On February 26, 2012 in Sanford, Florida, in the still hours of the early morning, George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch coordinator, called the police to report that there was a suspicious person roaming his neighborhood. Due to a number of recent break-ins in the area, Zimmerman followed and confronted the suspicious person. A brawl ensued, and the suspicious person – Trayvon Martin, 17 – was shot and killed. Police arrived within minutes of the shooting and took Zimmerman into custody, where he was questioned and simultaneously treated for head injuries that were sustained during the altercation with Martin. Within a few hours, Zimmerman was released for lack of incriminating evidence, the police believing that the shooting of Martin occurred in self-defense. Six weeks later, however, once the media caught wind of it, the case erupted, and Zimmerman was bombarded with charges of racism.
Following the explosive media attention, protestors called for Zimmerman’s arrest on charges of second-degree murder and manslaughter. Many high profile citizens – quite unprofessionally – took sides in the case, further unsettling what should have been an objective judicial exercise. Even President Obama eulogized Martin, stating, “If I had a son he would look like Trayvon,” and, more recently, “Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago.” The media also played a role in inciting heated emotion, distorting facts to create sympathy for Martin’s family and transforming a tragic incident into an terrible hate crime worthy of national attention. These misrepresentations include showing outdated pictures of both Zimmerman and Martin: ones of Martin a baby-faced boy instead of a seventeen-year-old almost-man, and ones of Zimmerman as a larger, more intimidating 21-year-old. Some news reporters even had the gall to edit parts of the recording of Zimmerman’s 911 call to make it sound like he was racist and believed Martin was a suspicious character because he was black.
Zimmerman’s family immediately came to his defense regarding the accusations of racism. While Zimmerman and Martin come from different racial backgrounds, Zimmerman is part of a multiracial family and has black relatives and friends. The allegations of Zimmerman’s undue prejudice against African Americans are therefore put into question. According to Joe Oliver, an acquaintance of Zimmerman and a news reporter who happens to be black, Zimmerman never gave him reason to believe that he discriminated against people of color.
The trial of George Zimmerman began on June 24, 2013. On July 13, after strong and occasionally emotional testimony from both sides, a verdict was reached and Zimmerman was found innocent of all charges. Though many disagreed with it, the verdict was nonetheless judicially correct: there was nothing that the prosecution put forward that proved, beyond reasonable doubt, that Zimmerman was guilty of second-degree murder and manslaughter rather than mere self-defense.
Zimmerman’s acquittal sparked protests and rallies across the United States, with many Americans either openly or implicitly decrying the verdict. Barack Obama, in a startlingly impromptu and personal speech on Friday, July 19, outlined the hardships of being a young black male in today’s America, tacitly condemning the finding of the jury and confirming the predominance of the racial factor in the Zimmerman case. Obama also subtly brought to light the issues of gun control and Florida’s controversial Stand Your Ground law, which states that deadly force is legal in the case that you feel threatened or that your life is in danger. Both contributed to the unfortunate death of Trayvon Martin, far more, perhaps, than his race, or Zimmerman’s perceptions of his race, did. However, the focus of the public and the media is staunchly on race relations, and the Zimmerman case has largely highlighted the significance of race in the U.S. and how this seems to be an issue that will not go away any time soon.
Despite the American tenet that everyone is equal, there has been an outpouring of stories – on television and the internet – revealing that some are, as Orwell put it, more equal than others. Even today, it seems that – in American society – it is impossible to overcome the boundaries of race. Race is omnipresent: even in everyday situations, such as taking the SAT or any other standardized test, Americans have to identify their race. US colleges continue to have racial quotas, and must routinely report on the ethnic makeup of their student body. Why does race still matter so much? Is it possible to look beyond color and see a person as a fellow citizen of humanity, or even just a fellow American?
It appears that, behind the American façade of racial equity, there lies a country still very much divided by race, a division that people seem to be unable overcome due to a history of offenses. In order to fix this problem and to create a better future for the American people, we need to stop treating people differently and stop judging people based on racial differences. Someone of a certain race should not receive special privileges nor be treated in a different manner. America is supposedly a land of equals; we should start acting like it.