John Romano: Zimmerman verdict does not mask greater truths

Melinda O’Neal, left, breaks into tears and hugs Shedrick Burfect in front of the Seminole County Criminal Justice Center on Saturday after learning the verdict.

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Melinda O’Neal, left, breaks into tears and hugs Shedrick Burfect in front of the Seminole County Criminal Justice Center on Saturday after learning the verdict.

SANFORD

The women were crying and the college students were chanting.

Only a few minutes had passed since the not guilty verdict had made its way down to the front lawn of the Seminole County Criminal Justice Center. The crowd was buzzing.

Many had been here since early Saturday, on a day that seemed to alternate between harmonious, tense, absurd and back again.

Now, in the glare of the television lights and the realization of the verdict, curses and wails filled the night.

Standing in the middle of all this was a 38-year-old Tampa man with his arms crossed and his expression blank.

"I'm not mad. I'm not upset. I've been expecting this for months and months,'' said Life Malcolm. "There's a long history, a long pattern, of white people killing black men and then coming to some court of law and being found not guilty.

"It's always our fault. We shouldn't have reached for our wallet. We shouldn't have gotten out of the car. We shouldn't have been where we didn't belong.

"Maybe this was justice. They had a trial, and a jury made a decision. (Defense attorney) Mark O'Mara even said this should help us believe in the system. But why doesn't the system ever work for the black man? It may work for you, but it's killing us.''

Like it or not, this was justice. And the system was fair.

A jury listened to two weeks' worth of testimony and determined there was not enough hard evidence to conclude George Zimmerman wasn't acting in self-defense.

But that doesn't mean anyone with Malcolm's point of view is wrong.

For even if you believe the verdict itself had nothing to do with race, this whole tragic episode began because Trayvon Martin had the misfortune of being a black teenager in the wrong neighborhood on the wrong night.

That reality seems inescapable. Zimmerman called 911 and eventually crossed paths with Martin not because the teenager had done anything wrong, but because he vaguely matched the profile of suspects in recent neighborhood burglaries.

It was the same profile — a young black man — that had led Zimmerman to call 911 multiple other times.

And if the truth about the actual confrontation remains in doubt, the moments leading up to it are all too clear. It was Zimmerman who incorrectly decided Martin was suspicious. It was Zimmerman who did not listen to a police dispatcher. It was Zimmerman who got out of his vehicle. And it was Zimmerman carrying a weapon.

"This was racism from the beginning, and it continued through the trial,'' said Walt Byars, 27, of Tampa. "They tried to make Trayvon look like a thug. They tried to make it sound like he was the one who was out looking for trouble. He was a teenager out for a walk, and now he's dead and a murderer is free.''

Few of us, it seems, have come to this case with an open mind. We believed in Zimmerman's guilt or innocence, and we tended to hear only the evidence that supported our intractable positions.

For that reason, we need to have faith in the six women on the jury. We need to believe they viewed the facts dispassionately and considered the judge's instructions carefully.

That doesn't mean you have to agree with them. And that doesn't mean we don't still have miles to go with race relations in this country.

For if we learned anything from this trial and the debates it spawned, it is that many of us still have a difficult time seeing the world through the eyes of our neighbors.

This whole thing began with a teenager lying dead on a rainy night, and an armed man insisting that a fatal shot was his only choice.

It finally ended late Saturday, nearly 17 months later, with a crowd outside the courthouse protesting a jury's decision.

But it's the lessons learned in between that, hopefully, we won't forget.

John Romano: Zimmerman verdict does not mask greater truths 07/14/13 [Last modified: Sunday, July 14, 2013 1:39am]

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