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A Bad Time to be Black


Despite widespread misconceptions as to what actually happened in the murder trial of George Zimmerman, many Americans (black and white) are justifiably unnerved that a grown man shot and killed an unarmed teenager he'd been stalking and then escaped all charges on the grounds of self-defense. For Floridians who happen to have dark skin, it's just one more reminder that the institutions of our state don't work in their favor. From Trayvon to the Supreme Court decision on the Voting Rights Act, to the failure of families seeking to exhume the bodies of murdered children at a former reform school site, it's been a rough couple of weeks for the notion of equality.

George Zimmerman has of course been found not guilty in the shooting death of 17 year-old teenager Trayvon Martin, who he followed in his car and then stalked on foot – while armed – as the young boy returned to his father's apartment after stepping out to buy a pack of Skittles and a fruit juice. It's not entirely clear what happened once Zimmerman ignored a 911 dispatcher's advice not to follow Martin on foot, pistol in tow, other than that it resulted in Zimmerman shooting the African American teen to death. 

Many pundits have correctly pointed out that Florida’s controversial Stand Your Ground law was not invoked by the defense (though it was initially a factor in the case of his arrest). But to suggest that it was therefore irrelevant to the case or the outcome is nothing short of ludicrous. Zimmerman claimed self-defense, and the instructions given to jurors in Florida when that defense is used were indeed changed after Stand Your Ground became law. At least one juror has reportedly said that it impacted the panel's verdict and caused confusion during deliberations. 

It's a bad law that has resulted in too many preventable deaths, while also allowing too many criminals to go free. That being said, even when it is not invoked or is unsuccessful, it is undeniable that the high-profile statute impacts not only the repercussions, but the mindset of those who carry firearms in our state and may believe they can get away with shooting someone simply by convincing a jury that they were in fear for their life. If the plausibility of escaping punishment for taking another person's life is heightened, there is no telling how many shootings take place which wouldn't have, had the shooter not felt that the law could protect them. To some degree, what happens after is pretty much moot once a victim's dead. Even when some degree of justice is achieved, the life taken cannot be restored, which is why we need to look closer at whether such laws encourage violent escalations.

Stand Your Ground aside, the Zimmerman verdict is just one more in a long line of ridiculous decisions delivered by Florida juries when a victim is black and their assailant is not. From the Martin Lee Anderson case, in which a jury acquitted seven boot camp guards, despite video that showed them beating a 14 year-old black inmate to death, to the Arthur McDuffie case, in which four white police officers literally kicked a black business man's head in, only to be acquitted by an all-white jury, blacks have had a hard time getting justice in the Sunshine State. 

Still, since Stand Your Ground became the law of the land, it's gotten even tougher to be black and Floridian at the same time. An extensive Tampa Bay Times study of cases in which the statute was invoked found that people who killed a black person got off 73 percent of the time, while those who killed a white person went free only 59 percent of the time. 

Angela Corey, the lead prosecutor in the Zimmerman case, was able to secure a conviction against Marissa Alexander (a black woman who had a restraining order against an abusive ex-husband) when Alexander was arrested on attempted murder charges for not shooting her abusive ex, when she fired a warning shot to keep him from attacking her. Alexander's doing 20 years, after the judge did not allow a Stand Your Ground defense. Whether that would have been different had Alexander been a white female, we can only guess ...

To be sure, we are talking about two different cases, with two different juries and two different judges. There were also other considerations, like the fact that her kids were in the room when she fired the shot into the wall and could have been injured by a ricochet. Nonetheless, it is part of a sad list of similar situations in which the varying outcomes seem to correlate to skin tone, and at the end of the day, Zimmerman, who shot and killed an innocent black teen is free, while Alexander, who neither shot nor killed anyone is behind bars for a long time. 

This week, we've heard time and again about our state's “complicated” history with race, but in truth, it's not that complicated at all. Blacks have been getting the short end of the stick ever since we raised the flag in Florida, and we've been far behind the curve in terms of progressing toward the level of social justice and equality that most states have achieved. 

Recently, we were reminded of that when the Supreme Court struck down an important part of the Voting Rights Act, effectively ending the practice in which some states (including parts of Florida) must receive pre-clearance from the federal government before changing voting laws or redistricting. Anyone who's lived in this state has seen a concentrated effort to infringe upon the voting rights of African Americans who historically vote against the state's majority party. From Jeb Bush's shameful rigging of the 2000 voter scrub list procedures to more recent efforts to fashion early voting dates and ID requirements in such ways that would be most likely to disenfranchise the black vote, there has been an unmistakable effort to water down their voice at the polls. 

This week, we were reminded once more of that complicated past when families (disproportionately black) seeking to have the remains of their loved ones exhumed from the former Dozier School for Boys – a literal house of horrors where young inmates were systematically raped, tortured and even murdered by staff for a hundred plus years until it was finally shuttered – ran into another road block.

That's a lot for a lifetime, let alone for a span of just a few weeks. Anyone feeling good about last Saturday's outcome or doubting the idea that equality is little more than an empty slogan in our state, could probably stand a little bit of a history lesson. We have a long way to go, but most troubling is the idea that we don't even seem to be headed in the right direction.  

Dennis Maley's column appears every Thursday and Sunday in The Bradenton Times. He can be reached at dennis.maley@thebradentontimes.com. Click here to visit his column archive. Click here to go to his bio page. You can also follow Dennis on Facebook.


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