Joe Gandelman: Zimmerman verdict changes the conversation
The Florida jury’s decision to find George Zimmerman not guilty of second degree murder and manslaughter in the shooting death of teenager Trayvon Martin ripped the scab off race relations that had slowly begun healing starting in the late 1960s — and further exposed the political polarization lump increasingly infecting 21st century America.
Some have compared reaction to Neighborhood Watch volunteer Zimmerman’s Out of Jail Free card in the death of Martin to the 20th century "trial of the century" of football great O.J. Simpson in the stabbing deaths of his ex-wife Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman. A jury in October 1995 found Simpson not guilty. Polls at the time and 10 years later revealed a racial divide with blacks overwhelmingly believing Simpson was innocent, and whites overwhelmingly believing Simpson was guilty. Millions of Americans were outraged Simpson walked. Simpson became a pariah.
It was often said Simpson was "the most hated man in America" — a phrase now applied to Zimmerman, but there are big differences here.
The outrage over Zimmerman facing no consequences (and asking for and being able to walk away with the very same gun he used to kill Martin) isn’t limited to one race. The O.J. trial was not characterized by people taking sides based on political ideology: turn on Fox News and MSNBC today and you KNOW what you’re going to hear.
There is no dispute that Zimmerman shot the 17-year-old through the heart. The O.J. case didn’t involve whether it was justifiable to use a gun, or gun laws that make it easier for citizens to use guns and escape criminal and civil liability.
Less than 48 hours after the verdict, Zimmerman verdict Juror 837 signed to write a book, supposedly to enlighten Americans on the deliberative process (so there was no money involved?). But after a mini-firestorm it was announced she wouldn’t write it. She gave an interview to CNN’s Anderson Cooper, which, Andrew Sullivan noted, confirmed that Florida’s Stand Your Ground law factored into her decision — as well as a built in bias that did involve race.
"The key to her was that Trayvon was allegedly just meandering around in the dark in the rain — but she concedes that that entire description was entirely from Zimmerman," Sullivan wrote. "It’s a glimpse into how the jurors balanced a black man’s corpse against a neighborhood watch’s testimony. And how racial profiling to some can seem like nothing of the sort to others."
Now some African-Americans wonder whether gains made in the late 20th century are in danger of being swept away. The Supreme Court gutted a key part of the Voting Rights Act. Within days, some Southern states moved to enact laws aimed at keeping blacks, Hispanics and other voters who vote Democratic away from the polls. Now comes the Zimmerman verdict, which some say means black parents must sit down and talk to their kids.
Writes New York Time Columnist Charles Blow: "We used to say not to run in public because that might be seen as suspicious, like they’d stolen something. But according to Zimmerman, Martin drew his suspicion at least in part because he was walking too slowly. So what do I tell my boys now?... Martin was where he was supposed to be — in a gated community — carrying candy and a canned drink."
It’s a conversation Trayvon Martin’s parents never thought they would ever have to have with their son.
Joe Gandelman is a veteran journalist who wrote for newspapers overseas and in the United States. He can be reached at email@example.com.