Saturday, July 20, 2013

Guest column: What you'll do if you care for Trayvon Martin

Published Saturday, July 20, 2013 in Lafayette Journal & Courier

By Clyde Hughes

I will be right up front. I was profoundly disappointed when a Florida jury found George Zimmerman not guilty of second degree murder and manslaughter in the death of Trayvon Martin last week.

It would be all too easy to endlessly relitigate the case. I found the result stunning, but hardly unexpected.

The challenge for everyone, regardless how you feel about the verdict, is: Where do we go from here?

The truth of the matter is that Zimmerman’s fate was decided in the Florida legislature long before he fired that shot into Martin’s chest, because “stand your ground” laws protected him. Doesn’t anyone find it strange that even though the defense did not claim the law, it still was mentioned in deliberations, according to one juror?

In fact, Zimmerman’s fate was decided during jury selection, with a group that could not connect with a witness such as Rachel Jeantel, Martin’s friend, even though her testimony was critical — vital, actually — in the prosecution’s case.

People are angry over the verdict. I saw a graphic on CNN Tuesday that listed 100 Trayvon Martin rallies scheduled that day alone. “Stand your ground” laws are flawed pieces of legislation that give a person with a weapon the ultimate power against anyone they deem as threatening to them. The law, though, misses the most basic question — when is a person reasonably in fear of their life?

Feeling in fear of your life is such a subjective phrase that it seems incredible that it ended up in serious legislation from which the guilt or innocence of a person can be determined. But six jurors in the George Zimmerman trial were left with that ambiguous determination.

In the end, with the absence of a way to define reasonable fear of life, the six jurors gave Zimmerman the benefit of the doubt and allowed him to walk free. This happened even with no evidence introduced beyond Zimmerman’s own words that Martin started the fight. Nothing.

But if all of these rallies, protests and boycotts do nothing to dismantle, or at the very least dramatically improve, such laws, all these calls for justice for Martin will end up falling empty, flat and hollow.

Don’t get me wrong. There is plenty to be angry about. Even Zimmerman’s attorney Mark O’Mara concedes that the justice system is skewered against most African-American males and deserves a serious national conversation. Why can’t this be that time?

Why can’t these 100 rallies focus on fundamentally cleaning up “stand your ground” laws by not allowing people who pursue a suspect and then use self-defense as a claim? Why not change jury selections that would allow change of venues on either social or class grounds to ensure an actual and true jury of peers?

Radical, you may think. I find it radical that a teenager coming home with candy and a drink can be profiled, confronted and killed before he reached his front door, and the person who pulled the trigger walks away without even a parking ticket.

But if all the energy and angst over the Zimmerman verdict does not turn into conversation and action, the next Trayvon Martin shooting will happen sooner than you think, and everyone will be back in the same position.

It is important to engage law enforcement, engage public officials and engage community leaders today and without delay. If you think “stand your ground” laws have nothing to do with politics, you are foolishly wrong.

If you really care about Trayvon Martin, you will not miss the next time you have a chance to cast a vote. You will not miss the next time to become involved when such laws are up for consideration in localities and state legislatures.

The bottom line is if you really care about the verdict in this case, your actions will not end with a rally, but begin with taking action to bring about change.

Hughes is a member of the Greater Lafayette Commerce’s Diversity Roundtable.

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