Today in “Post-Racial” America: Zimmerman Found Not Guilty Of Killing Trayvon Martin, What The Hell

This month, the Supreme Court’s near-simultaneous repeal of DOMA and gutting of the Voting Rights Act have shifted forward the ongoing conversation about how the justice system in America is selective about which forms of marginalization and discrimination it chooses to recognize. Tonight, in the conclusion of the trial for the murder of Travyon Martin, George Zimmerman was acquitted of both second-degree murder (which would have meant that Zimmerman killed Martin because of ill will or hatred, or put another way, racism) and manslaughter (which would have meant only that Zimmerman “put himself in a situation that culminated in Mr. Martin’s death”). It’s a resounding answer in that discussion: yes, the US justice system does pick and choose whom it will provide justice for. The citizens whose need for justice the justice system chooses to overlook are overwhelmingly those who are of color.

In some ways, and according to the defense, the facts of the case are unclear — there were only two witnesses to what happened, Zimmerman and Martin, and Trayvon Martin is dead. In many ways, however, the facts of the case are unequivocal. Zimmerman is a fully grown man, armed with a gun, who pursued Martin on foot assuming he was a thief even after the police had been called and the police had specifically advised him not to follow Martin. Trayvon Martin was 17, unarmed, had no criminal record, and was on his way back to the house where he was staying after having made a snack run and purchased a bag of Skittles. He didn’t even get manslaughter.

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If you’re surprised that this verdict could have been reached given those facts, then it would be worthwhile to read up on Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” laws. Laws which are intended to protect citizens who defend themselves against attack, Stand Your Ground laws “allow someone with a reasonable fear of great bodily harm or death to use lethal force, even if retreating from danger is an option. In court, the gunman is given the benefit of the doubt.

So yes, this is about gun culture in America, and the fact that our laws empower our citizens to shoot to kill even if retreating from danger is an option. But it’s also about more than that. It’s also about how gun culture in America empowers white people to hurt black and brown people, and how the deaths of black and brown people are conceptualized as less important than the deaths of white people. You have only to look at the story of Marissa Alexander, another Florida resident, who also tried to utilize Stand Your Ground in her defense. Alexander fired three warning shots after an altercation with her husband, who has a history of domestic violence. No one was hurt. Alexander was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Zimmerman wasn’t even arrested for the first six weeks after Martin’s death, and then only because of public outcry. The difference is that Alexander is a black woman. Research has found that:

In non-Stand Your Ground states, whites are 250 percent more likely to be found justified in killing a black person than a white person who kills another white person; in Stand Your Ground states, that number jumps to 354 percent.

You have only to look at the deaths of Oscar Grant, Sean Bell, Timothy Stansbury, of Kimani Gray, who was 16 years old and whom witnesses say was unarmed and who was shot seven times by police, and of countless more to see that violence against black and brown people is epidemic, and that the consequences are minor. Much of the time it does not bring any consequence at all. In contrast, when people of color defend themselves, it’s considered a deadly serious crime. Certainly it was in Alexander’s case, and during the entire duration of the George Zimmerman saga, CeCe McDonald has been in prison for defending herself against attackers yelling slurs. Self-defense is criminal when practiced by people of color. It was already clear that violence, when committed against people of color, was a low priority to the justice system; Zimmerman’s acquittal suggests that it is no longer even illegal. Of course it’s also worth mentioning that Zimmerman is also not white — his father is, but his mother is Hispanic from Peru. But, as written by Aura Bogado in The Nation:

Watching Zimmerman in the defense seat, his sister in the courtroom, and his mother on the stand, one can’t deny the skin color that informs their experience. They are not white. Yet Zimmerman’s apparent ideology—one that is suspicious of black men in his neighborhood, the “assholes who always get away—” is one that adheres to white supremacy. It was replicated in the courtroom by his defense, whose team tore away at Rachel Jeantel, questioning the young woman as if she was taking a Jim Crow–era literacy test.  A defense that, during closing, cited slave-owning rapist Thomas Jefferson, played an animation for the jury based on erroneous assumptions, made racially coded accusations about Trayvon Martin emerging “out of the darkness,” and had the audacity to compare the case of the killing of an unarmed black teenager to siblings arguing over which one stole a cookie.

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If you’re surprised that this verdict could have been reached, and you’re a white person, consider how many people of color are unsurprised by this verdict. Consider what that means — that not only can an unarmed child be killed by an adult, not only can that adult man suffer absolutely no consequence, but it’s not even out of the ordinary according to many people’s lived experiences. Consider that Zimmerman’s jury of six women comprised of five white women and zero black women, because the defense successfully argued that the black jurors who were in consideration would be unable to remain impartial. Consider that the vast majority of the conversation around Martin’s death and Zimmerman’s trial has been dominated by white media, this writer included. Consider what it means to be able to be shocked by violence against a child, and be shocked when it is met with apathy.

The NAACP is attempting to open a federal civil rights case against Zimmerman. This would mean that the case would be taken on by federal investigators, and instead of second-degree murder or manslaughter, the charges would involve violating Martin’s civil rights. The NAACP’s petition, which anyone can sign, speaks directly to Attorney General Eric Holder. Obama has in fact weighed in on Martin’s case, saying that “If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon,” but the White House has distanced itself from those comments somewhat this week. It’s impossible to say whether Zimmerman’s acquittal will provide a catalyst for change somehow, either by forcing the federal government to become involved and bring questions of civil rights to the forefront, or by creating a sea change in our larger culture regarding what kind of violence we will condemn and what we will condone, and from who. Nothing that anyone does will bring back Trayvon Martin, but there is an opportunity for our nation, especially the white people of our nation, to begin policing ourselves and each other — not with vigilantism, but by holding ourselves and each other accountable for our actions and their consequences. Someone has to, because it seems clearer now more than ever that the justice department won’t.

via-gawker

via gawker

Update, Sunday July 14th: The Justice Department is “looking into” the case. Via The Huffington Post:

In a statement Sunday, the Justice Department said the criminal section of the civil rights division, the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s office for the Middle District of Florida are continuing to evaluate the evidence generated during the federal probe, in addition to the evidence and testimony from the state trial.

The statement said that, in the government’s words, “experienced federal prosecutors will determine whether the evidence reveals a prosecutable violation.”

 

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Rachel is Autostraddle's Managing Editor and the editor who presides over books and news & politics coverage. Originally from Boston, MA, Rachel now lives in the Midwest. Topics dear to her heart include bisexuality, The X-Files and tacos. Her favorite Ciara video is probably "Ride," but if you're only going to watch one, she recommends "Like A Boy."

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49 Comments

  1. Thumb up 12

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    my girlfriend always tells me about how she can’t wait to raise a child with me. she’s white. on the other hand, i’m indian, and i’m terrified of having children because of things like this. because my child will be brown and will consequently inherit the problems that are attached. because my child could get hurt or worse, and it won’t mean a damn thing if they look like me. because none of this is surprising at all, at all, at all.

    rest in peace, trayvon, and the most condolences to his family, friends, and loved ones. this is utterly heartbreaking.

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      my partner is black and I’m white, and I’m terrified that someday I will be in the hospital or the courtroom or police station because someone decided our child was a threat. every time I look at Trayvon’s face or read about another black boy getting shot in my city, I think “that could be my son”. would that Zimmerman had had that thought, before he made him a target, an object for his fear to destroy.

      heartbreaking is right.

  2. Thumb up 6

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    I’m still in shock over this announcement, more because of the overwhelming sense of loss in humanity rather than “Omigod, I never thought this kind of racism could happen!” Bitter, bitter lessons about racism have already been learned.

    Signing that petition.

  3. Thumb up 45

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    After these past two days, I can only quote my roommate and friend:

    “The message is clear: the life of a fetus is worth more than the lives of women and black people everywhere. We get it. You could not make this point any clearer.”

  4. Thumb up 9

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    “If you’re surprised that this verdict could have been reached, and you’re a white person, consider how many people of color are unsurprised by this verdict.”

    This is entirely true. I am sick to my stomach but know it should be unsurprising to me, and the fact that I am even slightly shocked by our blatantly racist justice system speaks to the fact that I have to some extent been allowing myself to live in white privilege la-la-land. But I couldn’t help but hope that just this one time, justice would prevail in such an obvious case…apparently not.

    This, in juxtaposition with the Marissa Alexander case, makes it overwhelmingly clear that black and brown people, even children and teenagers, cannot hope for justice in this day and age. And that has to fucking change, but too many (white) people are going to be angry for a month and then forget about it.

  5. Thumb up 1

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    Ugh, this verdict saddens me so much, and what I was worried would happen when following the trial. (…I just realised that we have a ‘we lost a thing’ tag, which seems darkly ironic since it was only 2 weeks ago I discovered the ‘we won a thing’ tag in the DOMA article.)

  6. Thumb up 6

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    “If you’re surprised that this verdict could have been reached, and you’re a white person, consider how many people of color are unsurprised by this verdict.”

    True shit. My grandmother has been watching CNN non-stop since the beginning of this trial and I tried to gently explain to her yesterday that she shouldn’t get her hopes up that Zimmerman would serve any jail time. I fucking knew it. She was completely shocked when they announced the verdict and I was just sitting their like “Yep, called it.” Isn’t that sad?

    Post-Racial America my ass. I have seen so much blatant racism the past few weeks all over social media. Starting with the Paula Deen stuff and continuing with the Zimmerman trial. Of course these people have also not missed an opportunity to praise Zimmerman’s acquittal while making this all Obama’s fault in the same breath.

    And then just when I thought this night couldn’t get any worse, Cory Monteith dies. Well, Fuck me.

  7. Thumb up 3

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    I wanted to be optimistic, I wanted to believe that the jury was going to give that kid justice. A little bit of “white privilege la-la land” and Harry Potter-induced optimism combined to totally convince myself that there was no way that guy would be acquitted off ALL charges. I am so, so angry.

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      What is also shocking to me is that they were able to succesfully argue that Martin was armed – with concrete. And that the white women jury bought that bogus argument when there was no clear evidence as to who was on top during the confrontation.

      • Thumb up 13

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        Or how about the fact that, even if we entertain the defense’s theory that trayvon was “on top” during the confrontation, the stand your ground statute, as I understand it, could and should protect Trayvon. It comes down to who you believe was the true aggressor in that situation. And the predominantly white members of that jury, and many other Americans, have decided that the unarmed black boy was more dangerous than the grown man following him with a gun. Disgusting.

  8. Thumb up 30

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    I have never been so sick about the results of a trial in my life.

    When I found out the news, I was with my friend/girl who is not my girlfriend but kind of, and she was like, “Oh well.” And I just lost it and started sobbing, because in that moment she represented to me so many white people, and I am absolutely sick of white people taking the attitude that this shit just isn’t a big deal.

    And when I called her out on it, she said that gays face discrimination too. As if that’s a fucking reason to not care that people of color are systematically disenfranchised by a system in which odds are overwhelmingly stacked against them.

    And when I said discrimination against gays and racism is not the fucking same thing, she said that I didn’t get to tell her that, because she is butch and she deals with discrimination every day because she is visibly gay and that I pass as straight and no one knows I’m gay, so I don’t know what discrimination is like.

    And then I wanted to scream at her and say things like “Why the hell am I still fucking you, much less even speaking to you?”

    She called me later and apologized, because she said that she read up on the trial and didn’t realize all of the things that I thought everyone knew…mainly that the 911 operator instructed Zimmerman not to follow Martin. She apologized and said that now she was pissed off too because it was unfair.

    And I was glad that she realized how fucked up it was, but I was surprised that she didn’t fucking already know this shit. That she lives in a land of white privilege in which she can just ignore this news because it doesn’t pertain to her or her life or her experience. And that is the kind of white person I don’t want to be. I am tired of that kind of white person. It’s not okay.

    So if you are a white person, and you think this trial is not representative of the racism in our country, if you are not outraged, BE A BETTER WHITE PERSON.

    Wait. Fuck. Just BE A BETTER HUMAN.

    • Thumb up 14

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      I’m so sorry you had to deal with that. You deserve better. As a butch, I find it particularly upsetting that she pulled the “I’m visibly queer and you’re not” card. Femmes experience discrimination too. Butches don’t have a monopoly on experiencing homophobia/transphobia, and her erasure of your particular queer experience was femmephobia.

      And I’m sorry that so many white people are assholes. I obviously don’t speak for all white folks, but I honestly don’t know what else to say. I’m tired of that kind of white person too. If you would like an Internet hug, I’m providing them free of charge today.

  9. Thumb up 18

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    I am just so sick of being constantly reminded that a black human’s life is worth less than a white person’s.

    I am sad and so angry and confused. I don’t know what I’m going to do when I have to leave my house and go back into the world with all this shit in my heart knowing that the people around me are going to tell me I’m making too big of a deal of this. That I shouldn’t be upset because I’m “only half black anyway”.

    And at the end of the day, no matter how bad I feel about it, this boy, and so many others like him, are dead.

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      “And at the end of the day, no matter how bad I feel about it, this boy, and so many others like him, are dead.”

      i feel this so hard. there is absolutely nothing any of us can do to bring trayvon back to his family and friends and this world, and i am just so sad about it but no amount of feeling bad will change things and even as we work to change the system i am still so sad for all the moms and sisters and brothers and friends who have lost an important human in their lives. i was watching the news this morning and cnn was reporting how relieved zimmerman’s mother was once she realized he was free. and i was just so fucking angry, like, who the fuck cares how zimmerman’s mother fucking feels, you know who will never have their son back? trayvon’s mother. i want everyone to think about how she feels.

  10. Thumb up 13

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    I don’t understand this verdict at all. I remember clearly, from my concealed-carry permit class (and I, too, live in a Stand Your Ground state), that deadly force is justified only when you fear grievous bodily harm/death – and then it is only justified so long as the danger is clear and present – specific examples when deadly force would not be justified included the other person turning their back/running away. It was also drilled into us that you are not allowed to pursue. So I really think Zimmerman being acquitted has everything to do with racism and all I can hope is that the Federal civil rights case is successful.

  11. Thumb up 19

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    I wanted to be able to say that I was surprised. I, having watched none of the trial, only heard bits and pieces from people casually talking to me in line at the grocery store or the post office about the proceedings. I wanted to be surprised because I knew that the outcome of this situation like many other racially intense national events would again dictate my quality of life for at least the next week and I wanted to feel some hope in a place where hope goes to die. I wasn’t surprised or even shocked really. Now my newsfeed is littered with white guilt band aids about how justice prevailed and it is people like me who are making it racial at all. It is heartbreaking enough that a young black child had to die because in this country being black is that much of a perceived danger. It is literally sickening that even after this tragedy my white peers want me to just let it go and trust the law. I know it is uncomfortable to talk about racism in the American South (in America in general), but their collective discomfort will never equal the pain felt by the Martin family and African Americans everywhere who find all too often that death is the price to pay for simply walking down the street.

  12. Thumb up 15

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    I don’t think the verdict is the real issue here. It was almost a forgone conclusion, really, and I bet, like you said, if you ask any person of color they’d tell you they aren’t in the least bit surprised by the outcome.

    Based on the facts of the case and the tack taken by the prosecution, it couldn’t be proved beyond a reasonable doubt what exactly it was that happened. So the jury said “not guilty.” And that is how it’s supposed to work.

    The problem – as I see it – is with the overall system and the climate of fear in this country that leads so many people to be inherently suspicious of young black men, to pass laws that embolden and give the benefit of the doubt to people with guns, and to write/enforce those laws in a way that strongly favors white and affluent people over everyone else. It’s a distraction (albeit an understandable one) to get angry at the verdict when the system itself is so bent.

  13. Thumb up 4

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    Not sure if this is the right thing to say, but I’m offering free Internet hugs to anybody who needs it after this verdict. I was angry when I heard about this, and now I’m just really sad and the thought of a big queer cuddle puddle is very appealing.

  14. Thumb up 1

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    I have been loosely following the case online since I first heard of Trayvon’s murder. This morning as I ate breakfast, I read articles about the verdict with an overwhelming sense of disbelief and rage. Now some hours later I feel quite crestfallen.

  15. Thumb up 12

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    It took six weeks and massive protests before the police even tried to arrest Zimmerman and they didn’t bother to canvas the area for witnesses when it happened or even in the days that followed………so no I wasn’t surprised with this outcome. When I first read the verdict I just felt numb and then my heart broke for his mom and loved ones.

    A lot of people were on my Facebook saying that god will handle this and my aunt was like “aren’t we PROUD of the manner in which Trayvon’s parents fought for him? I was impressed with that” and that just makes me want throttle something because I’m so tired of us having to grasp at straws to try to feel better every time we’re reminded that we’re second class citizens. And it’s not just Alexander and Travyon. There is no fair judicial system for POC in this country. We are relentlessly profiled, we are handed harsher sentences for the SAME crime as white people, we are not equal.

    Most white people either already aren’t upset about this or will forget about this soon enough. Most black people didn’t expect justice to prevail anyway and especially won’t dare to hope for better next time.

    I don’t have answers for any of it. I just know that thinking that we live in a “post racial America” is dangerous. We can’t forward half an inch if we’re just sitting here with our heads in the sand.

  16. Thumb up 5

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    Truly sad. There’s no justice in this world.

    If their races were reversed, there is NO doubt in my mind the verdict would have been different. The fact is, George Zimmerman was not found guilty because too many people ARE George Zimmerman. Because they AGREE with him, that a black teen walking at night deserves to be confronted, and has no right to defend himself, has no right to LIVE. The sad fact is that too many people feel SAFER with the armed, hateful, George Zimmermans of the world than they do with the Trayvon Martins.

  17. Thumb up 10

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    This isn’t going away folks. Be angry, very angry. Let that angry energy impel you to action. USE your white privilege for good – get up, stand up, shout out, do not go gently, make a big noise. Racism is deeply embedded in our country, in its very roots and branches. Much as I want Zimmerman to turn into a cockroach so I could step on it, I want to change our country more, so any black teenager, any black man or woman, can have the same rights as whites. I’m not seeing any self-evident truth today, except that all white men are created equal.

  18. Thumb up 11

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    The amount of racist bullshit is truly sickening. People keep telling me oh they had to work within the system and the jurors had to do it blah blah and I am like THE SYSTEM ITSELF IS INHERENTLY RACIST. OUR SOCIETY IS INHERENTLY RACIST. WE LIVE IN A SLAVERY/GENOCIDE SOCIETY. THE DECK WAS STACKED FROM THE JUMP.

  19. Thumb up 3

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    I wish I was surprised by this verdict, but I’m really not. Disgusted, sad, and angry, but not surprised. The “justice” system in this country is where the starkest, most obvious evidence is that this country does not value the lives of people of color. All the dog whistle phrases, excuses and double-speak that people usually use to cloak their racism gets stripped away and you’re just left with a situation like this, and the message couldn’t be clearer.

    I’m so fucking angry.

  20. Thumb up 2

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    I had a feeling that Zimmerman would be free when I heard the media analyze the jury selection but I hoped that it was all in my cynical, negative mind and that *maybe* there would be justice for this boy who should be alive to become a man and his poor family and friends that have to endure the deaths and the horrific events that followed (the media, the trial, now opening a civil suit, and the actual living without a son and friend).

    You can run over someone accidentally and be charged with manslaughter and jail time, I need to call bullshit that this is a fair representation of the justice system. This trial has been nothing from fair since day one, the media representation has been nothing but fair since the begging. Something more should have happened, it shocks me that there are people who could believe a teenager (or anyone in Trayvon Martin’s shoes) would be (to borrow a phrase many people here are familiar with) “asking for this” and would be actively going out to threaten folks.

    I know this isn’t new and if the roles were reversed (Trayvon was white and Zimmerman was black) it wouldn’t have even made the news, if it did it would only be about the dangers of black people everywhere and the other media hype that follows stories like that. What upsets me the most is that this happens all the time everywhere and the justice is never equal, cases like this only highlight the problems our society has today.

    For some reason this story reminds me a lot about what happened to Emmett Till (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emmett_Till). its not exactly the same but the feelings I had when learning what happened to him and whats going on now fill me with such emotions that is seems society hasn’t changed much since the 1950s, it makes me feel ashamed to be apart of a culture that allows this to happen again and again.

  21. Thumb up 7

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    Actual conversation:

    Mom: So what are your plans?
    Me: Assuaging white guilt. It’s going to be a busy day, busy, busy, busy.

    I’m not surprised honestly, I have these conversations with my younger brother about America’s racial cynicism about black men and I just tell him to continue to love himself.

  22. Thumb up 2

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    I admittedly fall into the category of “white person who was surprised but should not have been.” I’ve never been to the South, so I’ve never personally witnessed the racist cultures that still exist there — it’s one of those things that I hear stories about, but never give much thought to. And, I’m a white female, so I can never comprehend having to deal with racial profiling day in and day out the way black men do.
    What I do have, however, is a state-issued concealed weapons permit. In most states, including Florida, you have to take a class to get a CCW to prove you can safely operate a firearm and familiarize you with the laws about when to use a concealed weapon. And having taken that class myself, I can (fairly) confidently say that Zimmerman was beyond over the line.
    If other gun owners and CCW holders would admit this instead of banding together in an irrational fear that “the liberals are going to use this verdict to take away our guns/SYG laws omg!!” it would go a long way towards addressing the actual problems here.

  23. Thumb up 4

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    As someone who is firm believer of the progressive ideology and the overly optimistic belief in the idea of American freedom and equality, i’m kinda surprised in the verdict.

    But as an Black person who’s lived in the South for majority of her life i’m not at all surprised at.

    There is this idea in South that we “live and let live.” but really it’s “live and let live”… as long as you obey the rules and ideas of hetero-normative white male supremacy.

    Many people in the South have this idea that having that one black or gay or Hispanic or any minority friend gives them a free pass to make derogatory terms and not be racist.

    this case is just one of many cases of racial profile. whether it’s me getting pulled over while driving through a upper class neighborhood because i was driving a nice car or friends being accused of being illegal because he’s mexican or young black men being arrested for being black in the wrong place at the wrong time.

  24. Thumb up 3

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    Totally shocked by the victim blaming. If a white person (heck, even a woman of color in certain circumstances, though I doubt a man) were followed this way and fought off someone who appeared to be a creepy stalker, any coverage would laud him/her for bravery and crucify the vigilante assailant. Personally, I’d attempt to fight off an apparently threatening unidentified character like Zimmerman, and expect most people would do so. By Zimmerman’s own account, Martin seemed to be acting in self-defense too – but not with deadly force.

    A friend posted on Facebook something like: “So Trayvon Martin committed simple assault and was executed for it?” Painfully on point.

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