Like many Americans, I was saddened and sickened to hear the verdict of Not Guilty emerge from the trial of George Zimmerman in the death of Trayvon Martin. I was disappointed, even outraged.
I watched my inbox, Twitter and Facebook feeds fill that night with fierce messages from friends and colleagues pledging to continue raising awareness about racial profiling and gun violence.
Like the O.J. Simpson trial or the beating of Rodney King or the shooting of Amadou Diallo, this case has forced a humanizing spotlight on black men caught up in the grip of society's ambivalence and law enforcement's over-reach.
This case belongs with the Birmingham church bombing and the Newtown shooting in which the violent deaths of innocent children caused even the cynical and hardened to pause to reflect upon our cultural priorities.
While some conservatives attempt to steer conversation toward black on black crime to point the finger back at the black community, even those who may have sympathized with George Zimmerman continue to strike a muted tone after the verdict and speak of tragedy. Instinctively, it seems clear there's little to celebrate in such a verdict. While Zimmerman's actions may have been found "legal" by six women, there's a pervasive sense across the country that these actions were not entirely moral. The refrain "if only he'd stayed in his car" and shown some maturity and restraint echoes across the airwaves and the nation. There's a strong perception that Zimmerman's incorrect assumptions misguided him into making a terrible mistake.
Many believe society betrayed Trayvon Martin and too many young black men across the nation. Most people, if they are honest, understand that Trayvon might not have had any trouble walking home from the store if he'd been dressed differently and looked differently on the evening Zimmerman, by his own admission, followed, engaged in an altercation and then shot him point-blank.
I'd argue that this same society has betrayed George Zimmerman. In order to increase the peace in our nation and create a more equitable application of justice, we must recognize that George Zimmerman is a victim of racism too. His life has also been distorted and perhaps destroyed due to the racist fears that caused him to suspect -- for no reason -- an innocent teenager walking home from buying candy at the local store.
Racism does not just sour the lives of the black and brown, although the consequences for us can be harsh indeed. It also blights the lives of men like Zimmerman who have been infected with a disease that suspends rationality and compassion to cloud clear vision. It means that people like Zimmerman may be blocked from hiring a great worker, having an incredible boss, falling in love with the perfect man or woman, striking up a great friendship or learning from a brilliant teacher, etc. -- all because racism gets in the way. Racism is no one's birthright. It is learned through osmosis -- through all the signs, subtle and otherwise, that cue us to artificial differences among us.
When we speak of Zimmerman as a victim himself, it can change the conversation. This is the "strength to love" of which Dr. Martin Luther King spoke. It is so hard to love a man like Zimmerman and people like his parents and those jurors but so necessary. For only when we love with all our strength can we begin to change hearts and win. Dr. King wrote in this seminal book:
Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.
He also said in his Christmas Sermon for 1967:
I've seen too much hate to want to hate, myself, and every time I see it, I say to myself, hate is too great a burden to bear. Somehow we must be able to stand up against our most bitter opponents and say: We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will and we will still love you.... But be assured that we'll wear you down by our capacity to suffer, and one day we will win our freedom. We will not only win freedom for ourselves; we will appeal to your heart and conscience that we will win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.
After all, isn't it progress to see and hear how many white people were anguished by the Zimmerman verdict? In Trayvon, they could see their son's best friend or a lovable character from a Disney or Nickelodeon tv show. Here was a kid who looked friendly and kind. Who wore Hollister shirts like their kids, who played football and went snowboarding like their kids. Who received kisses from their father in corny family photos, like their kids. That parents of every ethnicity could relate to Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton signaled to me that our nation is slowly becoming less divided. Most Americans could see that there was nothing strange about wanting the killer of their son, a minor, to be held accountable, even if that son was black -- and feel sympathy for that terrible loss.
I was heartened too when I saw how multiracial the protests after the verdict appeared on TV. The online manifestation of this phenomenon is taking place at the Tumblr site "We Are Not Trayvon Martin" where people of every race, gender and age are expressing their concern about the inequity in our law enforcement has impacted their lives. This, too, is progress when it is not only black people in America who cry out at injustice and who see a broken system that seems too ready to throw black men's and black women's lives aside. Those of us who love freedom and equality can take heart when Glenn Beck's website The Blaze runs a story questioning the conviction of a woman who used her gun to fire a warning shot at her abusive estranged husband. It is encouraging to see Americans united in seeing the injustice that Marissa Alexander has been sentenced to 20 years in prison for "standing her ground" to protect herself while hurting no one, yet another Florida case has ended very differently despite the death of a child.
A justice system such as this is not color-blind. It does not mete out consistent justice and Americans are beginning to experience the kind of compassion that can change lives. While some may try to point at black on black crime or assert that Zimmerman would not have been charged if his victim wasn't black, these are tangents that take us away from the central outrage that we as a united nation awaken to the realization that we must redesign our corrupted institutions -- schools, courts, jails, police, corporations, legislatures, banks, and so on - to ensure equality for all. While half of homicide victims in America are black, the overwhelming majority of death row defendants are executed for killing someone white. Is this justice for black victims like Trayvon Martin?
The equal pursuit of happiness must be extended to all. This is what the mighty Constitution, our society's founding document promises. We must learn to love those both who have been imprisoned -- and those who profit financially from their jail time. We must love those who are oppressed by practices like stop-and-frisk -- and those who promote them. We must love those who stand with their hands up or lie hands behind their back with faces to the ground because they are simply the wrong color in the wrong place at the wrong time -- and still find our compassion for those who point that gun toward the brothers, sons and fathers we love.
We cannot fight fire with fire. Violence only begets more violence. Resentment only creates more tension. We can only heal the fire of fear with the water of love. This is a love that imagines a world where both Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman are free from society's judgements upon them and can live productive, happy lives undisrupted by misunderstanding and metaphor that does not honor their full humanity.
Jesus said: "Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do." What if George Zimmerman had spotted Trayvon Martin walking down the street and had seen a neighborhood kid who had parents, a brother and friends who loved him rather than a dangerous stranger looking for a house to break into? What if Trayvon had seen not a "creepy ass cracker" following him, but a concerned neighbor with a question? Don't get it twisted -- I believe the burden lies with the grown man in this situation, not the child.
Still, when we acknowledge that the sick images we perpetuate in society poison our relationships and divide us from justice, we can then begin to build the combined will to envision a transformed and healed society in which justice reigns. We can go from being the world's number one jailer with one in 34 adults (and one in three black men) involved in some way in the correctional system to a country that no longer pursues a unfair war on drugs that penalizes some but not others for recreational marijuana use. White use marijuana at similar or higher rates than blacks yet blacks are four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana use. We can become a nation not just of laws but of the love Martin Luther King promoted in his lifetime and which we witness daily in a world where separate but equal is no longer the law of the land.
I know you might be angry, reading this. It may be hard to find love in your heart for those who have hurt others. Be not discouraged. There WILL be #JusticeforTrayvon and all innocent black boys and men cut down for no other reason than the inconvenience of their existence. We can work together to achieve this, if we try. And in the future, there may be some forgiveness for George Zimmerman, who, like Trayvon, became trapped in a maze of society's fearful race-based assumptions about young black men and whose life will never be the same again.
We can move forward with the same forgiving spirit that creates lasting change that Nelson Mandela described in his memoirs. Madiba wrote that the friendship he developed with his white jailer "reinforced my belief in the essential humanity of even those who had kept me behind bars."
In the meantime, consider seeing the movie Fruitvale Station, inspired by the real life and unnecessary death of Oscar Grant as your next step toward moving hearts and minds toward that essential humanity we all share.