Wednesday 13 November 2019

Philip Sherwell: Trayvon case shows America's tortured relationship with race

Throngs of marches gather on Times Square as they listen to a speaker, Sunday, July 14, 2013, in New York, for a protest against the acquittal of volunteer neighborhood watch member George Zimmerman in the 2012 killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla
Throngs of marches gather on Times Square as they listen to a speaker, Sunday, July 14, 2013, in New York, for a protest against the acquittal of volunteer neighborhood watch member George Zimmerman in the 2012 killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla

AWAY from the courthouse in Florida where George Zimmerman had been cleared of Trayvon Martin's murder, an unprecedented operation involving black church and community leaders, federal authorities and Florida police was under way to defuse fears of unrest at the trial's end.

Some feared that an acquittal of Mr Zimmerman could provoke the sort of riots that followed the not guilty verdicts for the Los Angeles police officers captured on video beating up Rodney King in 1991.

Five decades after Martin Luther King's 'I Have A Dream' speech and in the fifth year of America's first black presidency, the agonised soul-searching over the case is a dramatic illustration of America's tortured relationship with race and history.

The killing of Trayvon turned into national controversy after Mr Zimmerman was initially released, unarrested and uncharged, when Sanford police accepted his contention that he had shot the teenager in self-defence. That decision fuelled feelings of resentment against a white-led police force from the local black community that had long-standing grievances about law enforcement issues.

Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson were among the prominent black leaders who descended on Sanford to lead protests, although in the days before the verdict they called for calm.

Two key developments helped to avert the threat of unrest.

Most notably, Mr Zimmerman was put on trial – the primary demand of the "Justice For Trayvon" protests.

But the city fathers in Sanford also sacked Bill Lee as police chief for his handling of the case and replaced him with Cecil Smith, a northerner from Illinois and the first African-American to head law enforcement in the city.

He took office on April 1 but has proved his new mission is no fool's errand. Mr Smith talked about the challenges he faced in an interview at Sanford's new police headquarters, which happens to sit in the middle of the city's historic black neighbourhood of Goldsboro.

"I have to change mindsets in the community and in this building," he said. He has joined officers knocking on doors to ask residents about their concerns, and held public meetings to discuss race relations and the trial.

And he has also made it clear that if there are white officers with entrenched racist attitudes, he will fire them.

"It is very sad if it takes a tragedy like the death of Trayvon, to change things, but if . . . we can build some trust between this department and the community, then some good will have come out of this situation," he said.

After Saturday's verdict, police, officials and civil rights leaders called for peace and told protesters not to resort to violence. Defence lawyer Mark O'Mara suggested Mr Zimmerman's safety would be an ongoing concern.

Those watching the case reacted strongly when the not guilty verdict was announced.

Andrew Perkins (55), a black resident of Sanford, angrily asked outside the courthouse: "How the hell did they find him not guilty?"

Protesters had taken to the streets late on Saturday and into yesterday morning in Florida, Atlanta and San Francisco, among other places. The demonstrators seemed to largely heed the advice of officials and others who urged them not to resort to violence.

Martin family lawyer Benjamin Crump acknowledged the disappointment of Trayvon Martin's supporters, but he said, "for Trayvon to rest in peace, we must all be peaceful".

Trayvon's family maintained the teen wasn't the aggressor, and prosecutors suggested Martin was scared because he was being followed by a stranger. Defence attorneys, however, claimed Trayvon knocked Mr Zimmerman down and was slamming the older man's head against the sidewalk when Mr Zimmerman fired his gun.

Prosecutors called Mr Zimmerman a liar and portrayed him as a "wannabe cop" vigilante who had grown frustrated by break-ins in his neighbourhood committed primarily by young black men.

Mr Zimmerman also had some supporters outside the courthouse, including Cindy Lenzen (50), of Casslebury, and her brother, 52-year-old Chris Bay. Ms Lenzen and Mr Bay – who are white – called the entire case "a tragedy," especially for Mr Zimmerman.

"It's a tragedy that he's going to suffer for the rest of his life," Mr Bay said. "No one wins either way."

The jurors had to sort out clashing testimony from 56 witnesses in all, including police, neighbours, friends and family members.

For example, witnesses who got fleeting glimpses of the fight in the darkness gave differing accounts of who was on top. And Trayvon's parents and Mr Zimmerman's parents both claimed that the person heard screaming for help in the background of a neighbour's 911 call was their son.

To secure a second-degree murder conviction, prosecutors had to convince the jury that Mr Zimmerman acted with a "depraved" state of mind – that is, with ill will, hatred or spite. Prosecutors said he demonstrated that when he muttered, "F****** punks. These a*******. They always get away," during a call to police as he watched Trayvon walk through his neighbourhood.

To win a manslaughter conviction, prosecutors had to convince the jury only that Mr Zimmerman killed without lawful justification. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent

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