12 Jul 2013

After killing that shocked America: the verdict

It was the case that divided America: a young black man shot dead by a neighbourhood watch volunteer who pleaded self defence. Will George Zimmerman now be acquitted of murder?

George Zimmerman and lawyer (getty)

The closing arguments are underway: the jury – six of them, all women – is set to begin its deliberations, almost a year and a half after the fatal shot that killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.

All the experts and pundits agree on one thing: George Zimmerman is likely to walk free. The judge, Debra Nelson, has allowed jurors to consider manslaughter as well as the main charge of second degree murder, both strongly denied by Zimmerman, who says he shot the unarmed teenager in self-defence.

The confrontation, which happened one night back in February 2012, in a Florida gated community, remains shrouded in confusion. With one of the protagonists dead, the only person who knows what really happened that night is George Zimmerman himself.

There has been much comment about Florida’s controversial “stsnd your ground” law, which has made determination of guilt or innocence so hazy. There have been witnesses, the audio recording of the 911 call, the dignity of Trayvon Martin’s family, the failure to arrest Zimmerman for more than a month.

It’s monumentally irrelevent who’s morally guilty. Professor Alan Dershowitz

And never mind the politics which has surrounded it all. As Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz told Newsmax: “Remember, it’s monumentally irrelevent who’s morally guilty… Whether or not Zimmerman was a racist and racially profiled and shouldn’t have been doing it and didn’t listen to police, that’s all irrelevent in Florida law.”

The 29-year-old chose not to testify in court, his lawyer explaining that he felt he had already given his version of events, in testimony to police investigators as well as in an interview on Fox News.

But like Trayvon Martin, who became a symbol of the deep-seated racism that still lurks, not far beneath the veneer or America’s post-racial society, Zimmerman has also become a symbolic figure.

While thousands of people, from basketball stars to senators, wore hooded tops to express their solidarity with Trayvon, a fund set up to aid Zimmerman’s defence attracted hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Symbolism and solidarity

Jelani Cobb, director of African American studies at the University of Connecticut, says many white people who do not think of themselves as racists can see themselves in his shoes.

“The prevelence of racial attitudes, the disavowal of actual racism, is key to understanding the way Zimmerman has been received. His actions are understandable, even reasonable, because it doesn’t take a racist to believe black males equal danger,” he wrote.

Cobb cites a poll carried out by AP in 2012, four years after the election of the nation’s first black president, which found that 56 per cent of Americans had “anti-black sentiments”, a rise of 7 per cent since Obama came to power.

A majority of whites also had anti-Hispanic sentiments, while there was a mistaken belief that gun crimes had gone up, even though there has actually been a sharp fall in homicides and other violent crimes involving guns over the last 20 years.

All that, of course, is merely statistical evidence to support what the Trayvon Martin case had already revealed: at its heart, America is deeply polarised, a society where one man’s justice is another’s cause for fear.

We’ll still find ourselves witness to an undeclared war on crime and our own fears. Jelani Cobb, University of Connecticut

From racism to gun culture, from the nature of power to the social fragmentation and mutual distrust so starkly revealed by the very idea of gated communities – this case has revealed it all.

And now the verdict, and the possible reaction. Race riots? Vigilantism?

Officials and police in Miami’s Broward County have begun meeting community leaders in an effort to avert any kind of violent reaction should Zimmerman be acquitted. There is even a YouTube video by Sheriff Scott Israel, urging people to raise their voices, not their hands.

“We don’t have information about a specific event that might take place at the conclusion of the trial,” he admitted, “but we encourage everyone to keep any protests peaceful.”

The six-strong jury in that Florida courtroom will be deciding on evidence alone, not the confused and confusing prejudices and passions that divide a nation. Facts, not misunderstandings – and those have been precious thin on the ground.

And so what of the quest for Justice for Trayvon and others caught up in this case? In the words of Professor Cobb again: “We’ll still find ourselves witness to an undeclared war on crime and our own fears, one led by private citizens and in which a seventeen year old became collateral damage”.

Cry havoc, then, and unleash the rule of law.

Felicity Spector writes about US affairs for Channel 4 News