It appears as though everywhere you click on the Internet there is talk of whether riots would erupt if George Zimmerman is acquitted for murder or manslaughter in the death of Trayvon Martin.
Though difficult and heartfelt verdicts rendered in the past have created some type of violent reactions, circumstances and the times might be totally different when it comes to how the disgruntled but vocal public might react to this verdict.
George Zimmerman is on trial for second degree murder in the shooting of Trayvon Martin. Zimmerman has pleaded not-guilty by reason of self-defense.
Sanford, Florida, where the killing took place, is being painted as a place with roving bands of young black people who lack impulse control. This is an image Sanford is working to avoid.
Stop the violence before it starts
Civil rights leaders, community organizations and church leaders in Sanford, Florida have worked overtime to calm passions and sell the message that violence is the worst possible answer to an acquittal. Their actions are commendable. But it’s still based on the underlying and erroneous presumption that one verdict, in one trial, even one high profile, racially charged trial such as Zimmerman’s would motivate blacks to take to the streets in a violent outburst.
There have been countless trials of police officers and racist vigilantes in the South and other areas, and of white assailants that have beaten, maimed, and gunned down blacks through the years. The defendants in many of these cases have been tried by all white or majority white juries and they have been either fully acquitted, or convicted of minor charges. This has not ignited mass violence, or for that matter, any violence.
The standard for making these outrageous predictions of violence is the riots that tore urban communities during the late 1960s, the Miami riots in 1980 following the acquittal by an all-white jury of the police officers who beat to death black motorcyclist Arthur McDuffie, and the Los Angeles riots in 1992 following the acquittal by a jury with no blacks of the four white cops who beat black motorist Rodney King.
The inevitable commissions were formed after both riots found that the acquittals of the cops in both trials was only the catalyst for the explosions. The real cause went much deeper. The list of causes included the usual suspects in poor black communities: astronomical levels of unemployment, deteriorating public schools, substandard housing, the neglect and flat out indifference of public officials to the conditions, and most importantly a long train of unchecked police violence and abuses in which police forces operated in these areas as occupying armies. The causes stretched back years and civil rights leaders repeatedly warned that these communities were powder kegs waiting for one spark to ignite the blow-up.
Why history won’t necessarily repeat itself
The blue ribbon Kerner Commission appointed by President Lyndon Johnson following the 1967 riots hammered away at these points as the prime causes of the riots, and not simply one isolated act of police misconduct, or the failure to discipline police officers that brutalized blacks. The commission’s findings were predictably rejected by many authorities who preferred to finger-point supposedly lawless, crime- and violence-prone blacks as the sole culprits.
The incessant talk and even hope for violence by some in the media if Zimmerman is acquitted also ignores another major difference between events of the past and now.
While poverty, joblessness, poor education and high incarceration rates still plague many black communities, major strides have been made in economic and political empowerment for blacks. The election and re-election of President Obama is the most obvious sign of movement forward. But even closer to the ground is the fact that Zimmerman was even tried. It did not take a riot as it did in Los Angeles in 1992 for the federal government to retry the cops that beat King.
The determination and political savvy of Martin’s family, attorneys, and civil rights leaders were the driving force to get initially reluctant state officials and prosecutors to even consider bringing charges against Zimmerman.
This was a triumph unto itself and showed that African-Americans have the clout to affect public policy and in this case get redress for a perceived racial wrong through the courts. Then there’s the media. Martin’s parents and attorneys, and civil rights leaders have been ubiquitous faces on the networks demanding accountability for the teen’s death. Though a legion of Zimmerman backers have relentlessly pushed their claims of the defendant’s innocence and the late teen’s alleged transgressions, their claims have been countered repeatedly by Martin family backers on the airwaves, blogs, and websites.
Finally, none of the media riot mongers have uttered a peep about the possibility of a riot by Zimmerman’s very vocal supporters if he is convicted. The thought is seemingly too ludicrous to entertain, and the same can and should be said about blacks supposedly ready to riot after a possible acquittal.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new ebook is America on Trial: The Slaying of Trayvon Martin (Amazon). He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on American Urban Radio Network. He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KTYM 1460 AM Radio Los Angeles and KPFK-Radio and the Pacifica Network. Follow Earl Ofari Hutchinson on Twitter: http://twitter.com/earlhutchinson