Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 1 October 2014

Trayvon's death proves race still a factor in US life

Killed: Trayvon Martin

Every now and then, America generates the perfect media storm. The death of Trayvon Martin was one such, featuring just about every hot-button law and order issue you could imagine. And, of course, permeating everything, including race.

Race was barely mentioned during the month-long trial, but it hung over proceedings like a poisonous vapour.

History is likely to add the Martin case to a long line stretching from the pre-civil rights era show trials of blacks subjected to Jim Crow justice, through to the acquittal of the Los Angeles police officers in the beating of black motorist Rodney King in 1992 to the ultimate media circus of the OJ Simpson trial two years later.

And, if the topic of race was not explicitly raised, that was because no one needed to be reminded that, had Trayvon Martin been white, his fatal confrontation with George Zimmerman might never have happened.

The difference is that, unlike the parodies of justice in the segregated South, where blacks were automatically convicted if accused of a crime against a white, this time the strictly legal outcome – the acquittal of Zimmerman by his peers – feels right.

Before last Saturday's verdict, impartial expert opinion leant to the view that, even if Florida's permissive self-defence laws were removed from the equation, the case for second-degree murder simply was not being made.

Nonetheless, the judge allowed the prosecution to seek conviction on the lesser charge of manslaughter. But the jury threw that out, too.

Given America's multi-tiered legal system, this may not be the end of the affair. Under the criminal law of Florida, Zimmerman has been acquitted.

But the Justice Department in Washington faces intense pressure from civil rights groups to bring federal charges against him.

As it is, and in spite of his acquittal, George Zimmerman's life has been changed for ever. He is in hiding, a marked man now a target for a hothead's vigilante justice – what he was accused of meting out to Trayvon Martin.

He will, it appears, get his gun back and, as his lawyer Mark O'Mara drily noted, "There's even more reason now, isn't there?"

The death of Trayvon Martin has proved that race is still a factor in American national life, but name one country on earth which has a significant racial minority where it is not a factor.

Beyond doubt, race relations in the US have greatly improved. But there is still much to be done.

The worries of minority parents about how their children will be treated by a society whose institutions were forged and still mostly run by whites, persist even now, half a century after America's civil rights revolution.

And one final, depressing thought: if the US had sensible gun laws, Trayvon Martin would not have died and no one would have heard of George Zimmerman.

Alas, even if you got rid of race in America, you'd never get rid of guns.

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