Let’s start with what did not happen in a Sanford, Florida courtroom this past weekend. No, Trayvon Martin is not Emmett Till. Not unless you believe that a jury that deliberated for 67 minutes before acquitting Till’s killers is comparable to the panel that slogged for 12 consecutive hours, 16 hours total, to weigh George Zimmerman’s fate. Not unless you equate a travesty in Mississippi that allowed the victim’s mother to be quizzed about whether she had a burial policy on her child, that permitted defense lawyers to argue that acquittal would make the jurors’ white forefathers turn in their grave, with the universally applauded professionalism of the trial judge in Sanford, and an evidentiary playing field that seemed if anything tilted toward the prosecution. (Pre-trial rulings shielded the jury from ever hearing unflattering details that Trayvon sought to purchase a gun and had a poor disciplinary history in school).
No, the Zimmerman trial and the consternation in many quarters over the verdict is not responsible for reigniting racial tensions in America. To the contrary, it only laid bare what we already know too well—that too many blacks and whites circle each other in exaggerated fear, through lenses so fractured that a black child out of place can look like a menace, while a nervous, plodding white man can seem an affront to a young black man’s dignity and manhood.
And no, some of George Zimmerman’s defenders aren’t playing some vicious race card by pointing out the slew of teenaged black on black deaths in the inner city, and wondering why the outrage is more muted. To the contrary, they are speaking a truth that more black politicians and activists ought to be galvanized about: that the young, African American and poor are most at risk from each other.
I wish I could say with more confidence what actually did happen. Three weeks of obsessive trial watching did not resolve for me the question of which unwise act was more meaningful legally: one man recklessly following another and then confronting him without the license that a badge confers, or another young man landing blows and running the risk that the guy he struck might be bringing a gun to a fistfight. Forensic testimony didn’t shed light on whether Zimmerman pulled a trigger because he was enraged or because he was taking a pounding that had him thinking worse was coming. I still don’t know whether the prosecution’s failure to put on testimony from people in his church or community who knew the innocent, sunny side of Trayvon Martin was the product of overly cautious trial tactics or a result of looking and finding the cupboard bare.
And I wish, against all odds, that the millions of Americans who share those uncertainties won’t do the easiest thing. That would be to let the ambiguities of this case merge with disdain at the demagoguery over the result to create the moral dodge of wishing it would all fade away. The people who are about to overplay their outrage aren’t all wrong, not by any stretch. They are right to wonder how long it will take for the wrong interpretation of this trial to spin off a tragic imitation. They are right to remind us that Zimmerman’s defense looks nothing like the advocacy most defendants of any color receive when their freedom is imperiled: the lure of publicity and the money raised from the backlash at the media’s rush to judgment made Zimmerman a magnet for a high quality lawyering that is rare in criminal courtrooms. And they are right when they remind us that one’s view of the justice system correlates much too much with race and status. When the demonstrations and sensational tweets are done, all of the above will remain the same.