18 Jul 2013
- Written by Jason Johnson
While most Americans were picking up the Zimmerman trial in clips and highlights on the news or the radio after work, I was immersed in the entire trial all day. Working as an analyst for several media outlets meant that I was watching every bit of eight-plus hours a day of testimony, evidence and cross-examination during the trial. The process was exhausting, and a wonderful reminder of why I decided not to pursue law in college.
When you are forced to watch a process from beginning to end you have a pretty good idea of where it's going, so you aren't surprised or even impressed by the conclusion. I knew after a botched investigation, bitter and reluctant cops, questionable jury selection and an incredibly uneven state prosecution that George Zimmerman was going to be found not guilty. So it wasn't the events that actually affected me, because I knew they were coming.
At 10:30 p.m. on Saturday, July 13 when Judge Nelson read the words, I was not shocked or amazed or hurt or upset. I was actually pretty unaffected by the final ruling. It was, strangely enough, reminiscent of election night in 2008 when I had a similar non-reaction to the first election of Barack Obama as president. There are times when America shows us who and what she truly is, and whether good or bad, as a people we should work to move past being defined by whatever external events this country throws at us.
I was unmoved emotionally. What affected me most though, was how these events influenced those around me. I was watching "Headline News" when the Zimmerman trial verdict was announced across the airwaves. And, like many African Americans, I experienced that dreadful sinking feeling in my stomach in those seconds before the verdict was read into history – especially when I saw a slight grimace on the face of Judge Nelson before reading the jury's decision – that Zimmerman was going to be found not-guilty.
The verdict of five white women and one racially ambiguous "Hispanic" from that Seminole County courthouse reverberated through the lives of everyone that I know and care for. My mother called me almost in tears. Friends and students were texting me with shock and sadness. Everybody wanted to turn in early; nobody felt like staying out and partying that night.
In my entire life I can only think of two events that affected every single person I know on a personal level that literally brought tears to their eyes but for entirely different reasons.
When Barack Obama was first elected, everyone I knew was excited – my mother, father, friends and even quite a few colleagues. Even on the quiet tip, some of my closest black Republican friends had a slight grin on their faces that history was happening.
Of course, most of us will never be president of the United States. Most of us will never even know anyone who becomes president. In fact, most of us will never actually meet Barack Obama. But all of us know that we could be Trayvon Martin. We've met people like Trayvon Martin. And we know that if we live long enough, there's a good chance we could lose someone we love – just like Trayvon Martin was taken away from his parents. So while there was joy in the hearts of many that night in November of 2008, it was a distant joy. It was joy by proxy.
Unfortunately the pain millions of African Americans felt after the Zimmerman verdict wasn't indirect, it wasn't born of abstract connections to a faraway individual. It was based on real life experience and cold hard realities of being black in America.
Nothing I believe about America was radically changed by the Zimmerman jury verdict, positively or negatively. Just like Obama getting elected and then re-elected didn't make me believe that America was a radically different place either. However, what does occur to me after these two life changing events – juxtaposed just about five years apart –is this: We cannot as African Americans let our value be falsely inflated or vastly underestimated by any external events. Obama's election didn't make us free and equal and Zimmerman's not guilty verdict didn't mean it was open season on black folks.
If we had let external events determine our worth and value, we'd have never escaped slavery. Instead we derive our worth from our daily lives, our faith and our ability to persevere no matter what this country throws at us symbolically, politically or financially. Regardless of how you connect with them, that's what Trayvon Martin and Barack Obama would want us to do.
(Dr. Jason Johnson is a professor of Political Science at Hiram College in Ohio. He is the author of "Political Consultants and Campaigns: One Day to Sell" and works as an analyst for Al Jazeera English.)
(Follow Dr. Johnson via twitter @Drjasonjohnson)