Saturday night, Central Avenue, St. Petersburg, around 10 p.m. News of the verdict acquitting George Zimmerman of any charges in the death of unarmed Sanford, Fla., teen Trayvon Martin had just begun to circulate. Conversations stopped when a line of cop cars pulled out of the police station adjacent to Ferg’s Sports Bar and Grill. A cook came outside for a smoke, and recalled that, after a black teen was killed in a run-in with cops in 1996, St. Petersburg rioted.
But there weren’t any riots in St. Pete Saturday night. Most people in Tampa Bay (and across the nation, with the exception of a few cities), took out their frustrations with a tweet or a Facebook post, not violence.
Many, like Tampa poet Life Malcolm, weren’t surprised by the verdict.
“People want to believe in the justice system, they want to believe that it really does work, but I’ve seen this happen before,” Malcolm said. “The only reason it’s different this time is because the entire world is paying attention.”
The Miami Herald reported Sunday that the NAACP website had posted a petition demanding the Justice Department pursue a civil rights case against George Zimmerman. By Sunday evening, the petition had over 250,000 signatures.
“We knew how this would turn out,” Malcolm said. “The outrage isn’t about George Zimmerman, it isn’t. It’s about how the justice system isn’t working to protect or defend African Americans.”
An editorial by Andrew Rosenthal in Monday’s New York Times summed up the legal quandary.
“What happened in Florida was a miscarriage of justice,” he wrote, “but not a miscarriage of law.”
Grassroots organizer Ayele Hunt wants people to wake up to that very point.
Hunt, executive director of I Am Choice (the effort that successfully fought the passage of anti-abortion Amendment 6 last year), says that while the response from across the country has been overwhelming, the post-verdict conversation is missing a few crucial components.
“It wasn’t just a white guy versus a black kid. Yes, that is definitely a component, but there are other elements like the Stand Your Ground law,” Hunt said. “If that law wasn’t there, this would have been an open-and-shut case. It was the ambiguity of that law that allowed this to take place.”
Zimmerman’s lawyers didn’t use Stand Your Ground in his defense. But that law is a chief reason it took a month and a half for authorities to arrest Zimmerman. He told the police that he’d acted in self-defense, and Stand Your Ground says there must be specific evidence refuting a self-defense claim in order to arrest someone.
Ohio State University law professor Joshua Dressler explained how SYG works in an email to Law Blog:
“The statute itself places the burden of persuasion regarding self-defense on the prosecutor — to prove that the defendant did NOT act in self defense. In the past, in most states, if a defendant claimed self-defense, it was up to the defendant to prove he DID act in self-defense. So the SYG law in this case had an important legal impact.”
Texas A&M University economist Mark Hoekstra recently conducted a study on national crime statistics and what happens when states pass SYG, also known as Castle Doctrine. He found that the rate of homicide went up 7-9 percent in states with those laws versus states without.
“One possibility for the increase in homicide is that perhaps otherwise there would have been a fistfight,” Hoekstra said in an interview aired in January on NPR’s All Things Considered. “And now, because of SYG laws, it’s possible that those escalate into something much more violent and lethal.”
A recent study by the Urban Institute confirms that white-on-black firearm deaths, especially in states with SYG laws, are more likely to be found legally justified.
“When there is a homicide with one shooter and one victim who are strangers, neither is law enforcement, and a firearm is used to kill, a little less than 3 percent of black-on-white homicides are ruled to be justified,” said the author of the study, John Roman. “When the races are reversed, the percentage of cases that are ruled to be justified climbs to more than 29 percent in non-SYG states and almost 36 percent in SYG states.”
The founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America says the solution is action and education.
“We can roll back SYG laws and educate people about what they are,” said Shannon Watts. “We can take back our country from the gun lobby.”
Watts's organization gathers mothers across the nation to urge legislators to pass stricter gun control laws. Her group conducts “stroller jams,” cramming state legislature hallways with bulky strollers and forcing elected officials to hear them out.
“A lot of people say the last election was won by money, but it wasn’t,” Watts said. “It was won by the power of women and moms coming together.”
As the Justice Department investigates possible hate crime charges against Zimmerman, the subject of race is unavoidable. In order to prove that Zimmerman pursued Trayvon Martin because he was black, the case would have to be ironclad.
“Experienced federal prosecutors will determine whether the evidence reveals a prosecutable violation,” a Justice Department statement said Sunday.
“It’s not enough if it’s just a fight that escalated,” Samuel Bagenstos told the New York Times Sunday. Bagenstos, formerly with the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, said, “The government has to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant acted willfully with a seriously culpable state of mind.”
The Martin family is said to be considering a civil lawsuit against Zimmerman. A criminal lawsuit requires the prosecution to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt, but a civil lawsuit requires the plaintiffs to prove their case through a preponderance of evidence (legalese for convincing evidence with probable truth or accuracy, rather than the amount of evidence presented; it’s quality over quantity). But the evidence presented in the criminal trial failed to convince jurors that Zimmerman didn’t act in self-defense, and that doesn’t bode well for a civil suit which would need to do the same.
Meanwhile, local activists say they want an open dialogue.
“If we continue to do the stuff that we’ve always done, there will be another Trayvon Martin and it won’t be long,” says Life Malcolm. “We have to begin to talk honestly about these situations.”
Gwen Reese, St. Petersburg activist and historian, organizes the Stand Against Racism event every year at the St. Petersburg YWCA. This fall, Reese says the YWCA plans to host a series of community conversations on race.
“It’s never too late to talk about this,” Reese said. “But how I wish we had started them sooner.”
Race isn’t the only problem, though. Andrew Rosenthal argued that the trouble with the Zimmerman verdict isn’t about what’s illegal. Quoting journalist Michael Kinsley, he wrote, “The scandal is what’s legal.”
Ayele Hunt agrees.
“I know people are tired of hearing about elections,” Hunt said, “but that is the solution. The electorate here is not engaged. If they were, they’d be getting people in office to change these laws.”
Hunt is grateful that awareness is being raised globally by this case. But awareness, she adds, isn’t enough.
“We are always talking about awareness,” Hunt said, “when the majority of people really need to see something actually change soon.”
She argues part of the problem is that the progressive agenda remains divided by too many fights on too many fronts.
“Homophobia, racism, gun violence, we are all fighting the same bigoted radical right agenda separately,” Hunt said. “Until we build a coalition, we’ll continue to get our butts kicked. In other countries, they are fighting to have a voice. Here, we have a voice. We have a solution to these issues that we haven’t tried.”
On Friday, July 19, a rally and march is planned in St. Petersburg in honor of Trayvon Martin’s life. The event will be a peaceful demonstration, with a march route approved by the St. Petersburg Police Department. Attendees are encouraged to wear white and black. 6 p.m., Vinoy Park, 701 Bayshore Drive NE, St. Petersburg.
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