(Cross-posted from New America Media)
After the verdicts were read, my eight year old son had seen my anger and asked “why did Zimmerman kill Trayvon?” Thinking of all that I heard, read and saw through the three weeks of trial, I said to him “I don’t know for sure, but I think because he is racist.”
The facts that are undisputed are that George Zimmerman profiled, followed and tracked down, shot and killed, 17-year old Trayvon Martin. As the slew of texts, tweets and Facebook messages streamed in from fellow angry friends and colleagues, I sat there furious, disappointed and frustrated.
The feeling was also strange. I’ve spent most of my career trying to help people and change systems so that there is less incarceration. But here I was wanting nothing more than for Zimmerman to be convicted and locked up. Although I’ve spent several years of my career as a law enforcement official, the sole reason I got into government was to reform the system that is broken. And now the country, and indeed the world, is again seeing how broke America’s criminal justice system really is. Even though the prosecution was thoroughly out-lawyered by the defense, there appeared to be more than enough evidence to convict. A teenage boy was murdered and the shooter was not held responsible.
This summer, I have been having my children watch the ground breaking PBS “Eyes on the Prize” series. The night before the Zimmerman verdicts, we watched the last episode which featured the story of Arthur McDuffie. McDuffie was a military veteran and successful black businessman who was stopped by the Miami police, beaten and kicked to death for no reason. Although clear and convincing evidence was presented to an all-white male jury of the murder of McDuffie, including the testimony of other officers at the scene, the three white officers were found not guilty. Miami was engulfed in riots.
After my two teenage daughters said they didn’t have much familiarity with the Rodney King case when I mentioned it in connection to McDuffie, we watched an hour of YouTube footage of the Rodney King beating, the acquittal of the officers and the unfortunate riots that ensued. My 16-year old daughter said to me “1980 in Miami was the same as 1992 in Los Angeles.” Though Zimmerman was just a wanna-be cop, we can now add 2013 in Sanford, Florida.
My eldest daughter and I have been planning to see the new movie “Fruitvale Station.” The story is of a young black man shot and murdered by a transit police officer. Even with clear video evidence of Oscar Grant being shot and killed while he lay face down, not moving, on a train platform, white officer Johannes Mehserle was only convicted of involuntary manslaughter and spent less than a year in prison.
The timing was ironic and painful. We had just seen the story of McDuffie and Rodney King. We were headed to watch the story of Oscar Grant and we were now experiencing the story of Trayvon Martin.
Now, like many black parents across the country, I struggle with what to tell my son. A son whose whole life he has known his father primarily to be a law enforcement official. A son who has said he is interested in being a police officer. And like many parents, I have to have “that talk” with my son. The talk about Emmett Till, Arthur McDuffie, Rodney King, Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin, and countless other black men who have been beaten and killed by white authorities.
I will tell my son to be encouraged that a black man is the president of the United States, but also know and understand that the murder of a young black man still can’t get justice.
David Muhammad is the CEO of Solutions, Inc, consulting firm. He is the former Chief Probation Officer of Alameda County Probation and the former Deputy Commissioner of New York City Probation.