Monthly Archives: July 2013

The Summer of Their Discontent: Reflections on the Trayvon Martin Verdict

“Acquitted.” The word struck me like ice water thrown on my face in the stifling heat of a summer day. I couldn’t believe what I’d heard. I felt as if the world stood still. Trayvon Martin’s world had certainly ceased spinning the night George Zimmerman killed him; now Mr. Zimmerman walked away from his criminal deed a free man.

Such white-on- black crime has been committed, and acquitted, before and it will happen again; less than forty-eight hours after Mr. Zimmerman walked out of the courtroom, a jury was being selected for a trial strikingly similar to his: A white man named John Spooner had shot to death a black 13-year old, Darius Simmons, in Milwaukee because Mr. Spooner thought, wrongly, that the teenager had stolen two guns from his home. Mr. Spooner’s lawyer claims it’s unfair to compare his case to Trayvon Martin’s; race was not a factor, he said.

Much has been written about the tragedy and the travesty of the Zimmerman verdict. Copious commentary has examined how our system of justice failed Trayvon Martin and his family both morally and legally; commentators have made the obvious connection to the Supreme Court’s recent ruling regarding the Voting Rights Act; others have connected the racism and gun violence dots.

“This case is about extraordinary inequality in the presumption of innocence and the application of justice,” wrote Charles Blow in The New York Times. “We are tired of hearing that race is a conversation for another day,” Ekow Yankah said in his eloquent analysis in the same paper. “Trayvon Martin is dead because he and other black boys and men like him are seen not as a person but a problem,” intoned the Rev. Dr. Raphael Warnock, senior pastor of an Atlanta church.

The commentary I read was insightful, important, moving and motivating. But what I was most struck by in the days following the verdict was the dignity with which Trayvon Martin’s family, friends, lawyers and supporters carried themselves. Their demeanor reminded me of Martin Luther King’s landmark “I Have a Dream” speech fifty years ago and of the wisdom of his words.

“We must face the tragic fact that the Negro is still not free,” Dr. King said, in front of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963. Speaking of “the fierce urgency of now” he continued, “This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. … There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights.” Then he said, “We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence.” Calling for “soul force over physical force,” he sought a pledge that in going forward, the civil rights movement would be free of violence.

Dr. King’s words and his legacy are embodied, for me, in the dignity of the Martin family and other people of color as well as those who stand with them. Their graceful acceptance, despite the pain it bore, of the jury’s decision helped keep demonstrations in cities like New York, Atlanta and Chicago calm, not only in honor of Dr. King, but with respect for Trayvon Martin.

So, too, did the quiet resignation with which civil rights leaders realized, with enormous sadness, that the fight for civil and human rights goes on and on and on. Fifty years after Martin Luther King said, “Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice,” the battle for equality, justice and one’s rightful place in a nation quick to congratulate itself on social change continues, despite the setbacks that render one fatigued almost beyond tolerance. And yet the leaders take up their banners once more. The mantra of social justice is chanted again. The call for action continues anew. What courage, what fortitude that takes!

A few days after I heard that word – “acquitted” – I passed a black youth on the street. I wondered what it would be like to be his mother instead of the mother of my own white son. Did she worry whether he would make it home that night? Did she consider telling him that he shouldn’t run if the police approached him, or walk too slowly if he was being followed, or wear a hoodie? Did she want to say, “Don’t be brave, just get out of there” if trouble brewed.

I worried for him too, in a way I never had before. I felt (as much as possible) the insidious burden of blackness. I was connected to his mom as one mother, one woman, to another. I wondered if George Zimmerman, Mr. Spooner, their lawyers and loyal supporters would ever be capable of such empathy.

That’s when I experienced the utter fatigue that civil rights leaders must be feeling now.

Left, Right and Wrong: A Divided Supreme Court Causes Concern Amid Celebration

I once believed our democracy was enshrined by a Supreme Court whose mission was to keep the safeguards of the Constitution operational and whose members held that mission sacred. I no longer hold that belief. The politicization of the Court, with its predictable 5:4 votes, is a sign of how eroded our democracy has become.

A third of the Court’s decisions in June were split 5:4 with conservative justices holding sway. While we can’t expect to have King Solomon, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, or Nelson Mandela on the bench, surely it is not asking too much to want a compassionate, constitutionally sound, non-partisan high court. But the court’s recent decisions – along with the continuing war on women, America’s incipient racism, and the power of corporations and banks to dominate our nation, I feel closer than ever to the rule of despots, dictators and demagogues.

Since the 2007 Lilly Ledbetter case in which the court prevented Ledbetter from recovering back wages after being the victim of pay discrimination for years, the court has made it harder for people to redress discrimination. In a little noticed June ruling, the court narrowed its definition of who is a “supervisor,” holding that it must be a person empowered to take tangible, adverse actions against the worker, such as demotion or dismissal.

In another June case the court showed its favor for manufacturers over consumers. Following a prior case in which the court ruled that people injured by generic drugs couldn’t sue manufacturers for failing to warn patients of side effects, the court determined that makers of generic drugs couldn’t be sued for defects in product design. Thus a woman grossly disfigured by a generic pain medication lost her case because the court said federal law pre-empted recovery under state law for the failure of manufacturers to warn of product defects.

The court also sharply limited class action suits against companies, again taking prior decisions further and demonstrating their tilt toward big business. In all of the cases just cited, the five conservative justices – Alito, Kennedy, Scalia, Thomas and Roberts – were the majority.

The court handed down another 5:4 decision in June that went largely unnoticed as well. It ruled that a person no longer has the right to remain silent as guaranteed by the Fifth Amendment, which states that no one “shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself.” If a person does remain silent, that silence will be interpreted as guilt and will be used in a court of law. As lawyer and blogger Joe Wolverton put it, “Thanks to the Supreme Court’s decision, that part of the Bill of Rights has been excised – and has joined the list of so many other fundamental liberties that now lie on the scrap heap of history.”

In a more closely watched 5:4 case, the court gutted part of the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act while challenging Congress to figure out a replacement plan to protect blacks and other minorities where discrimination still exists. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg rightly noted that “throwing out the Voting Rights Act when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you’re not getting wet.”

Citing “outdated facts” and “progress” with respect to racial harmony since the Act was first promulgated (and updated in 2006), the justices “upended legal protections for minority voters that were a key achievement of the U.S. civil rights movement,” Reuters noted. The justices seemed unaware of the continuing reality of racism, especially prevalent during elections. From poll taxes and literacy tests to more recent measures like photo IDs, early poll closings, and gerrymandering, there’s no doubt that efforts to suppress minority voting persist.

What will it take for conservative justices to recognize America’s continuing racism? Did they not see how right-wing bloggers treated Rachel Jeantel as she testified in the Trayvon Martin case, or note the post to social media by Mr. Zimmerman’s lawyer’s daughter after enjoying a celebratory ice cream with her aggressive dad? Are they unaware of the racist images of President Obama posted to social media that include paintings of the president as a shoeshine man, an Islamic terrorist and a chimp?

So while we celebrate the gains made toward marriage equality, and celebrate we should, let’s remember – while marking the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech – that this country is far from not needing a comprehensive Voting Rights Act. It’s a country in which a Gang of Five who should know better can derail important rights guaranteed by the founding fathers. It’s a country in which our judiciary like the other two branches of government, need watching, lest they wrest from us our “inalienable rights.”

It’s a country with a long way to go, and a politicized court that seems hell-bent on stopping us from reaching our destination.