Police in Florida warn against riots in wake of a George Zimmerman verdict
As jurors in the George Zimmerman trial began deliberations Friday, officials warn against post-verdict violence and take precautions to stem it. Are conditions ripe for racial unrest? At least one expert doubts it.
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It was a preemptive warning ahead of what some some authorities worry may be a tinderbox situation. A six-woman jury began Friday to deliberate the case of Mr. Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch captain charged with the murder of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin.
Late Friday, according to the Orlando Sentinel, “sign-wavers and others have gathered peacefully near a fountain outside the courthouse [in Sanford, Fla.] in an area designated for people to express themselves.”
Social media armies on both sides of the case are gearing up for the verdict, media coverage is nonstop, and emotions are running high in many quarters. Even so, this moment in America lacks many of the propellants that stoked racially charged riots in the past, such as the Los Angeles riots in 1992 and the Oakland, Calif., riots of 2009, says a historian who studies racial unrest.
“History shows that there need to be large underlying socioeconomic conditions that will serve as the tinder for the spark that will cause the eruption,” says Michael Flamm, a professor of political history at Ohio Wesleyan University.
“There is, of course, plenty of economic distress and plenty of social distress in Sanford and in Florida and in the country as a whole, but I’m not sure it’s at a critical mass right now,” he adds. “There’s also a sense in most communities that a riot or rebellion in response to a miscarriage of justice is both ineffective and counterproductive – after all, it’s your community that’s going to be most adversely affected. Police are not going to allow you to go and riot or loot in other communities.”
Police not just in Sanford, but also in Miami and other Florida cities have circulated memos and made preparations – including putting up “First Amendment zones” – amid concern that a not-guilty verdict could ignite unruly protests or even street violence.
In Miami, authorities have released a pre-verdict video that urges people to raise their voices, not their fists, and the city plans to set up several First Amendment zones where people who want to vent can do so in rallies and debate.
“Riots are not acceptable, and riots are not expected,” Miami-Dade Police Director J.D. Patterson said from the pulpit at Peaceful Zion Missionary Baptist Church on Thursday night, reported Miami’s CBS-4 TV.
Such statements nevertheless underscore a cause for concern, especially because the nuances of the actual trial – and the jury’s task – may be lost to the public at large amid outrage and rumors, says Mr. Flamm of Ohio Wesleyan University.
Although a jury must decide whether the state proved “beyond a reasonable doubt” that Zimmerman committed murder or manslaughter, some might interpret a not-guilty verdict this way: A jury of five whites and one minority agreed that Trayvon Martin, who was walking by himself, unarmed, “minding his own business,” as prosecutors said, was responsible for his own death, and that George Zimmerman, his killer, is “factually innocent” and should go free.