Zimmerman acquittal : a little too much strange fruit still hangin’ from the poplar trees?

Jul 14th, 2013 | By | Category: In Brief

From even just a short distance beyond the actual borders of the USA, the big trouble with the Zimmerman acquittal announced last night is how can an armed (white/hispanic) man possibly shoot an unarmed (black) teenager to death in self defence?

In a country where black men are still  incarcerated at almost seven times the rate of white men — and even two and a half times the rate of hispanic men — it is all too easy to see, somehow in this picture somewhere, at least some echoes of America’s thorny history of anti-black racism.

According to the NewYork Times : “Mr. Zimmerman said he shot Mr. Martin on Feb. 26, 2012, in self-defense after the teenager knocked him to the ground, punched him and slammed his head repeatedly against the sidewalk. In finding him not guilty of murder or manslaughter, the jury agreed that Mr. Zimmerman could have been justified in shooting Mr. Martin because he feared great bodily harm or death … because of Florida’s laws, prosecutors had to persuade jurors beyond a reasonable doubt that Mr. Zimmerman did not act in self-defense. A shortage of evidence in the case made that a high hurdle, legal experts said … Even after three weeks of testimony, the fight between Mr. Martin and Mr. Zimmerman on that rainy night was a muddle, fodder for reasonable doubt. It remained unclear who had started it, who screamed for help, who threw the first punch and at what point Mr. Zimmerman drew his gun. There were no witnesses to the shooting.”

An unidentified guitarist looks on as Billie Holiday poses in the alley behind Harlem's Apollo Theater in 1935. She is flanked by saxophonists Ben Webster (l) and Johnny Russell (r) with pianist Ram Ramirez crouched in front.

Even allowing for all this — and even allowing that the six-woman jury’s verdict is understandable, given all the legal technicalities — we still find it very difficult to understand how an armed man can shoot and kill an unarmed teenager (with no criminal record), for supposed reasons of self-defense, and pay no legal penalty at all.

It sounds a little too much like a duel on the dusty streets of Dodge City, between one guy with a Colt 45 and another guy with nothing but his bare hands (and a bag of skittles). Surprise, surprise. The guy with the Colt 45 wins. And then he claims that he shot the other guy with just his bare hands to death in self defence????  And the justice system finally believes him? In what kind of country do things like this actually happen?

African Americans have made great progress over the past half century, culminating with the election and re-election of President Obama. And this is indeed a great tribute to and sign of hope and optimism for all America. Yet we still find it hard not to think that the Zimmerman acquittal in the Sunshine State has something to do with lingering reminders of what Billie Holiday sang about, in her sad song on the deadly racist tradition of black lynching in the “Gallant South” … “strange fruit hangin’ from the poplar trees.”

Billie Holiday, two years after John Gunter’s Inside U.S.A. was published. The greatest days of New York City and jazz in America? Or do still greater days lie ahead?

That, sadly again, does seem to us at least some part of the answer to “In what kind of country do things like this actually happen?” (And nothing the likes of Newt Gingrich or Don West have said on US TV today persuades us otherwise.)

Another part may reside in the ringing cadences of the last sentence in John Gunter’s foreword to his classic 979-page book of 1947, Inside U.S.A. — about the “greatest, craziest, most dangerous, least stable, most spectacular, least grown-up, and most powerful and magnificent nation ever known.”  Nowadays, some 66 years later, sensible people are learning to soft-pedal “most powerful,” in the wake of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the rise of China and India, and all that. The Zimmerman acquittal announced last night makes it even a little harder to talk about “greatest,” “spectacular,” and “magnificent,” than it was in 1947.  And, Florida’s current strict legalities aside, the rest of the world will not be forgetting the moral depths of the “Trayvon Martin shooting” any time soon.

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