ALEXANDRIA, VA — The death of Trayvon Martin is, of course, a devastating event for his family. That a 17-year-old boy returning from a visit to a nearby store for a snack should have his life taken is difficult to understand and accept. On many levels, the incident was, as President Obama has said, “tragic.”
Still, this event has provoked demagoguery that ignores the complex facts of the case itself and has provided an opportunity for provocateurs to proclaim that race relations in America are similar to those of the segregated Old South, as if the notable progress we have made in recent years had never happened.
Consider some of the things we have heard.
* Jesse Jackson referred to the trial as “Old South Justice.” NAACP President Benjamin Jealous declared, “This will confirm for many that the only problem with the New South is it occupies the same time and space as the Old South.” He invoked the memory of 14-year-old Emmett Till, who was killed in 1955 after supposedly whistling at a white woman “and whose murderers were acquitted.” An article in The Washington Post drew parallels between this case and that of Emmett Till, as well as the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963, and the 1933 case of the Scottsboro Boys, nine young black men accused of raping two white girls.
* “Trayvon Benjamin Martin is dead because he and other black boys and men like him are seen not as a person but a problem,” the Rev. Dr. Raphael Warnick, the senior pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, told a congregation once led by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
* In Sanford, Florida, the Rev. Valerie J. Houston drew shouts of support and outrage at Allen Chapel A.M.E. as she denounced, “the racism and the injustice that pollute the air in America. Lord, I thank you for sending Trayvon to reveal the injustice, God, that lives in Sanford.”
* One of those who organized demonstrations against the verdict and promoted the idea that our society is little better than it was in the years of segregation is the Rev. Al Sharpton, always ready to pour fuel on a fire, and now provided by MSNBC with a nationwide pulpit. How many today remember Sharpton’s history of stirring racial strife? In 1987, he created a media frenzy in the case of Tawana Brawley, a black teenager who claimed she was raped by a group of white police officers. A grand jury found that Brawley had lied about the event in Wappingers Falls, New York, and the case was dropped. The event that Sharpton used to indict our society for widespread racism never happened.
* In 1991, Sharpton exacerbated tensions between blacks and Orthodox Jews in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn. A three-day riot, fueled by Sharpton’s inflammatory statements, erupted when a Guyanese boy died after being struck by a car driven by a Jewish man. At the boy’s funeral, Sharpton complained about “diamond cutters” in the neighborhood in what a Brandeis University historian described as the most anti-Semitic incident in U.S. history. Two men died and three were critically injured before order was restored. Clearly, Al Sharpton does not come to a discussion of the Trayvon Martin-George Zimmerman case with clean hands.
The Testimony and Evidence
Few of those urging demonstrations against the alleged “racism” in the jury verdict finding Mr. Zimmerman not guilty have spent very much time examining the law and the trial itself.
Mr. Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, claimed that he shot Mr. Martin only after the teenager knocked him to the ground, punched him, straddled him, and slammed his head into the concrete. The murder charge required a showing that Zimmerman was full of “ill will, hatred, spite or evil intent” when he shot Martin. But prosecutors had little evidence to back up that claim, according to most legal experts. They could point only to his words during his call to the police dispatcher the night he spotted Martin walking in the rain with his sweatshirt’s hood up and grew suspicious. Zimmerman appeared calm during the call and did not describe Martin’s race until he was asked.
Lawyers point to what they said were errors by the prosecution. The testimony of Officer Chris Serino, the Sanford Police Department’s chief investigator on the case, for example, told the jury he believed Zimmerman’s account was truthful. Dr. Shiping Bao, the medical examiner who performed the autopsy on Martin, came across, legal experts report, befuddled, shuffling through his notes because he could remember very little. “It was horrific,” said Richard Sharpstein, a prominent Miami criminal defense lawyer. “It was a deadly blow to this case because the case depended on forensic evidence to contradict or disprove George Zimmerman’s story.”
The performance was the opposite of that by Dr. Vincent Di Maio, a nationally recognized forensic pathologist, who took the stand for the defense. Dr. Di Maio said the evidence and injuries to Zimmerman were consistent with the defense’s account that Trayvon Martin was leaning over the defendant when he was shot. The evidence of Zimmerman’s injuries may have helped his case, but it was not legally necessary. He needed to show only that he feared great bodily harm or death when he pulled out his gun, which he was carrying legally. “Classic self-defense,” said his attorney.
Voices of Reason
It is quite different to have sympathy for the Martin family — to regret the incident, or to be critical of Florida’s laws about concealed weapons or its “Stand Your Ground” law, which never entered the legal proceeding — than to argue that the law was not properly applied in this case. The prosecution failed to prove Zimmerman guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Hence, the not-guilty verdict.
Many black commentators regret that Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, Ben Jealous, and others have made this case about race. Columnist Armstrong Williams declares, “… the Zimmerman case was not about race. Mr. Zimmerman is Hispanic, normally one of the protected minorities in America. In order to make the story about race, the New York Times and some other media outlets called him a ‘white’ Hispanic (his father is white and his mother is of Peruvian heritage).
“When was the last time anybody in America heard a Hispanic called a ‘white Hispanic?’ Calling Zimmerman a ‘white Hispanic’ is like calling Adam Clayton Powell or Barack Obama a ‘white black.’ But the media needed to create hysterics and so injected race into the equation to make it more salable to the American people as a political circus. After all, who cares about two white men or two black men in a fight that results in death.”
In Williams’ view, “A young man was killed by another young man under circumstances where there is so much racial static in the background that it’s difficult for many to be remotely objective…. Compare the reaction of the O.J. Simpson verdict by many American blacks to the reaction to the Zimmerman acquittal. In both cases, the prosecution did not make its case beyond a reasonable doubt to convict the defendant. Yet blacks generally cheered the result in the Simpson case, while viewing the Zimmerman verdict as a travesty of justice. In our court system of trial by jury, you can’t have it both ways. There cannot be a different standard for a white man killing a black man than for a black man killing a white man and a white woman.”
Liberal columnist Richard Cohen writes, “I don’t like what George Zimmerman did, and I hate that Trayvon Martin is dead. But I also can understand why Zimmerman was suspicious and why he thought Martin was wearing a uniform we all recognize. I don’t know whether Zimmerman is a racist. But I’m tired of politicians and others who have donned hoodies in solidarity with Martin and who essentially suggest that, for recognizing the reality of urban crime in the U.S., I am a racist.”
Cohen argues that, “What Zimmerman did was wrong. It was not, by a verdict of his peers, a crime. Where is the politician who will own up to the painful complexity of the problem and acknowledge the widespread fear of crime committed by young black males? This does not mean that racism has disappeared, and some judgments are not the product of individual stereotyping. It does mean, though, that the public knows young black males commit a disproportionate amount of crime. In New York City, blacks make up a quarter of the population, yet they represent 78 percent of the shooting suspects — almost all of them young men. We know them from the nightly news.”
New York City’s Program
Those statistics represent the justification for New York’s controversial stop-and-frisk program, which amounts to a kind of racial profiling. “After all,” writes Cohen, “if young black male are your shooters, then it ought to be young black males whom the police stop and frisk. Still, common sense and common decency, not to mention the law, insist on other variables, such as suspicious behavior. Even still, race is a factor without a doubt. It would be senseless for the police to be stopping Danish tourists in Times Square just to make the statistics look good.”
Last year, the New York City Police Department recorded 419 homicides, nearly a 20 percent decrease from the year before and the lowest rate per 100,000 residents since the department began keeping statistics. If New York had the same homicide rate as Washington, D.C., it would be investigating 800 more murder cases for the year. If it had Detroit’s statistics, nearly 4,000 more New Yorkers would be murdered every year.
Editorially, The Washington Post states, “Without question, the Big Apple is doing something right.” Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Chief Raymond Kelley say the stop-and-frisk policy has saved 5,000 lives in the past 10 years. “New York has never been safer in its modern era,” the mayor says.
The policy, of course, is controversial and is the subject of a federal action lawsuit because the vast majority of those stopped are young men of color. Mayor Bloomberg responds: “They keep saying, ‘Oh, it’s a disproportionate percentage of a particular ethnic group.’ That may be, but it’s not a disproportionate percentage of those who witnesses and victims describe as committing the murder. In that case, incidentally, I think we disproportionately stop whites too much and minorities too little.”
Expressing the anguish of many who hate all forms of racism but are not prepared to turn a blind eye to the reality of urban crime, Richard Cohen concludes: “I wish I had a solution to this problem. If I were a young black male and were stopped just on account of my appearance, I would feel violated. If the police are abusing their authority and using race as the only reason, that has got to stop. But if they ignore race, then they are fools and ought to go into another line of work.”
Another liberal commentator, columnist Ruth Marcus, was particularly critical of those who compared Trayvon Martin with Emmett Till: “The comparison is unfair. No doubt race played a part in Martin’s death…. But there is no evidence that race played a role in Zimmerman’s acquittal. If anything, the racial undertones worked against Zimmerman, increasing public pressure on prosecutors to bring the most serious — and, in hindsight the most difficult to support — charges against him. Contrast the Zimmerman trial with that of Till’s murderers. The courtroom was segregated. No hotel would rent rooms to black observers. The local sheriff welcomed black spectators to the courtroom with what was described as a cheerful use of the vilest racial epithets. The New South is not perfect, but it is not the Old.”
The Greater Tragedy
What is rarely noted is the fact that vast majority of the victims of young black men who kill are other young black men and women. Those engaged in calling for marches and vigils to express outrage over the verdict in the Zimmerman case say hardly a word about the black-on-black crime that plagues the nation’s inner cities. In an interview with black journalist Juan Williams, comedian Bill Cosby noted that the NAACP’s headquarters is in Baltimore, a city with one of the highest murder rates in the nation. “I’ve never once heard the NAACP say, ‘Let’s do something about this,’” said Cosby, adding “They never marched or organized or even criticized the criminals.”
The over-heated declarations that our current society is similar to that in which Emmett Till was murdered in 1955 — or in which the Scottsboro Boys were convicted in 1933 — turns reality on its head. Al Sharpton doesn’t really believe it. Jesse Jackson knows it is untrue. Ben Jealous is unwilling to give up the public spotlight he receives by portraying such a false picture.
Those of us old enough to have lived through the years of segregation remember an era of segregated schools, segregated bus and train stations, “white” and “black” restrooms (visit the Pentagon and see the proliferation of rest rooms that were constructed in the years when it was illegal in Virginia for men and women of different races to use the same facilities), and water fountains reserved for “whites” and “colored.” In many parts of the country, blacks could not vote or sit on juries. Black travelers never knew when they would be able to stop for meals. There was no pretense that racial equality of any kind existed.
The Future Waits
Today, we live in an imperfect society, but one in which all citizens, regardless of race, have equal rights. It is against the law to discriminate on the basis of race. Men and women can go as far as their individual abilities can take them. Black Americans hold every conceivable position in our society — from CEO of major corporations to chief of police in major cities to university president to governor — to President of the United States.
None of this would be true if ours were indeed a “racist” society. This is not to say that in a society of more than 300 million people, examples of racism cannot sometimes be found. Using the trial of George Zimmerman to say that it is still 1933 or 1955, as some are now doing, is to paint a picture of contemporary society that cannot be recognized.
When it comes to the status of race relations in America today, who are we going to believe, shrill voices such as Al Sharpton, or our own eyes? The Trayvon Martin-George Zimmerman case has brought out the worst in some. The rest of us must move resolutely forward, continuing on the path of creating a genuinely color-blind society, which has long been the goal of men and women of good will of all races.
The Conservative Curmudgeon is copyright (c) 2013 by Allan C. Brownfeld and the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation, http://www.fgfbooks.com. All rights reserved. This column may be forwarded or re-posted if credit is given to the author and fgfBooks.com.
Allan C. Brownfeld is the author of five books, the latest of which is THE REVOLUTION LOBBY (Council for Inter-American Security). He has been a staff aide to a U.S. Vice President, Members of Congress, and the U.S. Senate Internal Security Subcommittee.
See his biographical sketch and photo at: http://www.fgfbooks.com/AllanBrownfeld/aBrownfeld-bio.html