal justice system. They are treated as adults instead of children while their White counterparts are given the full benefit of the doubt, as children. Their White counterparts generally receive a lesser sentence or probation when it comes to drug selling and other substance peddling, or less egregious crimes.

    Even the media coverage — it wasn’t until recently that it has been changing in some media markets — of young Black male suspects, was more pervasive than their White counterparts whose mug shots hardly make it on the evening news but the Black suspects are splashed all over the television screen. This is the unequal society we live in and it is time to tell the truth about it.

    Trayvon Martin’s death should tell us something about the need for criminal justice reform and the dangers of a non-diverse jury exercising in the words of Dr. King “interposition and nullification” under the pretext of interpreting the law and rendering justice.

    His death should tell us that something is wrong and rotten in our justice system, notwithstanding the good faith efforts of reform-minded administrators of justice in our communities.

    His death should tell us that Florida’s justice system has failed the nation and African-Americans and that it is time for real reform in a state where the Trayvon Martin verdict mirrors what Rev Jesse Jackson calls “old South justice.”

    His death should tell us that this innocent and handsome young man, who could have been a member of any of our families, did not deserve to become a victim of a vicious, deadly crime.

    His death should remind us that despite having the first African- American president, we are still in a crusade for human dignity. That no matter your background, life experience or the way you speak, you should not be a victim of prejudice, as was juror B-37. That juror showed her true colors when she dismissed Martin’s female friend’s testimony because of the way she spoke and her unfamiliarity with a young Black female’s experience.

    His death should send a message to everyone in the justice system that they have a responsibility to protect every person, regardless of their ethnicity or where they are from.

    His death tells us that some of our intolerant police departments across this country, like the Sandford Police Department, should be made to embrace and to institute diversity and improved race relations. That the life of a Black boy killed should carry the same weight as the life of a White child, and there was no excuse for letting his killer walk away that night.

    His death is a reminder that it is time to call out the blatant hypocrisy of Southern extreme right wing politicians who feast at the table of racism and exclusion, still in denial of a rapidly growing multiracial America, as evidenced, by the latest Census report.

    His death should force us to reject and wage a collective assault on the intricate and evil system of racism that permeates our society. Every life should count and should matter .

    Trayvon Martin has become a martyr in the struggle against racism and reforming the criminal justice system. His death should make us look inwardly at gun violence in our own communities and force us to be equally outraged at what is happening in Detroit, Chicago and the rest of the nation where urban centers have rapidly become war zones as our children die daily.

    His death should cause us to build and strengthen coalitions with communities to collectively condemn what happened in Sandford and to show solidarity in knowing that what affects one community has a direct bearing on the other.

    Trayvon’s untimely and premature demise — taken away from his parents — is a stark reminder of the residue of what General Colin Powell calls “the dark veins of intolerance,” still haunting us. It is a bold reminder of the crucial role the federal government has to ensure crimes on the basis of prejudice and hate are prosecuted vigorously and to the fullest extent of the law.

    Despite being troubled and angered, we can take comfort in the bold and courageous leadership of U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder who has pledged to renew investigation into the Zimmerman verdict, and who has demonstrated in other areas to be a practical champion on issues relating to protecting people’s rights.

    The nationwide reaction to the verdict showed Trayvon Martin did not die in vain. All of us are charged through our various responsibilities to ensure that in our communities we can prevent another horrific tragedy that retells the Trayvon Martin saga. And that can only happen if we commit once and for all to never letting what happen in Sanford take place in Detroit or anywhere else, because we believe if it happens our justice system will deal with it as it should be dealt.

    Bankole Thompson is editor of the Michigan Chronicle and the author of the forthcoming book “Rising From the Ashes: Engaging Detroit’s Future With Courage.” E-mail bthompson@michronicle.com or visit his personal page at http://www.bankolethompson.com.

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