[This article originally appeared in The New Yorker.]
The not-guilty verdict in the George Zimmerman trial came down moments after I left a screening of “Fruitvale Station,” a film about the police-shooting death of Oscar Grant four years ago in Oakland. Much of the audience sat quietly sobbing as the closing credits rolled, moved by the narrative of a young black man, unarmed and senselessly gone. Words were not needed to express a common understanding: to Zimmerman, Trayvon Martin, the seventeen-year-old he shot, fit the description; for black America, the circumstances of his death did.
The familiarity dulled the sharp edges of the tragedy. The decision the six jurors reached on Saturday evening will inspire anger, frustration, and despair, but little surprise, and this is the most deeply saddening aspect of the entire affair. From the outset— throughout the forty-four days it took for there to be an arrest, and then in the sixteen months it took to for the case to come to trial—there was a nagging suspicion that it would culminate in disappointment. Call this historical profiling.
The most damning element here is not that George Zimmerman was found not guilty: it’s the bitter knowledge that Trayvon Martin was found guilty. During his cross examination of Martin’s mother, Sybrina Fulton, the defense attorney Mark O’Mara asked if she was avoiding the idea that her son had done something to cause his own death. During closing arguments, the defense informed the jury that Martin was armed because he weaponized a sidewalk and used it to bludgeon Zimmerman. During his post-verdict press conference, O’Mara said that, were his client black, he would never have been charged. At the defense’s table, and in the precincts far beyond it where donors have stepped forward to contribute funds to underwrite their efforts, there is a sense that Zimmerman was the victim.
O’Mara’s statement echoed a criticism that began circulating long before Martin and Zimmerman encountered each other. Thousands of black boys die at the hands of other African Americans each year, but the black community, it holds, is concerned only when those deaths are caused by whites. It’s an appealing argument, and widespread, but it’s simplistic and obtuse. It’s a belief most easily held when you’ve not witnessed peace rallies and makeshift memorials, when you’ve turned a blind eye to grassroots organizations like the Interrupters in Chicago, who are working valiantly to stem the tide of violence in that city. It is the thinking of people who’ve never wondered why African Americans disproportionately support strict gun-control legislation. The added quotient of outrage in cases like this one stems not from the belief that a white murderer is somehow worse than a black one but from the knowledge that race determines whether fear, history, and public sentiment offer that killer a usable alibi.
The thousands who gathered last spring in New York, in St. Louis, in Philadelphia, in Miami, and in Washington, D.C., to demand Zimmerman’s arrest shared a narrative and an understanding of the past’s grip on the present. Long before the horrifying images of Martin lying prone and lifeless in the grass ever made their way to Gawker, he’d already begun inspiring references to the line about “blood on the leaves” from Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit.” Those crowds were the response of people who understand that history is interred in the shallowest of graves.
Yet the problem is not that this case marks a low point in this country’s racial history—it’s that, after two centuries of common history, we’re still obligated to chart high points and low ones. To be black at times like this is to see current events on a real-time ticker, a Dow Jones average measuring the quality of one’s citizenship. Trayvon Martin’s death is an American tragedy, but it will mainly be understood as an African-American one. That it occurred in a country that elected and reëlected a black President doesn’t diminish the despair this verdict inspires, it intensifies it. The fact that such a thing can happen at a moment of unparalleled political empowerment tells us that events like these are a hard, unchanging element of our landscape.
We can understand the verdict to mean validation for the idea that the actions Zimmerman took that night were those of a reasonable man, that the conclusions he drew were sound, and that a black teen-ager can be considered armed any time he is walking down a paved street. We can take from this trial the knowledge that a grieving family was capable of displaying inestimable reserves of grace. Following the verdict, Sybrina Fulton posted a benediction to Twitter: “Lord during my darkest hour I lean on you. You are all that I have. At the end of the day, GOD is still in control.” The Twitter account of Tracy Martin, Trayvon’s father, features an image of him holding Trayvon as a toddler, a birthday hat perched on the boy’s head. At the trial, they sat through a grim procession of autopsy photos and audio of the gunshot that ended their son’s life. No matter the verdict, their simple pursuit of justice meant amplifying the trauma of their loss by some unknowable exponent.
There’s fear that the verdict will embolden vigilantes, but that need not be the concern: history has already done that. You don’t have to recall specifics of everything that has transpired in Florida over the past two hundred years to recognize this. The details of Rosewood, the black town terrorized and burned to the ground in 1923, and of Groveland and the black men falsely accused of rape and murdered there in 1949, can remain obscure and retain sway over our present concerns. Names—like Claude Neal, lynched in 1934, and Harry and Harriette Moore, N.A.A.C.P. organizers in Mims County, killed by a firebomb in 1951—can be overlooked. What cannot be forgotten, however, is that there were no consequences for those actions.
Perhaps history does not repeat itself exactly, but it is certainly prone to extended paraphrases. Long before the jury announced its decision, many people had seen what the outcome would be, had known that it would be a strange echo of the words Zimmerman uttered that rainy night in central Florida: they always get away.
Jelani Cobb is Associate Professor of History and Director of the Institute of African American Studies at the University of Connecticut, and the author of To the Break of Dawn: A Freestyle on the Hip Hop Aesthetic (NYU Press, 2007). Read more of Cobb’s coverage of the Zimmerman trial via The New Yorker here.