The Common Good

The Zimmerman Verdict and the Resurrection of the Old Jim Crow

The acquittal of a person who is not black for the murder or beating of a black person is nothing new: Remember Yusef Hawkins. Remember Rodney King. Remember Amadu Diallo. Remember Alex Moore. Remember Latasha Harlins. Remember Sean Bell. Remember… remember… remember.

Many of us can recall these names without much effort. So, why is the death of Trayvon Martin so different?

It’s different because of the law — and the timing.

First, the law. This may have been an unavoidable verdict, under a three-part set of unjust Florida laws.

Before 2005, Florida’s self-defense laws mirrored those of the rest of the country. A person had no duty to retreat if being attacked inside their own home, but outside the home they had the duty to get the heck out of dodge, if possible, before using deadly force.

In 2005, Florida became the first state to expand its self-defense laws to include any spaces outside the home and encouraged people not to retreat, but to “stand their ground.”

Ta-Nehisi Coates broke down the irony of Florida’s “stand your ground” principle:

“I don’t think the import of this is being appreciated,” he said. “Effectively, I can bait you into a fight and if I start losing, I can legally kill you, provided I ‘believe’ myself to be subject to ‘great bodily harm.’”

So, it follows, Zimmerman’s jury was given deliberation instructions that used language from the “stand your ground” principle verbatim: “Zimmerman... had no duty to retreat and had the right to stand his ground and meet force with force, including deadly force, if he reasonably believed that it was necessary to do so.” (Italics mine.)

Juror 37 said this principle imbedded within the instructions played a key role in the jury’s verdict.

Since 2005, more than 20 states have followed Florida’s lead and enacted their own versions of expanded self-defense laws. That means nearly half of the country lives under the legal authority of “stand your ground.”

Now, couple these expanded self-defense laws with the proliferation of concealed carry laws, which legalize the carrying of guns in public. Today, every state in the union has passed some degree of concealed carry laws.

Add this to the fact that there is no precedent for the prosecution of racial profiling by ordinary citizens. It has always been assumed that racial profiling is something that happens under the authority of those who have broad permission to “carry and kill” — an authority which until recently rested squarely on police officers and the military. Now, in states with stand your ground and concealed carry laws, “authority” comes in the form of “immunity from prosecution.”

Broad self-defense laws, more guns, and immunity from prosecution for profiling are the proverbial Molotov cocktail that brought us the murder of Trayvon Martin and Zimmerman’s subsequent acquittal under the law.Now, for the timing.

When I think of the accomplishments of the Civil Rights era I imagine a proverbial three-legged stool: The first leg represents the protection of civil rights — think the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The second leg represents protection of voting rights — think the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The third leg represents economic empowerment — think anti-poverty legislation of the mid-late 1960s, such as the Food Stamp Act of 1964.

Now consider this:

· Three weeks ago, the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act of its enforcement power. Down went leg number two.

· Last week the House GOP voted to eliminate 100 percent of funding for food stamps from the Farm Bill. As a stand-alone bill, food stamps are now in serious danger of a draconian cut in funding. Leg number three is currently a stump of its former self.

· Finally, last weekend, George Zimmerman was found “not guilty” and black America realized a web of laws have been hacking away at our civil rights to live and expect equal protection under the law.

The old Jim Crow is back.

Not to be confused with Michelle Alexander's New Jim Crow, the old Jim Crow was a web of laws designed to affirm and reinforce the spiritual lie of colonial and antebellum antiquity; that some people were meant to be slaves and others were simply meant to be masters and only whites are fully human. In today’s terms, we might understand it this way: The lives, souls, and livelihoods of white Americans are worthy of protection more than others.

When I listened to the verdict in the Trayvon Martin case that is what I heard the state (through its application of law) telling me about my life, my soul, my livelihood—my father’s life, my father’s soul, my father’s livelihood—my brothers’ lives, my nephews’ souls, my grandfather’s livelihoods. We are not as worthy of protection as that of white folk.

I was in shock. I have never lived in that reality. I have watched Eyes on the Prize countless times with distant wonder at how black people living in a sepia-toned world could bear it. I woke up on Sunday morning, July 14, 2013 and realized: now, I am bearing it.

I wept and couldn’t stop weeping on and off throughout the day.

This is why Trayvon Martin’s death and Zimmerman’s acquittal are such a big deal.

The verdict may have been lawful, but it was absolutely unjust. There is human law and there is higher law. Man’s law may require an acquittal for a man who provokes a fight and kills an unarmed child because he presumably didn’t belong there, but God’s law says “Thou shall not murder.” (Exodus 20:13), and Jesus says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” (Mark 9:37a)

And like me, many of the nearly 66 million people of African descent and many others of non-European descent in the U.S. woke up from a dream on Sunday morning and realized we were living in a nightmare. We are living in a pre-1964 world. We are no longer protected by the law.

Sign Sojourners' petition today. Tell the governors across the U.S.: “Following Jesus' call to be peacemakers (Matthew 5:9), I urge you to repeal your state's 'stand your ground' law!"

And read our ongoing dialogue on race and the reconciliation at Remembering Trayvon: Race, Faith, and Truth.

Lisa Sharon Harper is Director of Mobilizing for Sojourners, author of Left, Right and Christ: Evangelicals Faith in Politics and a member of Emerging Voices.

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