(The Root) — A black teenage boy in the South, who did nothing wrong, was attacked in the dark of night by a stranger. He was beaten and murdered, in cold blood, but an all-white jury fully acquitted the perpetrator — under the guise that reasonable doubt existed and the prosecution had failed to prove its case. The boy's name was Emmett Till. The year was 1955.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
The recent acquittal of George Zimmerman in the murder of Trayvon Martin has exposed the deep and fractured fault lines of racial inequity in America's criminal-justice system. The 17-year-old victim has just spent two weeks posthumously on trial for his own wrongful killing. Although all evidence suggests that the child was stalked in the dark and shot to death, a jury dominated by white women acquitted the perpetrator.
The verdict has sparked national protests, as well as inspired ongoing debates about implicit racism in criminal justice, the devaluing of black lives and stigmatization of young black males. The so-called postracial age has met the stark reality of a new Jim Crow.
But hope is not lost. The Trayvon Martin Foundation is partnering with civil rights groups like the National Urban League and NAACP, as well as new grassroots organizations like Washington's Impact Strategies, to petition the Department of Justice to pursue a civil rights action against George Zimmerman. Millions of people are becoming committed to drawing greater awareness to gun violence affecting America's children, lax gun-carry legislation and dangerous laws like "Stand your ground."
The Root spoke with the Martin family's attorney Benjamin Crump and their local counsel, Natalie Jackson, about the prosecution's case, the demoralizing verdict, the possibility of a federal civil rights case against Zimmerman and the next strategic steps necessary to achieve justice.
The Root: Do you think the prosecution did everything it could? Were there blind spots in their strategy? And how did you feel about the way the judge conducted the case?
Benjamin Crump: First, let me say that I respect Judge Debra Nelson, and I do believe she tried her best to conduct a fair trial. But the most damaging decision she made was to exclude the topic of race, racism and racial profiling from the proceedings. This case is all about race. Every American of good conscience and any sense of history knows that George Zimmerman would have never pursued Trayvon if Trayvon were white.
We also know that if Zimmerman were black, the Sanford police would have arrested him immediately, detained [him] until trial, and all standard procedures — like toxicology tests — would have been conducted the night of the murder. There were so many miscarriages of justice — even the cops simply taking Zimmerman at his word, releasing him with his gun in hand — that would never have occurred if Trayvon wasn't a young black boy.
The Root: What's your response to Mark O'Mara's statement that Zimmerman wouldn't have been arrested if he were black?
BC: Mark O'Mara is simply intellectually dishonest. Everyone in America knows that black males are more likely to be arrested, even when committing no crime at all. And there is more than enough empirical research to show that blacks are given harsher sentences than their white counterparts for the same offense. Even the facts of this case reveal that racial bias persists: An innocent black child was murdered, but his killer was allowed to walk free. It's unconscionable.
Natalie Jackson: Attorney Crump is absolutely right, and I would add that though Judge Nelson did her best and was well-intentioned, she made a mistake by reseating two jurors whom the prosecution had previously stricken. I believe they felt those jurors may have held some bias.
The defense knew that it would be easier to get an acquittal from a pool of white women because they shared a particular viewpoint. The prism through which they see Trayvon isn't as a child — like their children — but rather as a black male, who's a stranger and potentially a threat. It's the same prism through which Zimmerman saw the child. After the defense put on a white female witness who had been [burglarized] by a black male, I feared this could be the result. It placed the seed of reasonable doubt in minds that, unfortunately, didn't require much convincing to disbelieve Trayvon.
Another key factor in this case is that Sanford police were essentially hostile witnesses toward the prosecution. That never happens. Normally, police and prosecutors work hand in hand, but since the officers failed miserably at the very beginning of this case, they feared being liable for negligence — or worse — and so had a stake in an acquittal because it would [then] seem they had made the right decision in not arresting Zimmerman.
The Root: Can you tell us how Trayvon's parents responded to the verdict? Will they bring civil charges now? And what is the likelihood of a federal case?
BC: Obviously they're heartbroken and deeply disappointed. These are good, hardworking people who never imagined anything like this could happen to their son. But they also have incredible faith. Tracy [Martin] has told me that no matter what happens, nothing could be worse than what occurred on Feb. 26, 2012. He says the injustice of this verdict doesn't compare to the loss of his baby Tray.
What is most impressive to me, personally, is how dignified they have been throughout this difficult process — and have refused to stop fighting. Sybrina [Fulton] called me after church yesterday and said, "Attorney Crump, I will not allow this verdict to define Trayvon. We will define Trayvon's legacy." She then asked me, "What are we going to do next?"
So that is what we're working on now: The family is considering all potential remedies through civil proceedings, and we will make a decision [about] which route is best. We are also pushing for the Justice Department to bring federal charges against Zimmerman for the violation of Trayvon Martin's civil rights. We know that new evidence could be presented, and facts support the truth that Zimmerman racially profiled Trayvon.
We need people who believe in this case to sign the DOJ petition, continue to organize and get involved in the Trayvon Martin Foundation and go online to trayvonmartinfoundation.org. This Aug. 24, we're joining Martin Luther King III for the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, and he is dedicating this journey for justice to Trayvon and all the unknown Trayvons. We're expecting half a million people to march that day. Let's make it happen!
NJ: We need people to stay engaged — especially young people. And the great thing about this movement is that it has drawn supporters of every race, ethnicity and age group. Justice for Trayvon isn't just about the African-American community. Remember, it was a white blogger who first brought attention to this case, before anyone in the national media even knew. That's the momentum we must continue to get federal charges brought and, prayerfully, a conviction.
Take to social media. Get on Twitter and Facebook. Blog about it. Get your friends involved. We're disappointed with this decision, but we know in our hearts that the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice. And it will bend for Trayvon.
Edward Wyckoff Williams is a contributing editor at The Root. He is a columnist and political analyst, appearing on Al-Jazeera, MSNBC, ABC, CBS Washington, Arise America and national syndicated radio. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.
Edward Wyckoff Williams is a contributing editor at The Root. He is a columnist and political analyst, appearing on Al-Jazeera, MSNBC, ABC, CBS Washington and national syndicated radio. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.