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“From Lament To Rallying Cry”: Disappointment Is For People Who Have Faith In The System

There isn’t a good reason for me to be as angry as I am over the “not guilty” verdict handed down for George Zimmerman in the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. I always knew that would be the outcome. No amount of flat-out lies or inconsistencies in Zimmerman’s story, nor compassion for two grieving parents who lost their son in the most heinous and senseless of ways, was going to override the lack of respect the United States justice system has for black bodies. Disappointment is for people who have faith in the system. I knew that better than I know my own name.

And yet there I was, crying rage-filled tears as “ZIMMERMAN NOT GUILTY” appeared on television. Because no amount of cynicism can override the pain of knowing a 17-year-old boy is dead through no fault of his own, and no one will be held accountable.

Perhaps the state of Florida is at fault: the prosecutors could have put together a stronger case. Perhaps the jury is at fault: maybe they didn’t notice Zimmerman’s lies and call his version of events into question the way they could have. But in truth, the whole damn country is at fault for continuing to allow the racist ideology that renders blackness a threat to the American way of life. The auction blocks and “Colored only” signs are past, but we haven’t learned the lessons of our history; we’re merely products of it.

George Zimmerman was prosecuted, yes, but he was never really on trial. Trayvon Martin’s lifeless body was put on trial for having the audacity to exist and be black. Zimmerman started that the night he killed Trayvon, profiling the lanky teen for being “up to no good” and not belonging in his gated community—when he had no information to go on besides the fact Trayvon was walking in the rain. During the trial, defense attorneys Mark O’Mara and Don West trotted out every racist stereotype attached to black boys throughout history, suggesting that Trayvon used supernatural size, strength and speed to beat Zimmerman. To my disgust, O’Mara literally invoked the same justification for killing Trayvon as was used to justify lynchings. He called to the witness stand Olivia Bertalan, one of Zimmerman’s former neighbors, who told the story of her home being burglarized by two young African-American boys while she and her children feared for their lives. It was terrifying indeed, and it had absolutely no connection to the case at hand. But O’Mara presented the jury with the “perfect victim,” which Trayvon could never be: a white woman living in fear of black criminals. Zimmerman had offered to help her the night her home was robbed. Implicit in the defense’s closing argument: he was also protecting her the night he killed Trayvon Martin.

On MSNBC’s UP w/ Steve Kornacki, Daryl Parks, the attorney for Trayvon’s family, said he didn’t want to call O’Mara a racist. But when you traffic in those racist tropes in a court of law, it doesn’t matter if you’re labeled a racist or not. The damage is done.

In a statement released the day after the verdict was announced, President Obama said: “I know this case has elicited strong passions. And in the wake of the verdict, I know those passions may be running even higher. But we are a nation of laws, and a jury has spoken. I now ask every American to respect the call for calm reflection from two parents who lost their young son.” But I ask him, and everyone else who says we must respect the verdict: How long are we supposed to remain calm when the laws we are called to respect exist in an open assault on our humanity? The arc of the moral universe bends slowly. Our lives are on the line right now.

But if we are, as I suggested, merely products of our history, then alongside our history of injustice exists a history of resistance, and this, too, has taken shape in the aftermath. I was in New York City to witness and participate in the rally-turned-march that took over the streets of midtown, as thousands of people of marched from Union Square Park to Times Square. Parents brought their children; one wore a homemade sign that read, “Don’t Shoot Me.” People cheered from the sidelines, and on occasion joined in. Cars respected the new traffic laws or were met with fierce opposition when they didn’t. A man stood asking, “Have you ever considered Zimmerman was not guilty?” He identified himself as an attorney, but his question went ignored.

Trayvon’s name became a rallying cry. It mingled with the call-and-response chants of “No justice, no peace!” and “Hey hey, ho ho, the new Jim Crow has got to go!” The police did what they could to stop the march, but in the end they just weren’t any match for the power of a people determined to fight the injustice in this country.

I watched nearly every minute of George Zimmerman’s trial, and the disappointment I felt during that time was replaced by faint bits of hope as I watched so many people come together for Trayvon (and Oscar Grant, and Sean Bell, and Rekia Boyd and Aiyana Stanley-Jones…). It affirmed something I had been feeling in recent months.

For those of us left among the marginalized and oppression, be they black boys buying Skittles in Florida; women raising their voices against virulent anti-abortion measures in Texas, Ohio or North Carolina; prisoners going hungry in California; innocent men awaiting execution in Georgia; little girls lying asleep in Detroit; or transwomen who defend themselves and end up locked behind bars in Minnesota; the time is now to commit to the revolutionary project of living our lives out loud. Our rage is valuable, whether we anticipate its coming or not.

So what’s next? My fellow Nation contributor Salamishah Tillet told me a story about the legendary jazz singer Nina Simone. After the church bombing that killed the four little girls in Birmingham, Alabama, Simone went to her shed and tried to make herself a gun. Her husband walked in on her and asked what she was doing. She replied she was making a gun because she wanted to kill someone. He replied, “But you’re a musician.” Then she wrote “Mississippi Goddamn.”

What’s next is that each of us take whatever gift we have and use it in a way that honors and values black life. That is the legacy Trayvon Martin can leave to this world.

 

By: Mychal Denzel Smith, The Nation, July 15, 2013

July 16, 2013 Posted by | Racism, Zimmerman Trial | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“A New Low Even For Lawyers”: Defense Attorney Don West Gives A Despicable Reaction To The Zimmerman Verdict

It was clear from the start that whatever happened in the George Zimmerman case would produce a strong reaction – especially if, as happened, Zimmerman was found not guilty. And one would hope that in the midst of all of the heavy emotion and tragedy of the case, a dialogue would ensue over race relations, over the vastly different experiences of adult white men and black teenagers wearing hoodies, and over what makes us afraid and how we’re allowed to react to that fear. There have been some insightful and impressively soothing statements and behavior from people – President Obama’s pitch-perfect statement, for example, and Trayvon Martin’s own parents spending the day after the verdict in church, urging peace and calm.

The word “despicable” is not part of that dialogue – especially when it is uttered not only by an attorney arguing the case, but by one of the defense attorneys.

Lawyer Don West – who distinguished himself early on by opening his defense arguments with a wildly inappropriate knock-knock joke – told the Orlando Sun Sentinel after the verdict:

I think the prosecution of George Zimmerman was despicable. I’m glad this jury kept this tragedy from being a travesty.

This is the sort of talk one expects to find on Twitter or on some anonymous comments section on a newspaper website. This is not the sort of remark to be made by someone who is ostensibly committed to the criminal justice system.

Trayvon Martin was 17 years old, unarmed, and on his way back home after picking up candy and iced tea at the market. Now he is dead, and the person who shot him is on record having spotted Martin, declared him as a kid up to no good, gotten out of his car and shot him dead. The facts of what happened are somewhat murky, in part because Zimmerman gave conflicting accounts, and in part because the only other witness to the episode is in a grave.

Even if, as the jury found, Zimmerman rightly felt in danger of death or grievous bodily harm, Martin’s death was a horrible tragedy. Florida law gives wide latitude to people claiming self-defense, and the jury was required to listen to the facts and decide whether the prosecution had proven, without a reasonable doubt, that Zimmerman did not feel in danger. That’s a hard standard to reach, so as distressing as the not guilty verdict is to many people, it’s an understandable conclusion.

But the idea that there was something offensive about even prosecuting Zimmerman, about putting him through the stress of a trial after taking the life of an unarmed boy, is stunning. West’s self-righteous comment suggests that Zimmerman was the victim here, and that his insistence – despite his behavior and conflicting statements – that he killed someone only because there was no other way to protect himself is not just disrespectful to the dead boy. It’s disrespectful to the criminal justice system. It is, arguably, despicable.

 

By: Susan Milligan, U. S. News and World Report, July 15, 2013

July 16, 2013 Posted by | Zimmerman Trial | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Justice Denied”: In Just The Latest Sad Chapter In American Race Relations, George Zimmerman Acquitted

Neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman was cleared of all charges Saturday in the shooting of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed black teenager whose killing unleashed furious debate across the U.S. over racial profiling, self-defense and equal justice.

Zimmerman, 29, blinked and barely smiled when the verdict was announced. He could have been convicted of second-degree murder or manslaughter. But the jury of six women, all but one of them white, reached a verdict of not guilty after deliberating well into the night. Their names have not been made public, and they declined to speak to the media.

Martin’s mother and father were not in the courtroom when the verdict was read; supporters of his family who had gathered outside yelled “No! No!” upon learning of the not guilty verdict.

The teen’s father, Tracy, reacted on Twitter: “Even though I am broken hearted my faith is unshattered I WILL ALWAYS LOVE MY BABY TRAY.”

His mother also said on Twitter that she appreciated the prayers from supporters.

“Lord during my darkest hour I lean on you. You are all that I have,” she wrote.

The jurors considered nearly three weeks of often wildly conflicting testimony over who was the aggressor on the rainy night the 17-year-old was shot while walking through the gated townhouse community where he was staying.

Defense attorneys said the case was classic self-defense, claiming Martin knocked Zimmerman down and was slamming the older man’s head against the concrete sidewalk when Zimmerman fired his gun.

“We’re ecstatic with the results,” defense attorney Mark O’Mara after the verdict. “George Zimmerman was never guilty of anything except protecting himself in self-defense.”

Another member of his defense team, Don West, said he was pleased the jury “kept this tragedy from becoming a travesty.”

Prosecutors called Zimmerman a liar and portrayed him was a “wannabe cop” vigilante who had grown frustrated by break-ins in his neighborhood committed primarily by young black men. Zimmerman assumed Martin was up to no good and took the law into his own hands, prosecutors said.

State Attorney Angela Corey said after the verdict that she believed second-degree murder was the appropriate charge because Zimmerman’s mindset “fit the bill of second-degree murder.”

“We charged what we believed we could prove,” Corey said.

As the verdict drew near, police and city leaders in the Orlando suburb of Sanford and other parts of Florida said they were taking precautions against the possibility of mass protests or unrest in the event of an acquittal.

“There is no party in this case who wants to see any violence,” Seminole County Sheriff Don Eslinger said immediately after jurors began deliberating. “We have an expectation upon this announcement that our community will continue to act peacefully.”

O’Mara, Zimmerman’s attorney, said his client is aware he has to be cautious and protective of his safety.

“There still is a fringe element that wants revenge,” O’Mara said. “They won’t listen to a verdict of not guilty.”

The verdict came a year and a half after civil rights protesters angrily demanded Zimmerman be prosecuted. That anger appeared to return Saturday night outside the courthouse, at least for some who had been following the case.

Rosie Barron, 50, and Andrew Perkins, 55, both black residents of Sanford, stood in the parking lot of the courthouse and wept.

“I at least thought he was going to get something, something,” Barron said.

Added her brother: “How the hell did they find him not guilty?”

Perkins was so upset he was shaking. “He killed somebody and got away with murder,” Perkins shouted, looking in the direction of the courthouse. “He ain’t getting no probation or nothing.”

Several Zimmerman supporters also were outside the courthouse, including a brother and sister quietly rejoicing that Zimmerman was acquitted. Both thought the jury made the right decision in finding Zimmerman not guilty — they felt that Zimmerman killed Martin in self-defense.

Cindy Lenzen, 50, of Casslebury, and her brother, 52-year-old Chris Bay, stood watching the protesters chant slogans such as, “the whole system’s guilty.”

Lenzen and Bay — who are white — called the entire case “a tragedy,” especially for Zimmerman.

“It’s a tragedy that he’s going to suffer for the rest of his life,” Bay said. “No one wins either way. This is going to be a recurring nightmare in his mind every night.”

Meanwhile, authorities in Martin’s hometown of Miami said the streets were quiet, with no indication of problems. The neighborhood where Martin’s father lives in Miami Gardens was equally quiet.

Zimmerman wasn’t arrested for 44 days after the Feb. 26, 2012, shooting as police in Sanford insisted that Florida’s Stand Your Ground law on self-defense prohibited them from bringing charges. Florida gives people wide latitude to use deadly force if they fear death or bodily harm.

Martin’s parents, along with civil rights leaders such as the Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, argued that Zimmerman — whose father is white and whose mother is Hispanic — had racially profiled their son. And they accused investigators of dragging their feet because Martin was a black teenager.

Before a special prosecutor assigned to the case ordered Zimmerman’s arrest, thousands of protesters gathered in Sanford, Miami, New York and elsewhere, many wearing hoodies like the one Martin had on the night he died. They also carried Skittles and a can of iced tea, items Martin had in his pocket. President Barack Obama weighed in, saying that if he had a son, “he’d look like Trayvon.”

Despite the racially charged nature of the case, race was barely mentioned at the trial. Even after the verdict, prosecutors said the case was not about race.

“This case has never been about race or the right to bear arms,” Corey said. “We believe this case all along was about boundaries, and George Zimmerman exceeded those boundaries.”

One of the few mentions of race came from witness Rachel Jeantel, the Miami teen who was talking to Martin by phone moments before he was shot. She testified that he described being followed by a “creepy-ass cracker” as he walked through the neighborhood.

Jeantel gave some of the trial’s most riveting testimony. She said she overheard Martin demand, “What are you following me for?” and then yell, “Get off! Get off!” before his cellphone went dead.

The jurors had to sort out clashing testimony from 56 witnesses in all, including police, neighbors, friends and family members.

For example, witnesses who got fleeting glimpses of the fight in the darkness gave differing accounts of who was on top. And Martin’s parents and Zimmerman’s parents both claimed that the person heard screaming for help in the background of a neighbor’s 911 call was their son. Numerous other relatives and friends weighed in, too, as the recording was played over and over in court. Zimmerman had cuts and scrapes on his face and the back of his head, but prosecutors suggested the injuries were not serious.

To secure a second-degree murder conviction, prosecutors had to convince the jury that Zimmerman acted with a “depraved” state of mind — that is, with ill will, hatred or spite. Prosecutors said he demonstrated that when he muttered, “F—— punks. These a——-. They always get away” during a call to police as he watched Martin walk through his neighborhood.

To win a manslaughter conviction, prosecutors had to convince the jury only that Zimmerman killed without lawful justification.

 

By: The Associated Press, Salon, July 14, 2013

July 14, 2013 Posted by | Zimmerman Trial | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Rachel Jeantel Explained, Linguistically”: She Made A Lot More Sense Than You Think

Let’s face it, none of us would want to be Trayvon Martin’s friend Rachel Jeantel in the last couple of days. Much of the country is laughing at the “ghetto” black girl who keeps getting tripped up in her story. But Jeantel has made a lot more sense than it may have seemed.

Yes, she was dissimulating in pretending that Trayvon Martin’s referring to Zimmerman as a “creepy-ass cracker” wasn’t “racial”—of course it was. Cracker is today’s “honkey,” a word now about as antique as The Jeffersons in which George used it so much. It is both descriptive and pejorative, although it’s important to note that according to Jeantel, Martin was not calling Zimmerman a cracker to his face but when trying to give his friend on the phone an update on the situation.

The origins of the word in reference to persons as opposed to snacks is obscure, but most likely started when cracking could mean bragging in Elizabethan English. Upper-crust colonial Americans had a way of referring to lower-class British immigrants to the South as loud-mouthed “crackers,” as in boastful beyond their proper station.

Pretty soon the word just referred to the people, period, with elegant Central Park architect Frederick Law Olmsted even casually writing in 1850 after a Florida jaunt that “some crackers owned a good many Negroes.”

Jeantel may well have heard some whites in Florida using the word for themselves with a kind of in-group pride – just as black people use the N-word that way. But surely she knows that’s a different meaning, just as anyone who claims it’s okay for Paula Deen to have used the N-word because Jay-Z does is faking it.

The important thing is that it made perfect sense for Martin to use that word to describe a white man chasing him for no reason. Few fully understand that the tension between young black men and the police (and by extension, security guards, traffic cops and just about any sort of watchman) is the main thing keeping America from getting past race. If ten years went by without a story like the Martin case we’d be in a very different country.

There are several possible reasons why Jeantel feigned on whether calling someone a cracker was racially-motivated. It could be because she wants to protect her dead friend. It could be because she’s extremely uncomfortable. Much of her irritable reticence is predictable of someone of modest education reacting to an unfamiliar type of interrogation on the witness stand. As natural as many educated people find direct questions, they are culturally rather unusual worldwide, an artifice of educational procedure. In oral cultures – i.e. most cultures— direct questions are processed as abrupt and confrontational. In that, Jeantel is operating at a clear disadvantage.

Yet one problem Jeantel is not having is with English itself. Many are seeing her as speaking under some kind of influence from the Haitian Creole that is her mother’s tongue, but that language has played the same role in her life that Yiddish did in George Gershwin’s – her English is perfect.

It’s just that it’s Black English, which has rules as complex as the mainstream English of William F. Buckley. They’re just different rules. If she says to the defense lawyer interrogating her “I had told you” instead of “I told you” it’s not because it’s Haitian—black people around the country use what is called the preterite “had,” which I always heard my Philadelphia cousins using when I was a kid.

If you think Black English is primitive, here’s a test – is it “I ain’t be listening that much” or “I don’t be listening that much”? It’s don’t, and Jeantel and millions of other black people nationwide could tell immediately that using “ain’t” in that sentence is “off.”

This was what defense attorney Don West failed to understand yesterday when he asked Jeantel:

“Are you claiming in any way that you don’t understand English?”

“I don’t understand you, I do understand English,” said Jeantel.

“When someone speaks to you in English, do you believe you have any difficulty understanding it because it wasn’t your first language?” asked West.

“I understand English really well,” said Jeantel.

She understands it as well as West or anyone. So now who’s the dumb one?

 

By: John McWhorter, Time, June  28, 2013

June 30, 2013 Posted by | Racism | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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