By LIZETTE ALVAREZ
SANFORD, Fla. — From the very beginning, there was no more powerful theme in the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin than the issue of race.
It's not coincidental that the opening sentence reads like it was adapted from a book report on The Great Gatsby. We're talking Narrative, not trivialities like a man's guilt or innocence. The phrase "there was no more powerful theme in the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin" makes sense only in the context of the media's spinning of the story, but that pregnant topic is off limits.
But in the courtroom where George Zimmerman is on trial for second-degree murder, race lingers awkwardly on the sidelines, scarcely mentioned but impossible to ignore.
For African-Americans here and across the country, the killing of Mr. Martin, 17, black and unarmed, was resonant with a back story steeped in layers of American history and the abiding conviction that justice serves only some of the people.
Of course, the last 50 years of high black youth crime rates are not "resonant." Who told you that you get a say in what is American history and what is not? What are you, some kind of profiler?
Had Mr. Martin shot and killed Mr. Zimmerman under similar circumstances, black leaders say, the case would have barreled down a different path: Mr. Martin would have been quickly arrested by the Sanford Police Department and charged in the killing, without the benefit of the doubt.
Instead, there was no arrest for six weeks. And only after sharp criticism from civil rights leaders and demonstrations here and elsewhere did the Florida governor transfer the case to a special prosecutor from another county.
Let's not mention the hoopla in the national media. We just report the news, we don't have any responsibilities for making it.
“For members of the African-American community, it’s a here-we-go-again moment,” said JeffriAnne Wilder, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of North Florida. “We want to get away from these things, but this did not happen in a vacuum. It happened against the backdrop of all the other things that have happened before.”
Yet inside a Seminole County courtroom, with the prosecution’s case against Mr. Zimmerman now over, race only occasionally punctuated the proceedings. The judge made it clear that statements about race would be sharply limited and the term “racial profiling” not allowed. What is more, overtly bringing up race might not have helped the prosecution.
“There is no question that race is the 800-pound gorilla in this trial,” said Ed Shohat, a Miami lawyer who is also a member of the Miami-Dade County Community Relations Board. “But if you overplay that card either way, you lose with the jury. You have to let the jury come to its own conclusion.”
For supporters of the Martin family, Mr. Martin’s death was part of a more complex tale of profiling and injustice. But this perception has run up against the protocols of a criminal trial and Florida’s expansive self-defense laws. These laws, critics say, give too much leeway to people who say they acted violently because they felt threatened.
In other words, under the rule of law in Florida, the state of Florida has the burden of proof to demonstrate that Zimmerman wasn't acting in self-defense, and lots of luck with that.
Defense lawyers argue that Mr. Zimmerman, 29, a neighborhood watch volunteer in his gated community in Sanford, was attacked by a visiting Mr. Martin and, fearing for his life, shot him. Prosecutors counter that Mr. Zimmerman, whose mother is Peruvian
and who looks a little black himself
, set out to confront Mr. Martin and initiated the fight that ended in Mr. Martin’s death. The charge is second-degree murder, inflicting death with spite, hatred or ill will. But no one in the courtroom is saying outright that race or racial hatred entered into the shooting.
Unlike in the media, where we said it over and over despite a lack of evidence until we forced this absurdly over-charged trial to happen.
“It’s like we are watching two different trials,” said the Rev. Al Jackson, a pastor in Richmond Heights, a predominantly black community in Miami-Dade County, expressing frustration over the case and how it is unfolding at trial. “The law doesn’t care how this started, but we do. You are punishing this boy for defending himself, even though it wasn’t his fault.”
Even so, race made an entrance on the first day of the trial. John Guy, a prosecutor, said in opening statements that Mr. Zimmerman had “profiled” Mr. Martin and pursued him because he was suspicious of the black teenager who looked as though “he was up to no good,” as Mr. Zimmerman told the police dispatcher in a call that night. He cited Mr. Zimmerman’s apparent frustration in that call, quoting him making derogatory references to potential burglars who always seemed to “get away.”
Race came up again when the jury heard four other phone calls to the police by Mr. Zimmerman reporting suspicious people in the neighborhood, all of them black. The fact that Mr. Zimmerman was studying criminal justice in college and seemed eager for a career in law or law enforcement rounded out the prosecution’s portrait of a would-be vigilante.
Race arose again, in topsy-turvy manner
I mean, what could be crazier than the concept of a black racially demeaning a non-black? Has the world gone insane?
when Rachel Jeantel, 19, a young black woman who was speaking to Mr. Martin on the phone shortly before he was shot, took the stand. Mr. Martin told her during that call, Ms. Jeantel said, that Mr. Zimmerman was following him; he called him a “creepy-ass cracker." The defense team quickly jumped on the words, suggesting to the jury that Mr. Martin had profiled Mr. Zimmerman.
Seriously, note the bizarre inversion of sense, where evidence of "profiling" is the worst sin imaginable, whereas evidence of racial animus is ignored. The term "cracker" is evidence of racial animus on the part of Martin, not of profiling. But in our anti-empirical age, the worst sin is Noticing Things.
On the other hand, the term "creepy-ass" suggests anti-gay profiling on the part of Martin, but the substantial possibility that this incident had a gay-bashing aspect to it would just make poor NYT readers' head explode, so let's never mention the obvious.
In the cocoon of the courthouse, even Mr. Martin’s bullet-scarred hooded sweatshirt, positioned for jurors in a clear plastic frame, appeared less a poignant symbol for the thousands who marched in his name than a lamentable but necessary piece of evidence.
Think of the Skittles!
Still, black pastors, sociologists and community leaders said in interviews that they feared that Mr. Martin’s death would be a story of justice denied, an all-too common insult that to them places Trayvon Martin’s name next to those of Rodney King, Amadou Diallo and other black men who were abused, beaten or killed by police officers.
“Profiling, stereotyping, the disparity in treatment of African-Americans when it comes to criminal matters, how imbalanced it all is in the eyes of African-Americans,” said the Rev. Lowman Oliver, the pastor at St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church in Sanford. “That’s why so many eyes are on this case. It’s nationwide and international.”
The makeup of the jury, six women, none black, is occasionally noted. Race also framed Ms. Jeantel’s turn on the witness stand, which drew heckling online from white and black observers who mocked her demeanor. In testimony over two days, Ms. Jeantel, a high school senior and Mr. Martin’s friend, was clearly uneasy in the spotlight, at times impatient and often hard to hear or understand.
“She was mammyfied,” said Ms. Wilder, the sociology professor, expressing disappointment over the reaction. “She has this riveting testimony, then she became, overnight, the teenage mammy: for not being smart and using these racial slurs and not being the best witness. A lot of people in the African-American community came out against her.”
In the past two weeks, defense lawyers have chipped away at the prosecution’s case, legal analysts said, raising the possibility of an acquittal. The law in Florida allows for the use of force if someone fears great bodily harm, and prosecutors must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Mr. Zimmerman did not act in self-defense.
All this legal mumbo-jumbo like "beyond a reasonable doubt" that the racist crackers are using to get their good old boy off. Florida must be a racist hellhole if the government can't just go around convicting individuals of murder without meeting the burden of proof.
The twists and turns of the case — its weaknesses and legal complications — were not a factor for many supporters of the Martin family, until recently. “We thought this was an open-and-shut case,” said Mr. Jackson, the pastor in Richmond Heights.
Probably a New York Times subscriber.
Mr. Oliver, the Sanford pastor, said he remained optimistic. “You can feel a little sense that anger is re-emerging,” he said.
Rev. Oliver is optimistic about having a good race riot if Zimmerman is acquitted?
The possibility of an acquittal has prompted community leaders, ministers and law enforcement officials in Miami and Sanford to prepare. This week in Miami, they will hold a meeting in Miami Gardens, where Mr. Martin lived, to talk about the complexity of the legal case and what has happened in the courtroom so far. They are also reaching out to young people in schools and parks and through Web sites, urging them to remain calm.
“It is important that we still maintain peace, even though decisions are not made to our liking,” Mr. Jackson said. “That is our message, and that is what we are preaching.”
Even the suggestion that trouble may follow an acquittal is fraught with racial overtones, particularly since much of the preparation is focused on the black community.
But in cities like Miami, which have experienced racial unrest, the ministers and activists said it was a reasonable concern. It is better to be prepared, they say, than caught off guard.
“Everybody wants to know the pulse of the community,” Mr. Jackson said. “It’s not an insult to ask whether we feel there will be unrest.”
As the trial begins its third and perhaps final week, there is widespread agreement that one fact rises above all others: post-racial America, as some hoped it would be after a black man was elected president, is still a work in progress.
“We are going to have to have a dialogue in this nation about racial matters,” Mr. Oliver said.
A "dialogue" about race is code for "Shut up and listen to your betters." But, having gotten Obama re-elected, white liberals are once again tiring of black people being less than satisfactory in their appointed roles as saints and martyrs, so the New York Times now returns to its regularly scheduled around-the-clock coverage of gay marriage.
In summary, I'm always being accused of being obsessed with questions of race. But, in reality, I just read the New York Times.