That sticky, humid feeling as beads of sweat roll down your back is not summer — it’s the tension in the air from the George Zimmerman trial, and the sound of what every news analysis would like to avoid in any worthwhile discussion on the topic.
Race permeates every thick and saucy corner of the case, not so much because of the circumstances that led us here, but because of where we are now. We’ve blasted far past that drizzly evening when an overzealous neighborhood Hispanic/white watchman shot the unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin. We’re now in what some observers describe as a slow sizzle on the stovetop, anxiously awaiting the ultimate verdict.
What makes race as inflamed an issue as it has been for several hundred years is the almost comical way in which frank conversation on it is avoided. The Zimmerman case has quickly evolved into a prime example, despite the fact race was clearly injected once the gun went off. Mainstream news coverage will make every attempt to avoid any charged conversation on it. Presiding Seminole County criminal court Judge Debra Nelson has also jumped into the fray of race by simply redacting such terms as “profiling” from prosecutorial arguments and barring it for the duration of the trial. While that may help Nelson achieve a certain level of courtroom decorum, it’s leaving a chilly feel among many folks of color who are closely watching the trial.
So, Zimmerman’s advocates and his defense team can make the argument that maybe race had nothing to do with that fateful confrontation on a Sanford, Florida, sidewalk. But race has everything to do with what’s before us now. As in politics, perception is everything in the Zimmerman trial. The slow cogs of justice can’t avoid the fact that this trial is taking place in a deep Southern state with its own checkered history of lingering racism.
It’s taking place in a city where more than 30 percent of the residents are black and nearly 20 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. How that doesn’t factor into the outcome of this trial is perplexing. Deep mistrust of the local police department is evident, predating generations before Martin. Sanford’s hiring a black police chief might prove a great temporary public relations gimmick, but it remains to be seen how effective he’ll be in keeping tensions cooled should Zimmerman’s jury give him an acquittal.
That the jury is all white adds a complex and problematic element that is feeding the tension. It won’t matter if every member of the jury is a woman if the verdict is “not guilty” — and that is still very possible. The pervasive cynicism currently surrounding the trial could be validated by an acquittal — and there is the risk of a flashpoint as intense as the aftermath of that fateful Los Angeles police brutality verdict in 1992.
At that time, many underestimated the potential for social unrest. And a bit over 20 years to the date, many could be making the same miscalculation at this very moment. The ingredients are there in Sanford and they loom large nationally, from an economy barely managing its own recovery to an unemployment rate that’s much higher than it should be, particularly for African-Americans. Pitched and very personal partisan battles in Washington wash away any hope of compromise on a long list of crucial needs, including jobs; sequestration and other budget cuts nibble away at a social safety net that is just as critical for keeping the larger social peace as it is for keeping families protected. Naturally, we all hope cooler heads prevail in the hot summer. But we shouldn’t discount this unpredictable matter of race.
Charles D. Ellison is a political strategist, Washington correspondent for The Philadelphia Tribune and chief political correspondent for UPTOWN Magazine. He can be reached via Twitter @charlesdellison.