Zimmerman not guilty: Victory for new kind of civil rights era?

Persecution of lawful gun owners is the new civil rights battle, many Americans claim. George Zimmerman just became their icon.

TV Pool/AP
George Zimmerman smiles after a not guilty verdict was handed down in his trial at the Seminole County Courthouse in Sanford, Fla. Zimmerman was cleared of all charges Saturday in the shooting of Trayvon Martin.

Part of America sees the not guilty verdict in the George Zimmerman case as a travesty of justice, a modern iteration of Jim Crow, where a white man walks free after shooting an innocent black person, in this case an unarmed Florida teenager named Trayvon Martin.

Another part sees in the verdict the emergence of another kind of civil rights movement, a gun freedom movement ultimately tested in the Zimmerman trial by a state willing to forego hard evidence in order to try to prosecute what police originally deemed an open and shut self-defense case.

Prosecutors in the case said Zimmerman had evil in his heart and that he crossed legal boundaries when deciding to follow an innocent Trayvon before shooting him on a rainy February night last year. Zimmerman supporters, though, say he was providing a civic duty in a post-9/11 America, where safety and crime concerns have become paramount even as overall crime rates have dropped to historic lows.

The overarching theme of the Zimmerman trial and its verdict is the way it points to an emerging “siege mentality” that’s driving Americans apart, to the point where Trayvon and Zimmerman traded blows and gun fire instead of respectful inquiry, writes Charles Ray, a Sanford resident, in a verdict response in Yahoo! News.

Yet in much of the post-verdict debate, the issue comes back to the anxious interaction  between race and guns, fueled for many by black-on-black killings in places like Chicago as much as the alleged profiling by Zimmerman when he decided to follow Trayvon Martin for no other reason than he looked, at least to Zimmerman, like a criminal.

Some commentators say the shooting, the publicity and the eventual trial highlighted a sort of cultural settling, and perhaps sunsetting, of the civil rights movement (the Supreme Court declawing the Voting Rights Act came in the run-up to the trial}, at a time when society is tackling more vigorously the new frontier of liberalized gun and self-defense rights.

“The public conversation about race tilts toward a more enlightened attitude about civil rights, but the conversation about guns is extremely conflicted, regional, socioeconomic, and divided in every conceivable way,” Austin jury consultant Doug Keene told the Monitor last month. “This year, for all the tragic reasons we’re aware of, gun policy has become a constant presence … in our neighborhood conversations, and the lack of agreement on correct policy about guns is going to be one of the legacies of this trial.”

To be sure, civil rights icons like Dr. Bernice King, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s daughter, Tweeted that the verdict would be a gauge on the state of equal rights in America. In a mass reaction to an early decision by Sanford police to not charge Zimmerman, civil rights activists had mentioned Trayvon in the same breath as Medgar Evers and Emmet Till, young black men whose violent deaths fueled the civil rights movement and eventual passage of equal rights legislation in the mid-1960s.

“If u really believe racism isnt a massive problem, that the oppression of minorities is not a horrific and systemic issue … U R in denial,” Tweeted the actress Ellen Page.

At times, prosecutors seemed to be trying to answer an existential question instead of providing necessary facts to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt to the jury.

“What is that when a grown man, frustrated, angry, with hate in his heart, gets out of his car with a loaded gun and follows a child?”  prosecutor John Guy asked the six jurors – all women, five of them white – before they began a 16-hour deliberation that ended late Saturday night.  “A stranger? In the dark? And shoots him through his heart? What is that?"

But while the big picture visuals of the case echoed past civil rights battles, others believe the George Zimmerman trial instead may bolster the bold assertion by the National Rifle Association that ending persecution of lawful gun owners by the state is the new “civil rights movement.”

“A Zimmerman acquittal will be bad news politically to the gun prohibition lobby, which is also anti-self-defense,” writes Dave Workman for Examiner.com. “Gun grabbers do not like it when armed citizens defend themselves, demonstrating one case at a time that guns in the right hands are good, and dead criminals pose no further threat to the community. Recent years have seen an increasing number of people successfully using guns in self-defense with no criminal charges, a scenario that seems to elicit revulsion or stony silence from the gun control crowd.”

Zimmerman supporters say the state overreached, putting hate in Zimmerman’s heart, where there was none. Instead, they say, he was a would-be public servant who cared about his neighborhood, and the people in it – whether black or white. On the night of Trayvon’s death, however, Zimmerman bucked neighborhood watch protocols to follow Trayvon, whom he had pegged as suspicious and, under his breath to a dispatcher, likened to “punks” that “always get away.”

But whatever his motives and potentially questionable actions, Zimmerman was a legal gun owner who had the right to get out of his car in his own neighborhood and poke around. The jury also said he had a full right, under Florida law, to defend himself with deadly force if he felt in fear of his life.

“Death is unfortunate, a byproduct of returning force with appropriate force,” said Robert Zimmerman, Jr., George Zimmerman’s brother, to CNN’s Piers Morgan. “The jury saw the blood, they saw what Trayvon Martin did to my brother.”

Of course, many of those involved in the trial see the verdict as the opposite of justice for Trayvon, punctuated by what they perceive as the bitter taste of racism, particularly when it comes to how critically society views young black men.

“We’re intellectually dishonest if we don’t acknowledge the racial undertones of this case [and questions it raises] about how far we have come in America in matters of equal justice,” said Ben Crump, the Martin family’s attorney, after the verdict.

Yet while the specter of racial profiling and institutional indifference to the plight of a black boy drove myriad “Justice for Trayvon” rallies and protests, the trial itself rarely mentioned race.

Indeed, the presiding county judge, Debra Nelson, excluded the term “racial profiling” from the trial. One of the few mentions of race included Trayvon’s view of Zimmerman as a “crazy-ass cracker,” a racial term for poor whites, uttered by Trayvon as he spotted Zimmerman, according to his friend, Rachel Jeantel. The two were on the phone until the moments before Trayvon was shot.

Angela Corey, the special prosecutor who arrested Zimmerman 44 days after Trayvon’s death, said after the verdict that the debate outside the courtroom didn’t always match the procedural and legal wrestling match in Courtroom 5D.

"This case has never been about race or the right to bear arms," Ms. Corey said. "We believe this case all along was about boundaries, and George Zimmerman exceeded those boundaries."

For now, George Zimmerman “no longer has any business” in front of the criminal courts, as the judge put it, though the US Justice Department said Saturday that it’s considering a plea from the NAACP to file civil rights charges against Zimmerman. In that way, the tension between expanded gun-carry rights and profiling may not have been fully resolved for George Zimmerman, at least.

“The department continues to evaluate the evidence generated during the federal investigation, as well as the evidence and testimony from the state trial,” a spokesman for the Justice Department said in a statement.

Given that juries aren’t privy to any evidence or conjecture beyond what the judge allows, the Zimmerman trial proved to some that courtrooms aren’t ideal venues to resolve deeper societal prejudices, whether against minorities or gun owners.

These kinds of trials “can … never fully answer the larger societal questions they pose,” writes Andrew Cohen, in the Atlantic. “The can never act as moral surrogates to resolve the national debates they trigger.”

Police in Sanford, meanwhile, said they will return the Kel-Tec 9mm pistol used to kill Trayvon Martin to George Zimmerman.

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