Race relations across the United States worsened significantly — at least in the short run — following the mid-July not guilty verdicts on the second-degree murder and manslaughter charges against George Zimmerman in the shooting of 17-year-old African American youth Trayvon Martin.
“Justice for Trayvon” protests occurred in more than a hundred American cities. Virtually no one argued that such a tragedy could result for a white youth in similar circumstances. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) called on the U.S. Department of Justice to file civil rights charges against Zimmerman and has now gathered one million signatures. One NAACP supporter termed what happened a “modern-day lynching”.
Following the acquittal, Dream Defenders, a network of black and brown youth seeking equal rights and education for all, occupied the offices of Florida Gov. Rick Scott, seeking a special legislative session to repeal the state’s "stand your ground" law, which enlarges a person’s right to use deadly force in a confrontation.
Without such legislation, also applicable in more than half of the American states, how could the jury find the shooting be justified as self-defence in the indicated circumstances? It exists nowhere in Canada’s Criminal Code, which allows only reasonable force to repel an attack on one’s person.
Overall, it was difficult to find any redeeming feature in the Florida criminal justice system in the trial. Not a single African-American, for example, was present on the jury. The prosecution appears to have done a very unprofessional job.
The unarmed and innocent Trayvon, returning from buying sweets at a store, was stalked and chased on a rainy night by the armed vigilante Zimmerman in the gated community in which they were both staying. Trayvon had every right to defend himself from the other’s excessive force. Zimmerman would thus in all likelihood have been found guilty of second degree murder beyond any reasonable doubt or at least manslaughter by a jury in most other American states.
In Canada, this result would have been certain if the jury and judge had done their jobs properly. If not, the prosecution would appeal, seeking a directed verdict of guilty or a new trial from an appeal court.
Zimmerman never faced any real danger to his life, and claiming that he had no choice but to pull out his ever-ready gun and shoot Trayvon at point-blank range was preposterous. The jury should have said so. If there had been twelve persons on the jury as in criminal cases in Canada, instead of the six in Florida, it might well have done the correct thing.
An editorial in USA Today Friday morning makes the important point that the tragedy is a “byproduct of a society that in the past three decades has made it easier for people to buy guns, to carry concealed guns, to take guns into more places, and to bear less responsibility to retreat from dangerous situations."
On the optimistic side, protests by African Americans across the country have been noticeably restrained and with little violence, completely contrary to what happened in Los Angeles in 1992 after four police officers were acquitted of beating Rodney King. The goodwill demonstrated already in Sanford, Florida and in many other centres across the country by African Americans suggests that something good might still emerge from this tragedy. Black and white children continue to play together in Sanford. At a unity church service in Sanford, civic leaders of all backgrounds prayed for reconciliation. Black Americans present offered a prayer for George Zimmerman.
President’s Obama’s eloquent remark that “Trayvon Martin might have been me 35 years ago” was also helpful. So was John McCain, the Arizona Republican senator, appearing on CNN to praise the president’s words on the Zimmerman case and asking for a review of the “stand your ground” laws in Florida and other states, which attracted so much world attention after Trayvon’s death.
In fact, incidents such as the one causing Trayvon’s death appear to be declining across the United States. In Florida itself, the number of homicides in which “stand your ground” is invoked has also fallen in recent years.
Canada has avoided the racial divide that has long cursed the U.S. The election and re-election of a black president is a major advance, but as so evident in the Trayvon tragedy, hidden problems persist. Americans don’t yet live in a world where skin colour doesn’t dictate perceptions.
David Kilgour is co-chair of the Canadian Friends of a Democratic Iran and a director of the Washington-based Council for a Community of Democracies (CCD). He is a former MP for both the Conservative and Liberal Parties in the south-east region of Edmonton and has also served as the Secretary of State for Latin America and Africa, Secretary of State for Asia-Pacific and Deputy Speaker of the House.