By Sherry Collier, Esq.
The Trayvon Martin case was the opportunity where most Blacks believed that surely the collective struggle of Black America would be rewarded somehow. This case presented itself as the perfect opportunity for a bold “statement” to be made to the world about how it was possible for this country to look racism squarely in the eyes and give it a Mike Tyson style knock-out punch. Certainly, George Zimmerman would not walk out of the courtroom a free man. When the verdict was announced on Saturday, July 13, 2013, the knock-out punch that many expected ended up being a sucker punch to the gut of the Black community.
The reaction by most was pure amazement and unbridled frustration. Our hopes and desires for a different kind of America were taken away with just two words: not guilty. The collective sadness on Saturday when the verdict was announced was the type of despair that cuts deep. No riots, no Molotov cocktail bombs being thrown into store windows like when the Rodney King verdict was announced. Some say that we were too sad and disappointed to react in the same manner as the Rodney King riots. Perhaps cooler heads prevailed? Whatever the case, the nation that we thought would be ushered in with a conviction of George Zimmerman never happened.
The decision in the Trayvon Martin case was not a just decision. Make no mistake about it. However, the current “stand your ground” law that is available as a defense in Florida allowed George Zimmerman the inch of daylight that he needed to escape punishment within the legal system. The previous version of the law included a “duty to retreat”, where an individual basically had to use reasonable efforts that did not jeopardize their safety in order to avoid the danger they perceived. Under the old version of the law, the issue for the jury probably would have been whether or not Zimmerman made a reasonable effort to avoid the danger he perceived and whether getting out the car to approach Trayvon Martin was consistent with avoiding danger?
The previous version of Florida’s “stand your ground” law was scrapped in favor of the current version that does not have a “duty to retreat” provision. Why? Well, that’s what the Florida voters wanted. In a state like Florida where 48% of the prison inmates are black, but blacks make up less than 17% of the total population, the power of the vote provided the opportunity for George Zimmerman to walk out of court a free man. Florida is a Republican state and perhaps there will never be enough votes to overcome a poorly written law such as the “stand your ground law”, but in a city like Seattle, the power of the vote should never be underestimated because if everyone voted we would certainly see some of the outcomes that we need in our communities.
The challenge is that overwhelmingly, black folks in Seattle are simply not voting in the smaller local elections where the impact of our vote would be felt immediately. Yes, we vote in the national election in large numbers. Yes, we showed President Obama a great deal of support, but we cannot forget about our local elections. Local elections that would address things such as low graduation rates, youth violence, police misconduct, disparity in sentencing and the negative impact of these issues require our immediate attention. We cannot sit by idly while local city-wide elections are held and not participate in the political process. There is a line from a movie where the aspiring politician yells out into a group of naïve voters that “if you don’t vote, you don’t matter”.
I am hopeful that the verdict in the Trayvon Martin case will remind our community that it was the law that allowed George Zimmerman to walk out of court a free man and that we all need to be vigilant and informed when filling out our ballots for our local elections and when electing our local lawmakers. Do your research on the candidates and determine whether the issues they plan to address represent your interests. Here in Seattle, we have a primary election coming up and the power to make change is in your vote.
Sherry Collier is a Seattle-based attorney.