By Patricia J. Williams
There was a small, crystalline window of time, as I sat waiting for the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial, when it felt as though we were perched between two worlds of possibility. As I watched the media blare, there was a breathless, swooping, nearly operatic transport to the moment; pundits recapitulated all the reasons to be afraid, very afraid. Anticipating acquittal, they eagerly imagined crescendos of erupting terror, riot and civil collapse. Florida was under lockdown. Magical legions of hydra-headed Trayvon Martin–shaped “thug wannabes” were assembling at the edges of the badlands.
In this still-undecided, Schrödinger’s cat box of suspense, a lonely, against-the-odds voice inside me wondered what might happen if the jury were to find George Zimmerman guilty. Would the pundits and politicians fear armed uprisings in select white neighborhoods? Would rabid online purveyors of hatred toward Martin and Eric Holder and President Obama be construed as dangerous to public order? There were, after all, those fanatics who wanted to “impeach” or “impale” Judge Debra Nelson, a Republican appointee. An Ohio PAC called the Buckeye Firearms Foundation was raising money to supply Zimmerman “with the funds he needs to replace his firearm, holster, and other gear.” Bestselling novelist Brad Thor would offer to buy Zimmerman “all the ammo he wanted.”
But Zimmerman was found not guilty, and there were no riots, save the riot of hyperbole portraying peaceful protests as violent. Trayvon Martin remains in his grave, although many have tried to resurrect him as the active principal in his own death. And while the legal process rendered formal justice, there remain important, unresolved issues embedded in the widespread sense of delegitimacy, dissatisfaction and unfairness that lingers in the verdict’s wake.
Much of it comes down to an all-too-familiar double standard. Sociologist Troy Duster recently summarized the difficulty confronted by prosecutor Bernie de la Rionda when he asked the jury to reverse the circumstances and imagine that an armed 28-year-old black man followed an unarmed 17-year-old white teenager, shot him dead and then pleaded self-defense: “The problem with this invitation to speculate,” he said, “is that it asks that we break frame with ‘common sense.’” For all the legal language of the courtroom, racialized narratives will emerge and form along the very same lines that Gordon Allport and Leo Postman identified in their research more than sixty years ago: in the “retelling,” a razor will leap “from the white man’s hand to… a colored man’s hand.”