The second-degree murder charge against George Zimmerman undoubtedly signals a victory for the movement initiated by Trayvon Martin’s parents. Trayvon’s killing and the lack of an arrest captured the public imaginary throughout America and created a demand for justice to be seen to be done. While a charge is not a conviction, the trial will be played out in the public eye, so attention will be drawn to laws that have been promoted by the rightwing organizations ALEC and the National Rifle Association – concealed carry of weapons, easy access to guns, and “Stand Your Ground” – which will likely form Zimmerman’s defense.
The special prosecutor, Angela Corey, a Republican reputed to be tough on crime, denied that Zimmerman’s arrest was a response to pressure and maintained the state was following its due process. Corey’s statement announcing the charge attempted to overcome the perception of a conflict between her investigation and the Sanford authorities by linking the decision to prosecute to the constitutional rights of citizens: “Let me emphasize that we do not prosecute by pressure or petition,” she said. “We prosecute cases based on the relevant facts of each case and on the laws of the state of Florida. … By strictly adhering to this standard we vigorously pursue justice for all victims of crimes while maintaining the rights of every defendant. … Every single day, prosecutors throughout this country handle difficult cases, always keeping at the forefront their mandate to seek justice.”
However, the probable cause affidavit released by her office on Thursday made clear that Corey rejects Zimmerman’s claim – accepted at face value by police at the time – that Martin attacked him. Her investigators determined that Zimmerman “profiled” Martin and then pursued and confronted him.
The state had to respond to the demands for justice, to have a trial at least, to maintain its legitimacy. The ideal of equality under the law is important to the ideological justification of state rule. But this also intersects with other social currents in America. The NRA, which advocated and wrote the Stand Your Ground law, is an important conservative constituency for Republicans: Mitt Romney went out of his way to cultivate ties with the group and adopt their inflammatory anti-Obama rhetoric at their annual convention in St. Louis, Missouri, last week.
Speaking at the same convention, the NRA’s vice-president Wayne LaPierre tried to deflect criticism of Stand Your Ground by attacking the media for publicizing Martin’s killing and ignoring other violent crime. “By the time I finish this speech, two Americans will be slain, six women will be raped, 27 of us will be robbed, and 50 more will be beaten. That’s the harsh reality we face, all of us, every single day,” he said. What the NRA wants is to use the fear of crime to enable armed white citizens to enforce vigilante justice against a perceived criminal threat – exactly what Zimmerman did – without fear of legal consequences.
Supporter of right-wing causes and Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz chimed in to pillory Angela Corey, saying he thinks she doesn’t have a case for second-degree murder. “What you have here is an elected public official who made a campaign speech last night for reelection when she gave her presentation and over-charged.” He described the affidavit of probable cause as “thin,” “irresponsible,” and “unethical.”
While there is a clear division in public opinion over the case, it is not purely on race lines. Gary Younge overstates his argument in the Guardian when he says: “What follows from here has the potential to be every bit as divisive as the OJ Simpson trial and every bit as inflammatory as the Rodney King case – only this time there’s a black president in an election year.” According to the Washington Post: “Eight in 10 blacks say they think Martin’s killing was not justified, compared with 38 percent of whites. Most whites say they do not know enough about the shooting to say whether it was justified.” Almost 40% of whites agree with the overwhelming majority of African-Americans, and the rest are uncertain: that’s more nuanced than opinion was on OJ Simpson’s guilt. The divisions in the country over this case are more ideological than racial – racism is expressed through attitudes on gun control and stoking fears of criminality.
A Washington Post writer, Colbert King, points out: “The murder charge doesn’t settle the question raised by Martin’s shooting. As Ohio State University law professor Michelle Alexander, the author of ‘The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,’ told the Christian Science Monitor, Martin’s killing is ‘not an exceptional case except for the fact that the one who did the accosting while armed was a private citizen’ rather than a police officer. … High rates of arrest, incarceration and unexplained stops by police, Alexander said, send ‘the message to young black men that no matter who you are, what you do, whether you play by the rules or not, you’re going to be viewed and treated like a criminal and you’re likely to wind up in jail one way or another’.”
Interviewed on DemocracyNow, NAACP president Benjamin Jealous raised the same issue: “We have not had an honest conversation about racial profiling in this country in a decade. And the reality is that [the Trayvon Martin] case, for a whole generation of young people, is the first time they’re seeing their country really talk about this problem. … You know, in 2003, what, there were about 160,000-170,000 stop-and-frisks in New York; 87 percent of those resulted in no summons, no one being locked up or taken to the station. Last year, 285—excuse me, 685,000 stop-and-frisks, 685, and 88 percent of them found nothing. You know, less than 10 percent of those were of white people; you know, more than 90 percent were black and Latino people. And the reality is that we’ve seen a massive upsurge in racial profiling over the last decade …”
Nobel prize-winning novelist Toni Morrison told the Guardian: “They keep saying, we have to have a conversation about race in this country. Well, this is the conversation. We’ll see if it plays out, if it makes a difference in terms of not just the hate crime thing, but the law.” She drew attention to the coded racial language of the conservative right, and how Santorum described Obama as a “government nig – uh.” “He said he didn’t say that! They used to say ‘government nigger’ when black people got jobs in the post office, stuff like that. And that’s what he was saying.”
The national discussion of race coincides with an election campaign in which the subverting of state law by the Republican right is being pulled into the public eye. Zimmerman’s trial will highlight racial profiling as an undercurrent in American political rhetoric – and will build opposition to it.