Like many Americans my sleep was troubled last night, troubled by the ghosts of past injustices, a feeling given fresh currency by a late-hour not guilty verdict from Sanford, Florida that freed George Zimmerman in the shooting death of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin.
Equally aroused, unfortunately, was the 800-pound gorilla called race and many of us were hoping and praying that justice would enter the hearts of the six women jurors, none of them African American like the slain Martin. One of the defense attorneys for Zimmerman said he was glad the outcome did not turn a “tragedy into travesty,” and like much of his cross-examination he was wrong again.
No, Virginia, there is no Santa Claus, nor is there justice in American courts—Supreme or otherwise—particularly when it comes to Black Americans.
Yes, my sleep was troubled and there came the jangling discords of all the cases of police brutality—and these were not “wanna be cops”—that I’ve covered in my years as a journalist. I was barely in New York City to live for the third time when I was dispatched to cover the Howard Beach incident; then there was the outrage Tawana Brawley inspired; and the wanton shooting of several teenagers by Bernard Goetz in 1984, who claimed he was being robbed. His later acquittal was my re-introduction to jury nullification, which I will discuss further in a moment.
Even before scurrying to rallies and marches, and sitting hour after hour in the city’s courtrooms, the back stories of recent injustices, mainly by the NYPD, shaped my outlook, especially what I had heard of Eleanor Bumpurs, Michael Stewart, Clifford Glover and Randy Evans, all of them victims of overzealous police officers.
But last night’s visitations were more immediate and once again I saw families in tears after the acquittal of cops who killed Amadou Diallo, Anthony Baez, Sean Bell, Ramarley Graham and savagely sodomized Abner Louima. They tugged at my memory, most of them cases I had covered that often left me feeling like Digger O’Dell, fighting each time to ward off that scab of callousness that inures one’s sensitivity.
Beyond the precincts and journalism that have informed so much of my thinking about race and society, are the lessons I’ve gathered from history. One would have to turn a blind eye to history to think that five white women and another of mixed-race would convict a white man of killing a Black boy. Pages of American history weighed on my sleep last night and I thought of chapters of atrocities about the lynching of Black men in America, the senseless mayhem that has made living in this country a daily challenge for Black Americans.
To date, there has been much talk about the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, the assassination of Medgar Evers and the insidious slaughter of four little girls in Birmingham, and even as far back as 150 years ago with the commemoration of President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. And to recall a moment in our nation’s history 150 years ago brings to mind the Draft Riots in New York City in the midst of the Civil War.
On July 13, 1863, the same day of Zimmerman’s emancipation, African Americans were set upon by whites in the city who were angry that they were being conscripted to fight in a war over slavery only to watch Blacks take their jobs once they were sent off to battle. Without going into great detail, suffice it to say that 100 to a 1,000 people perished during the four days of rioting, most of them African Americans some of them strung up on lampposts or dragged through the city by white hooligans. So vicious was the turmoil that some rioters were so full of hatred that they set fire to the Colored Orphan Asylum, but luckily none of the children there were killed.
Thinking about Trayvon, I recalled the words of President Obama—who stands as the poster boy for those who believe we now live in a post-racial society—when he said that if he had a son, he would look just like Trayvon. I have a son who is an older version of Trayvon and is no less safe in a country where in an instance an innocent Black life can be snuffed out.
The miscarriage of justice—no, the abortion of justice, as one reverend might call it—was reminiscent of what happened to Emmett Till, another young teenager who ventured to the South and felt the full wrath of Mississippi menace and mendacity.
Several years ago I had the opportunity to work on a book with Simeon Wright, Till’s first cousin who slept next to him that fateful morning when two white men snatched him from slumber, spirited him away, and later beat him mercilessly, so much so that his face was disfigured; there was a bullet hole through his head. An all-white jury acquitted the two white men and nothing was done to them years later after they confessed to the murder.
Earlier, I had mentioned jury nullification and the Till case is a good example of this in which jurors, having considered evidence that pointed overwhelmingly to the guilt of the accused, is circumvented. A cursory glance back on American history and the instances of such practice are replete. Take for example the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, when juries refused to convict slave owners and bounty hunters who had violated the law. And the case of James Hickok in 1865 bears some similarity to what occurred in the Zimmerman/Trayvon case.
Hickok was on trial for manslaughter, and the judge gave the jury two instructions. He instructed them that a conviction was its only recourse under the law; he then told them they could apply the unwritten law of the “fair fight” and acquit. Hickok was acquitted and it caused a public outcry of injustice. Fair fight can be compared here with Zimmerman’s so-called self-defense or the nefarious “Stand Your Ground” law.
Of course, when jury nullification was bandied about sometimes before and certainly following the O.J. Simpson trial, the shoe was on the other foot, so to speak, when Simpson was acquitted in 1995. For many Black Americans this verdict was a form of payback and vindication in a racist criminal justice system that always rendered Black Americans as the victims.
Jury nullification may not get much attention after this case and it may go as unspoken as racial profiling, which the judge refused to allow in the courtroom.
Even so, race continues to plague our society, continues to be the 800-pound gorilla in practically every endeavor of social relations. The recent monumental decisions by the Supreme Court on the Voting Rights Act and affirmative action signals loudly the presence of race and the inability of some of our justices to speak its name. Race is something that resonates in the highest realms of our government and in the lowest quarters of our cities, and certainly in the deepest sinews of citizens who swear they haven’t a racist bone in their body.
Yes, Virginia, racism is alive and well in America, and those who for a minute thought it was on life support only have to open their eyes and read tomorrow’s headlines and see again Trayvon’s tragedy and travesty that troubled my sleep—and yours should have been troubled too.