Slow Justice

What Got George Zimmerman Charged With Second-Degree Murder

he arrest in Trayvon Martin’s killing took 46 days—and only came after a public uproar, says Jelani Cobb.

AP Photo

Forty-six days. That’s how long it took for George Zimmerman to be charged in the death of Trayvon Martin.

More than the muted satisfaction that an accused killer was no longer on the streets, more than the vague relief that the judicial system would not ignore entirely the possibility that shooting an unarmed teen might be illegal, this is what I heard voiced when special prosecutor Angela Corey announced that Zimmerman would face a second-degree murder charge. Give it a moment and you’ll begin to hear triumphalist throat-clearing and echoed statements about how this arrest proves the system works, that justice is not immune to the concerns of African-Americans. And the retort, damning as it is unassailable, is simply this: 46 days.

Amid the bounty of ugliness unearthed by the case, and the many more profane moments we’re likely to witness before this is over, what people will remember is that it took nearly seven weeks for charges to be brought against a Hispanic man who shot an unarmed black teen. They will have learned that such a killing warrants only the most cursory of police examinations and that a simple arrest of the assailant requires incessant media attention, massive rallies in Miami, Sanford, New York, Atlanta, and Chicago, the palpable threat of social unrest, and a statement of concern from the president of the United States.

If the wheels of justice grind slowly, the court of public opinion expedites its verdicts. It takes far less than 46 days for a teachable moment to devolve into an airing of fetid undercurrents from the American id. In an instant the case pitched from tragedy to travesty to absurdist spectacle, the judgments coming far faster than the facts. In social media forums we’ve seen debates rage between evidence-proof minds, caulked against the entry of new information or contrary ideas. Between neo-Nazi patrols and black nationalist bounties, between Geraldo Rivera’s ridiculous fashion speculation and the hacking of Martin’s Twitter account we saw Sanford, Fla., become a racial ground zero, the place where our post-racial myths go to die.

In announcing her decision, Corey was careful to point out that her office “does not bring charges in response to public demand.” Her words only further undermined the regard for the justice system. Prior to the placards, Trayvon Martin was an anonymous black boy, fatally shot and treated as a John Doe in the morgue. There are people in Sanford and in black communities across the country who live with the hard knowledge that in cases like this, public outcry may be their only hope of attaining justice. A mention of Trayvon Martin in these places yields a list of keyword associations: Sean Bell, Amadou Diallo, Oscar Grant, Rodney King, and a litany of other black men who were abused or killed with little or no consequence. Delve deeper and you run up against the social profanity that was lynching. And therein lies the truth.

A Gallup poll last week highlighted the sad but predicable racial divide in perceptions of the Martin case. Seventy-two percent of blacks felt that race was a factor in what transpired that night in February, while just 31 percent of non-blacks agreed with that sentiment. But to the extent that those numbers reflect something beyond a cause for pessimism, they show our different understanding of history. For many whites, the Martin case is a sad but isolated incident; for blacks, it is part of a matrix of suffering that stretches back to the days when black men were hung in public for sport. This is a divide between those who feel that the past is best left in the past and those who know that history is interred in the shallowest of graves.

Three weeks ago I started a daily ritual, tweeting the date and the number of days that had elapsed since the death of Trayvon Martin without an arrest. It was meant to be a small effort to ensure that the case remained at the forefront of our minds. The tweets elicited statements of despair, solidarity, frustration, and more than a few racist tirades. Thursday will be the first morning that I do not begin my day by pointing out that the accused killer remains at large. I would like to say it’s a relief. But all I can think is that it’s pathetic it ever had to be done in the first place.