As the trial of George Zimmerman winds down, the Orlando police are reportedly bracing for possible riots in the event that the defendant walks. The Broward County Sheriff’s Office release two public service announcements urging people to “raise their voice, not their hands” if they are unhappy with the verdict. Meanwhile, church leaders, who have been given seats at the trial, have pledged to use their influence in the community to quell any violence.
Given the way law enforcement delayed over Trayvon Martin’s fatal shooting—it was 46 days before George Zimmerman was arrested—there is cause for concern. It was a groundswell of protest from the black community that brought the shooting to the nation’s attention—remember the One Million Hoodie March? This case has sparked a movement—in defense of young black men and in opposition to Stand Your Ground law. But the pre-emptive call for calm runs counter to recent history, and may be akin to racial fear mongering.
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The last major racial riot occurred in Los Angeles after four police officers were acquitted in the brutal beating of Rodney King. That was 21 years ago. Since then, there have been several other racially-charged cases that might have provoked an outpouring of protest but did not. The police officers who murdered Sean Bell in a hail of 50 bullets were acquitted in 2008, and no riots ensued. The indictment of the officer that shot and killed Bronx teenager Ramarley Graham was tossed out earlier this year, even with footage of the police following him into his Bronx home. His mother didn’t call for riots. She made t-shirts to protest.
In some ways, the calls for order recapitulate what this case is all about—the assumption of violence on the part of the black community, and of black men. No one seems to be concerned about the possible violence of Zimmerman supporters if Zimmerman is convicted. To try to preemptively deter the black community from taking matters into their own hands should they feel justice has not been done is ironic considering that Zimmerman’s actions themselves were a kind of vigilanteeism—a violence above and beyond what many, including the prosecution and Martin’s family, feel was necessary.
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If Zimmerman is acquitted, people will be upset, but they will find other avenues to show their dissatisfaction. The black community has become more sophisticated in protesting injustice, and there is talk already of using economic boycotts and other means that are more effective than upheavals that would only result in heavier police repression. Should Zimmerman walk, the response will be long-term and focused on ending Stand Your Ground so that this cannot happen again. After all, this case probably would not even have come to trial without the sustained outpouring of protest—all of it non-violent.
Polite is an award-winning blogger and author of the chapbook The Poetic Ruminations of Mr. Born Nice. More of his political and social commentary may be found at his blog, politeonsociety.com