Outside a friend’s apartment, in the streets of downtown Baltimore, protesters march daily over the not guilty verdict won by George Zimmerman that acquitted him of criminal wrongdoing in the death of Trayvon Martin, a Sanford, Fla., teenager who was on his way home from a store where he had purchased Skittles and a canned beverage. They aren’t so much protesting the decision of six jurors, who, from what I understand, did their job as jurors very well; rather, they’re protesting the laws that forced jurors’ hands on the verdict, laws that seem to promote racism and the judgment of people based on the color of their skin.
The Department of Justice is looking into opening a civil rights investigation, the New York Times reports, which would determine if Mr Zimmerman did what he did to willfully violate Trayvon’s civil rights. I’m not holding out much hope on this one, because that’s a hard nut to crack, especially since a sitting jury has already accepted Mr Zimmerman’s self-defense claim. If a jury says he did it for reasons of self-defense, it’s a practical impossibility to prove he did it for some other reason, like violating Trayvon’s civil rights.
The case, though, isn’t really an end in itself, since Mr Zimmerman cannot be put in double jeopardy. It is instead, for many black and white Americans, a painful look at how differently we treat people based on the color of their skin. As I’m white, I can’t probably understand how it feels to be suspected of criminal activity just for being in a place. For example, as I walked out of my own house about two weeks ago, on a suburban street, a Baltimore County police unit stopped and started driving slowly alongside, clearly checking me out. Most people in this neighborhood drive cars, even to make a quick trip to the grocery store two blocks away, but I often walk.
I continued walking at the same pace, at what I would consider a normal pace of walking, similar to the one I use when I walk from my office downtown to go to lunch. And after about four houses of pursuit, the police officers in the car drove on, obviously concluding that I was just walking to my destination and not in the neighborhood to case some houses. This conclusion was further supported by the fact that I stopped to chat for a few seconds with a neighbor of mine who was watering his lawn.
That’s a white man’s version of being suspected of criminal activity just for being there: in my mind, I know the police are wrong, so I believe they will move on after they spend enough time checking me out to satisfy whatever it is they need to satisfy. It probably won’t even get written into their daily log. I was a tad offended at the police work in Baltimore County, but it only wasted a few dollars of my taxes to have them stall and watch me for a moment. If I were black, walking in this same neighborhood, at the same pace, stop-and-frisk laws might very well have resulted in a different conclusion and course of police action.
That difference, based solely on the color of my skin, is what I think these protests are about. Like many Americans, I have accepted the verdict in Mr Zimmerman’s trial as the logical result of the judicial process we use in America. But also like many Americans, I can see how the laws he used to obtain his acquittal need to be reconsidered: they promote racism and discrimination against people who are black.
Imagine for a moment that the people who noticed me were not highly trained police officers, who knew how to recognize a situation of a neighborhood resident walking to the store for what it was. Imagine it was instead a neighborhood watch volunteer, maybe a wanna-be cop, who saw me walking. I believe that since I’m white, he would eventually move on, and if I were black, he might stop me and ask me what I was doing in that neighborhood. I might then interpret that aggressive posture as a threat and shoot him, fearing for my life in the face of an aggressive individual who pursued me. Well, “I live here,” would be my answer, and that would probably be the end of it, but if I had the hormones of a teenager, I might be a little more physical. Not too many black people live here, so in that sense, it might be unusual and draw suspicion, I guess, on the basis of being an atypical occurrence. But police officers are trained to surmise a situation like this very quickly—three or four houses of pursuit are all they gave me—and neighborhood watch volunteers are not.
So, do we need better training for neighborhood watch volunteers? Do we need licensing requirements? Better education for volunteers or for the public in general? How can the laws be changed so that we still have the right to protect ourselves but do not have the right to pursue and stop someone without probable cause that goes beyond the color of people’s skin? I actually thought we already had that right, but I was apparently mistaken. If someone being black means he doesn’t have as much of that last right as a white person would, we have to change that.
And, how can our many black communities as well as the many black people who live in predominantly white communities come together to make it so kids can walk to school or to a grocery store in their neighborhood—or anywhere—without being suspected of wrongdoing? Without being considered a threat to a white neighborhood watch volunteer’s life or property? How can we all work together to accomplish that?