REPORTING FROM SANFORD, FLORIDA — The not guilty verdict in the trial of George Zimmerman has now firmly placed Trayvon Martin in the realm of being an American symbol. The life of the 17-year-old Miami student who loved horseback riding and basketball has been converted into something larger than life. This young man, whose death galvanized millions of Americans, has become a symbol of the failed promises of a nation toward many of its citizens, a symbol of the heartbreak of being devalued and marginalized, a symbol of being stigmatized and profiled.
And so, the verdict in Sanford last weekend is a pivotal occasion in our lifetime. The fact that an unarmed Black teenager could walk home from a convenience store, find himself pursued and killed by an overzealous neighborhood watch volunteer armed with a .9 mm handgun has been shocking enough. But the fact that Zimmerman is now absolved of any criminality and free to pick up his handgun and return to life as usual is a moment that has caused many in this nation sorrow upon indignation upon unvarnished agony.
There are events in America’s racial tableaux that have captured the attention of an entire generation. The death of Emmett Till in Mississippi in 1955 has been often mentioned as such an occasion. The death of Medgar Evers in 1963 is burnished into the nation’s painful racial history. The killing of Trayvon Martin and its stunningly wrenching aftermath are now part of that firmament.
It has become that because of the very personal emotions that the death of the young student produces in the hearts of so many Americans. To so many in Black America, Trayvon was the everyman. He was the kid that we saw at the neighborhood basketball court, He was the cousin or nephew we hugged at the family reunion. He was the young man we encountered at the bible study at church.
And his death so deeply affected so many Americans because he was so easy to relate to largely because he was the kind of teenager so many of us find in our very own families, blemishes and all. His vulnerability represents the vulnerability of millions of others. The slogan used by so many during the protests marches in the months after his death rings painfully accurate: “I am Trayvon Martin.”
The other reason why this tragedy has resonated so deeply with so many Americas is the fact that, with this verdict, there is a feeling that somehow there has been a shifting of the goal posts in the justice system. As any young Black or brown New Yorker knows first-hand, a culture has developed in which young African-American citizens have developed mistrust and caution in dealing with police. But Zimmerman was a part of no one’s police force. He was merely a private citizen who saw young Black men as thugs and robbers and acted on that preconception and was essentially rewarded for it.
That has left many Americans utterly perplexed about where the rules of the game now stand. And that confusion has contributed mightily to the sense of anguish that many now feel. How do we now prepare our young people to deal with racial conflict in the streets?
Discussions have already turned to questions about what will happen next in the aftermath of the Zimmerman verdict. There will certainly be continued and understandable pressure on the Department of Justice to press for civil rights charges against Zimmerman. How and if that unfolds is anyone’s guess. But what is now clear and undeniable is the fact that the death of Trayvon and the verdict could well give new life, energy and meaning to the struggles ahead —for gun control, in fighting against "stand your ground" laws and for so much more. And if that happens, it would be the most appropriate and essential way of giving honor to the life of Trayvon Martin.
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