Innocent Until Proven Black?

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In the past 72 hours, George Zimmerman was found not guilty of charges of 2nd degree murder and manslaughter following the killing of Trayvon Martin on 26.02.12. Protests have taken place in various cities across America, and many have expressed outrage the outcome of a case that has received a lot of media attention. Trayvon was a 17 year old unarmed black boy, who was followed and shot my Zimmerman, a Hispanic neighbourhood watch volunteer, who thought that Trayvon was acting suspicious.

One of the reasons the case attracted so much attention is because of what followed. Zimmerman was not arrested and questioned following the killing. His account that Trayvon had attacked him, and that he was acting in self defence, was unquestioningly believed by the police. Then Zimmerman’s 911 call was released. He had called 911 when he spotted Trayvon walking through a gated community in Sanford Florida, wearing a hoodie, as he thought he looked suspicious. Here is an excerpt from an unofficial transcript of the 911 call:

Zimmerman: These assholes. They always get away.

Zimmerman: He’s running.

Zimmerman: ‘F-ing coons’

Dispatcher : Are you following him?

Zimmerman: Yeah

Dispatcher: OK. We don’t need you to do that.

Trayvon’s parents started a petition that eventually garnered 2,278,988 signatures, calling for Zimmerman’s arrest. After President Obama commented on the case the US Justice Department launched an investigation into the case. Only then Zimmerman was arrested and charged, 6 weeks after the killing.

Having some experience of conducting criminal trials, I tried to imagine how present the case if I were Zimmerman’s defence lawyer. Zimmerman did sustain some scratches and bruising to the back of his head and face. I would run with that. In my closing speech I would describe how Zimmerman followed Trayvon, as he was acting suspiciously. Trayvon realising that he was being followed, and his criminal activity about to be interrupted, attacks Zimmerman, knocking him to the ground, throwing punches, and slamming his head on the ground saying “you’re going to die tonight”. Zimmerman, fearing for his life, pulls out his gun and shoots Trayvon dead.

I also thought about how I would run the case if I were for the prosecution. Trayvon was on his way to his father’s house, having just bought a packet of skittles and a bottle of iced tea from a shop. He realises he’s being followed by a large man. This man has assumed that because Trayvon is black and wearing his hood up, that he is up to no good. Race is certainly a reason that Zimmerman reaches this conclusion, as he refers to Trayvon as a “f-ing coon”. Trayvon is on the phone to his girlfriend and tells her he is being followed. Zimmerman continues to follow Trayvon even though the 911 dispatcher tells him not to. Zimmerman, thinking that Trayvon is about to commit some crime, apprehends him, and that’s when Trayvon starts throwing punches. Zimmerman pulls out his gun and shoots Trayvon dead.

I did not follow the trial, so I do not know whether each side put their case quite that way. I noted that the prosecutor Angela Corey in her statement following the acquittal, made the following remarks:

This case has never been about race, nor has it ever been about the right to bear arms, not in the sense of prosecuting this as a criminal case. But Trayvon Martin was profiled, there’s no doubt he was profiled to be a criminal. This case was about boundaries and George Zimmerman exceeded those boundaries

I’m sorry what? This case has never been about race? Then why did Obama feel the need to state that if he had a son, he would look like Trayvon Martin? Ms Corey contradicts herself in her statement. What does being profiled mean, if it is detached from the word “racial”?

I also do not know what she means by saying it was a case about boundaries. I have no knowledge of US law, but can someone please explain whether a person can plead self defence, if they pursue somebody because they have racially profiled them, and then the person who is wrongly profiled and being followed, acts in self defence?

Zimmerman was instantly believed when he told the police he acted in self-defence. That means that, unless the answer to my question above is yes, the police would have instantly come to the conclusion that between Zimmerman, who was armed, and Trayvon who was unarmed, Trayvon was the aggressor. How could they come to that conclusion so quickly, without first carrying out an investigation?

In the UK, there is an important principal that justice must be done, but also, justice must be seen to be done. There is a possibility that the jury actually came to the correct verdict, and that justice has done. But this case has provoked so much outrage, because of the lack of due process involved, which results from assumptions that have been made, based on race. It should not be the case that if you’re a black man and you get shot, it’s automatically assumed that it’s somehow your fault.

Zimmerman profiled Trayvon because of the colour of his skin. The police did not investigate because Trayvon was a black boy. And reading some of the comments being left on various news websites, many members of the public have made many assumptions about Trayvon too. It emerged that Trayvon has been suspended from his school, because he had an empty “baggy” that had contained weed. “Trayvon was not squeaky clean.” “why do they keep showing a picture of him when he was younger. He now looks like this”:

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So what does that mean? That he deserved to die, because he smoked weed, and because he took a picture wearing grills over his teeth? If you follow that logic, then Miley Cyrus deserves to die. Check out her profile picture on her twitter account. But you wouldn’t assume that Miley was a thug would you? Why not? Because she’s not black.

For some reason it makes people very uncomfortable when you point out that someone has received different (adverse) treatment because they are black. I even read comments to the effect of, how could Zimmerman be racist – he’s Hispanic! Well a Hispanic friend of mine tells me she would be disowned by her grandma if she ever brought home a black guy, and I believe her. Of course it’s possible to be racist towards black people if you’re Hispanic! And it’s not just different treatment that is a problem. Making negative assumptions when you see the word black, or see black skin colour is so dangerous, and this case proves it.

As for due process in the trial process? I cannot even confidently say whether it was a fair trial or not. All the news reports carefully omit to mention what the racial make up of the jury was. Were they 6 white women? If so where was the representation? This is why it is too simplistic to say, as many have, that the jury have made their decision, therefore justice has been done.

I have posed the title of this post as a question. I want to open up a discussion. I am hoping that, as the matter is being looked into again, justice will truly be done, and be seen to be done.

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