REPORTING FROM SANFORD, FLORIDA -- Even before the verdict was announced, there was a stunning sense of tension on the grounds outside of the Seminole County courthouse here.
There were a few hundred demonstrators, most of them Black and voicing their feeling of solidarity with the family of Trayvon Martin. But there were also some people holding placards that showed their support of George Zimmerman, an almost exclusively white group.
And so, the verdict reveals yet another example of the deep fissure in the way Americans view race. It is a gulf as deep and as old as the nation itself, brought to striking clarity in the case of a 17-year-old Black student who was shot dead while walking unarmed through a gated community.
For many African-Americans, there is little doubt whatsoever that Trayvon Martin had been pursued and killed by an overzealous neighborhood watch volunteer who viewed the teenager as a criminal, largely because of his race. For many white Americans, the case was largely a matter defined by legal nuances and the questions of self-defense.
For Zimmerman’s attorneys, the key to their victory was to assure that the jury of five white women and one Hispanic woman would view the young teenager as a deadly threat. The gated community here in Sanford had previously been a target by Black vandals, the lawyers pointed out. The unfiltered message was that being Black was equal to being a criminal.
The post-verdict statements, too, indicated the gulf between the perspectives of the case. In an appalling display of hubris, the lawyers for Zimmerman spoke cavalierly about how race was not a factor in the death of Trayvon Martin and how they had prevailed despite what they called heavy-handed tactics by the prosecution.
“George Zimmerman was never guilty of anything except for protecting himself,” said Mark O’Mara, Zimmerman’s lawyer, without uttering a shred of sympathy for the family that had lost a young man. Meanwhile, his colleague, Don West, took it a notch higher. “I think the prosecution of George Zimmerman was disgraceful.”
For many African-Americans, however, the disgrace is in the heartbreaking reality of a teenager who was killed while doing nothing more sinister than walking unarmed in the early evening from a convenience store to the home where he was staying to watch a basketball game. It has conjured images of a history of young Black men being unfairly portrayed as suspects rather than valuable Americans with futures and dreams.
It is a scenario that has long haunted Black Americans, both young and old. But this is doubly troubling because the Zimmerman case doesn’t involve the traditional tensions between Black Americans and police officers. This killing was by a civilian without any law enforcement credentials. Trayvon Martin had no obligation to Zimmerman and it was a galling feature of the trial that there was little or no discussion of Trayvon Martin’s right to stand his own ground.
The civil rights community is already talking about the importance of taking Zimmerman on in a civil suit. That is an appropriate tactic, of course. Still, there is little to soothe the feeling in the country, that Trayvon Martin was horrendously reconstructed by Zimmeman's lawyers from a joyous teenager who enjoyed horseback riding and sports to a portrait of a murderous villain lurking through neighborhoods.
While there will be continued legal maneuverings, for now there is the bitter reality that, among many Americans, the life of a young Black teenager is still seen as being utterly worthless.
**Watch the BET Special on the George Zimmerman verdict today at 12:30P/11:30C**
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(Photo: REUTERS/Steve Nesius)