WASHINGTON, D.C. : The acquittal of Florida neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman in the death of unarmed black teen Trayvon Martin has brought tough questions about racism in America back to the fore.
Suspicions that the fatal February 2012 shooting of the 17-year-old was racially motivated hung heavily over the lengthy trial of the 29-year-old Zimmerman, whose defense hinged on whether he had shot Martin in self-defense.
Zimmerman—who has a white father and a Peruvian mother—insisted race was not a factor in the incident, but in the court of public opinion, the issue was hard to avoid.
“It may not be possible to consider the case of George Zimmerman… as anything but a sad commentary on the state of race relations and the battle over gun rights in America today,” the New York Times said in an editorial.
The newspaper called the United States a “country plagued by racism, which persists in ever more insidious forms.”
Throughout Zimmerman’s trial in Sanford, Florida, which ended with his acquittal late Saturday on charges of second-degree murder and manslaughter, race rarely came up in the court room.
Judge Debra Nelson ruled at the outset that prosecutors could not say that Zimmerman had profiled Martin on the basis of race—age and fashion sense, yes. But not race.
However, the issue had been at play long before the trial began.
Zimmerman was initially freed without charge following Martin’s death, on the back of Florida’s controversial “Stand Your Ground” law, which gives people the right to use deadly force if they believe their life is at risk.
That move sparked protests in Florida and across the country, leading to Zimmerman’s arrest six weeks later.
The trial before a jury of six women, all but one white, was covered breathlessly by all-news cable TV channels.
In the aftermath of the verdict, race again came to the fore, with angry protesters asking if the result would have been the same had Martin been white and Zimmerman black. “We are all Trayvon,” some cried.
“The man was armed, the kid was not, and the man with the gun got away,” said Carli VanVoorhis, a 21-year-old hairdresser protesting Sunday in New York. “If we say it was not a racial issue, we would be lying.”
The venerable National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) launched an online petition to pressure the US Justice Department to pull Zimmerman back into court, this time on civil rights grounds.
“We are outraged and heartbroken (and) we will not rest until racial profiling in all its forms is outlawed,” its president Benjamin Jealous said in a statement.
US Attorney General Eric Holder said only Monday that a Justice Department probe was ongoing, but called the teen’s death “unnecessary.”
“I believe that this tragedy provides yet another opportunity for our nation to speak honestly about the complicated and emotionally-charged issues that this case has raised,” Holder said.
Civil rights firebrand Reverend Al Sharpton meanwhile called for a “Justice for Trayvon National Day of Action” on Saturday in more than 100 US cities to keep a spotlight fixed firmly on the case.
“We’re not having a fit. We’re having a movement,” he told syndicated radio talk show host Tom Joyner, whose breakfast program is widely heard among African-Americans.
In New York, 15 people were arrested following weekend protests, mostly for disorderly conduct, a police official said. All were released without charge.
At least six others were arrested when riot police in Los Angeles — where memories of trial-related unrest in 1992 are fresh — intervened.
In a post-trial press conference Sunday, Zimmerman’s lawyer Mark O’Mara startled many observers by declaring that if his client had been black, “he never would have been charged with a crime.”
Martin’s death, he said, had been made “the focus for a civil rights event” in which Zimmerman would be the fall guy, “used as the creation of a civil rights violation, none of which was borne out by the facts.”
The teen’s parents are mulling a possible civil suit against Zimmerman.
Some observers felt let down by Barack Obama, whose election in 2008 as the first black president was seen by many as a hopeful sign that America was finally putting its ugly history of slavery and segregation behind it.
Without condemning the verdict outright, Obama — a father of two girls who once said that if he had a son, he would “look like Trayvon” — appealed for calm, saying: “We are a nation of laws and a jury has spoken.”
Ajamu Dilahunt of Black Workers for Justice, a North Carolina civil rights group, however, said the verdict “shows again that the courts are not capable of producing justice” and said the president’s statement was not enough.