Last year, when America first learned of the tragic death of Miami teenager Trayvon Martin, we consistently heard that this was a “teachable moment” for the nation.
The initial images we saw of Trayvon were of a baby-faced, all-American black teen who wore Hollister T-shirts and went on ski trips with his family. Certainly, he was one of the “good ones,” and so discussions of racial profiling and what it is like to be a young, black man in America were on nearly every TV network and in every print publication.
Then, before opening arguments in the Zimmerman trial even began, the trial of Trayvon Martin in the court of public opinion got under way. Conservative blogs and media eagerly picked up text messages and cellphone pictures released on the defense website. They performed a hatchet job on the image of the dead teen. Did you know that he experimented with marijuana? Did you know that he was suspended from school? Have you seen the menacing, shirtless photos of Trayvon on Facebook where he looks like a rapper?
By the time the actual trial began, it didn’t matter that the judge refused to admit the texts and pictures into evidence. Trayvon was no longer the “perfect victim.” He was a 5’11”, shirtless thug with gold teeth. He was the great American nightmare.
During his closing arguments in the trial, Zimmerman’s lead defense attorney, Mark O’Mara, presented that shirtless photo of “Mr. Martin” to the jury. Who knows if that image is what made the difference.
One of the great ironies is that Zimmerman was the one who came into the case with prior legal issues. ( In 2005 Zimmerman, then 20, was arrested and charged with “resisting officer with violence” and “battery of law enforcement officer.” The charges were reduced to “resisting officer without violence” then waived when he entered an alcohol education program. Also in 2005, Zimmerman and his ex-fiancé filed requests for restraining orders amid charges of domestic violence. The restraining orders resolved that case.) But Zimmerman’s prior legal issues were not admissible in the trial.
Connection to Oscar Grant
Just 24 hours before the jury delivered its verdict; I went to the theater to see the movie Fruitvale Station. The film chronicles the final hours of 22-year-old Oscar Grant, who in 2009 was shot and killed by a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) police officer after a fight broke out on the train.
Grant was a young, black man who had just finished celebrating New Years with friends and was simply trying to get home to his daughter when his life was cut short. Johannes Mehserle, the officer responsible for his death, was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter but would only serve 11 months in prison.
What made the film exceptional to me was its portrayal of Oscar Grant, before that fateful event, as a complex young black man, not unlike many of the black men that I’ve known throughout my life. His struggles to find his way in society and his search for the means to support his family resulted in brushes with the law, yet he was still a good man who loved his family and friends and especially his young daughter.
Oscar Grant and Trayvon Martin, on the night of their deaths, were looking to do the same thing: they were trying to go home to their loved ones. And yet in both cases, these two black male victims were put on trial, just as surely as the men who shot them. In some ways, more so. Their imperfections in life made them imperfect victims in death, and so the blame for their demise was put on them.
After the Zimmerman verdict I wondered what lessons – what actual “teachable moments” were to be had in the stories of Oscar Grant and Trayvon Martin. They represent countless young black men and boys, from Emmett Till to the many nameless victims in American cities whose lives have been cut short at the hands of overzealous men who see themselves as guardians of “law and order.” The judicial system has failed time and again to value these young black men and boys’ lives, by denying their families appropriate justice.
The verdict’s aftermath
I can only wonder how black boys around America will digest the Zimmerman acquittal.
Will they take from it that they can be doing all the right things; that they can simply be returning home to their loved ones and still be profiled, pursued and gunned down? Will they learn that even then, the law will abandon them and in death they will be turned into the savage aggressor, on the word of the shooter alone? What are we teaching them about the value of their lives?
I am a 36-year-old black man who fortunately has stayed clear of the law. But even that fact is no assurance that had it been me walking in a gated community in Sanford, Florida or through Fruitvale Station, that I would be here, alive, today.
There is nothing that I have accomplished in my life that would make certain that some kernel of “bad” in my life would not be exposed, in order to make me into an angry and dangerous black man upon my death. All the good and charitable things I have tried to do in my life would not have been enough to dissuade some from saying that I somehow got what was coming to me.
The George Zimmerman trial was indeed a teachable moment, for black men and boys all across America, from all walks of life. Unfortunately, the lesson we learned is, beware brothers. You may very well be the next Oscar Grant or the next Trayvon Martin.
David Wilson is the founder of theGrio.com. Follow him on Twitter at @dawuud77.