Belfast Telegraph

Friday 11 July 2014

George Zimmerman: Why fine words alone won't heal centuries of hate

Set free: George Zimmerman

George Zimmerman walked free from a Florida courthouse this week having been cleared of the killing of Trayvon Martin. Except that George is not, of course, free in any real sense of the word...

As his brother Robert has pointed out, Zimmerman will spend the rest of his life looking over his shoulder.

For the case of the armed 29-year-old neighbourhood watch volunteer who shot dead an unarmed 17-year-old has become the latest, biggest smouldering controversy in America, threatening to ignite once again that country's always volatile racial tensions.

Zimmerman, who describes himself as Hispanic is, if you insist on being clinically precise about these things, actually mixed race – white and Hispanic.

Trayvon Martin was black.

Zimmerman had followed the youth after he saw him enter a gated community in Sanford, Orlando, and had challenged him.

To protesters appalled at the verdict, what followed was a clear-cut case of an armed white man shooting dead a young black lad purely because he assumed that the boy had to be up to no good on account of the colour of his skin.

Others (including the all-female jury) accepted the smaller, pudgier Zimmerman's story that the 6ft tall, well-built Trayvon, when challenged, had attacked him and pinned him to the ground.

And that he (Zimmerman) had only gone for his gun in self-defence. Florida has a dubious Stand Your Ground law which allows people to defend themselves by force in their home or their place of work or anywhere "they have a right to be". (Other US states have a similar law which does not go quite so far.)

Zimmerman did not actually use Stand Your Ground as a defence in his court case.

But it is cited as the reason why the police did not charge him with any crime for almost two months after the killing until public outcry led to action.

And how much, you have to wonder, was it in George Zimmerman's mind on that fateful night he encountered Trayvon Martin?

How much did it propel him towards challenging the young man – who, as it turns out, was perfectly entitled to be within the gates of the compound?

The Zimmerman case has been a complex, difficult one. I watched considerable television coverage of it when I was in America. It was a big, big talking point. And a deeply divisive one.

From television coverage alone it was hard to judge. But it would be fair to say that over here, Zimmerman would have been unlikely to walk completely free from court.

Then again, over here he wouldn't have been allowed to carry a gun in the first place. Once again, America's insane gun laws claim a young life.

On the streets though, the protests have not been about gun legislation. They have been about race.

As in our own place the deep fault line than runs through American society is still there gouged by centuries of seething mistrust, misconception, suspicion and hatred.

President Obama has called for calm. Leaders here call for calm too.

But calling for calm isn't enough.

Unless what tears a community in two is faced up to, tackled, confronted and in some way healed and resolved it will continue to suppurate and separate.

And people on both sides will never be free of the sores of the past.

Not in America. Not here.

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