SANDFORD, Fla. — Shawn Wood, the owner of a barbershop in the heart of the African-American community here, said that the verdict hit him with a force far heavier than he would have ever imagined.
“I can’t lie. I felt like crying,” said Wood, a robust man. “When I heard it, I just couldn’t believe it. I was just speechless. I really felt pain from that verdict.”
Wood’s sentiment has been felt not just here, but throughout the country. The decision to free George Zimmerman and find him completely without criminal blame for the death of Trayvon Martin has caused deep agony for many Americans. It has conjured the most painful images of racial injustice in America’s history and reopened old wounds.
At the same time, it has sparked new questions among African-Americans about how to confront the challenges of what is condoned by the criminal justice system. In days gone by, there was always a need for cautious deliberation on how young men of color should deal with encounters with police. The Zimmerman verdict ushers in a new and disturbingly unclear era of how the criminal justice system views contentious, racially charged confrontations.
Zimmerman was part of no one’s police force. Yet, the message here is that that he and others are perfectly within their rights to carry 9 mm handguns and to use them to kill anyone whom they deem to be threatening. It represents an uncharted course in American life—one that will certainly cause additional anguish and agony.
Yet, one has to hope that something bold and meaningful will come of this national tragedy. If anything, Americans would do well to take their cues from Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin, the parents of the dead 17-year-old student. In the aftermath of the verdict, they retreated from the public. Their lawyer, Benjamin Crump, told me they were overwhelmed with hurt and pain from the verdict. “They cried and they prayed,” he said.
By Sunday, they had attended their respective churches in Miami. And by Monday, they had determined that they felt compelled to move forward to give meaning to the life and death of their son.
“Sybrina is now saying that it’s time for her to roll up her sleeves and to work harder to make sure that this doesn’t happen to anyone else’s child,” Crump said. “What Sybrina and Tracy are now saying over and over is that they will not let this verdict define Trayvon. Our community will define Trayvon. Our actions will define Trayvon.”
And so, the heartache over Martin’s death and the verdict of Zimmerman must be converted into a force that fuels people to protest, as it is already doing in Los Angeles and other cities. It needs to be converted into a force that compels people to sign petitions by the hundreds of thousands, by the millions, to call for further civil action by the Department of Justice.
It must also be converted into economic boycotts, so progressive people of goodwill can refrain from spending their dollars in states with horrendous Stand Your Ground laws, like the one in Florida that contributed to the mindset—including a jury of six women in Sanford–that it’s appropriate to shoot first and confront the consequences later.
Many Americans—not all of them Black by any means—have felt deep and painful emotion regarding the verdict that found Zimmerman not guilty in the death of Martin. And now the question looms: What will become of that emotion and pain? It must be transformed into action that will leave a deep and meaningful legacy to our children—and to the life of Trayvon Martin.