No federal charges will be forthcoming against George Zimmerman, who shot and killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in 2012. The killing generated nationwide demonstrations. Zimmerman’s state court murder trial was nationally televised by every cable news network. I covered it in depth for NBC and MSNBC, and when the trial was over, I was so disturbed by what I’d seen that I did my own investigation, which resulted in my book SUSPICION NATION: The Inside Story of the Trayvon Martin Injustice and Why We Continue to Repeat It. In the book, I detail the many stunning mistakes made by the prosecution, who seemed to have “forgotten” how to prosecute Martin’s killer. I also said that the possibility of the feds prosecuting Zimmerman was “remote.”
The Justice Department said this week that it had independently reviewed the evidence and conducted witness interviews, but that there was insufficient evidence that Zimmerman “willfully” shot Martin on account of his race, the high legal bar set for federal hate crimes.
The law’s inability to reach implicit biases
Attorney General Eric Holder said in a statement this week:
Though a comprehensive investigation found that the high standard for a federal hate crime prosecution cannot be met under the circumstances here, this young man’s premature death necessitates that we continue the dialogue and be unafraid of confronting the issues and tensions his passing brought to the surface. We, as a nation, must take concrete steps to ensure that such incidents do not occur in the future.
Explicit racial bias is indeed difficult to prove, as I know from the many civil rights and discrimination cases my law firm handles. But as I outline in my book, implicit racial biases were at the root of this case, where Zimmerman looked out the window of his car and instantly concluded that Martin, as stranger to him, was “suspicious.”
The defense often compared Martin to unrelated African American burglars who’d been in the neighborhood months earlier – without objection from the prosecution. The only similarity? Skin color. And of the half dozen police calls Zimmerman made in the months prior to his shooting of Martin, 100 percent were about black males.
In the last year, we’ve seen many more agonizing, frustrating cases of implicit racial bias unfold, in Ferguson, New York, Ohio and elsewhere. The shooters in those cases — like Zimmerman, like most of us — would hotly deny a charge of racism. Yet clever, cheat-proof psychological tests developed by Harvard University researchers reveal that the vast majority of white Americans harbor moderate or severe racial biases against black Americans, as do 50 percent of blacks – that is, black Americans have unconscious biases against members of their own race. Test yourself here.
When we are more likely to view a black face as hostile, or when we are more prone to call behavior by a black American suspicious, or when we call black behavior aggressive but not similar white conduct, we’re acting based on our implicit racial biases. For the most part, these biases cannot be touched by civil rights laws. But they can be unlearned through education, diversity training and public awareness. It’s far easier to demonize George Zimmerman (who I believe should be demonized) than to confront our own biases against our friends and neighbors of color. But that latter work is essential to us moving forward as a nation committed to equality.
Zimmerman allowed to keep cache of weapons, despite continuing allegedly violent behavior
Since his acquittal, most of Zimmerman’s supporters have abandoned him after a series of allegedly hotheaded and dangerous behaviors on his part. In 2013, Zimmerman was accused of domestic violence by his estranged wife, and then again by a girlfriend. A previous girlfriend had also accused Zimmerman of domestic violence in 2005, filing for a restraining order against him. In 2014, Zimmerman was named by police in a road rage incident in which he allegedly said to another driver, “Do you know who I am? I’ll fucking kill you.” In 2015, Zimmerman was arrested and accused of assault for allegedly throwing a wine bottle at his ex-girlfriend.
In all of these cases, the complainants dropped charges. Notwithstanding the anger management thread in all these incidents (add in a 2005 arrest for shoving a police officer), Zimmerman has escaped legal accountability every time. He is legally permitted to own a deadly cache of firearms, and does. Last time his arsenal was made public, it included:
One Keltec 12-gauge shotgun
One Walther .380 handgun with seven rounds of live ammunition in the magazine
One Taurus 9 mm handgun with live rounds in the magazine
One Glock 19 handgun with 16 live rounds
One AR-15 semi-automatic rifle
Dozens of rounds of ammunition
Several gun holsters and bags
He periodically has to surrender his weapons when he’s arrested. When charges are dropped, he gets them back. America is one of the few developed countries in the world where Zimmerman – or any citizen – would be permitted to own so many guns.
‘Please use my broken heart to say, we can never let this happen to anyone else’s child’
In contrast, Martin’s parents have worked tirelessly since his death to reform our lax gun laws, to reverse Stand Your Ground statutes, and to raise awareness about racial profiling. They have reached out to console the families of other shooting victims time and again. Sybrina Fulton, Martin’s mother, inspired me to write my book and to continue to speak out against the pervasive injustice around killings of unarmed African Americans with her challenge:
Please use my story, please use my tragedy, please use my broken heart to say, we can never let this happen to anyone else’s child.