We have another racially charged incident that led to a racially charged criminal trial resulting in yet another controversial verdict that satisfies some but infuriates others. We have threats of violence, civil unrest and a divided America.
Tragically, at moments like these, what Americans don’t have much of is moral leadership — the kind that can teach people how to cope with anger and disappointment over what they perceive to be an unjust outcome without making matters worse.
It sounds as though George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin both made mistakes in their deadly confrontation on Feb. 26, 2012. Zimmerman shouldn’t have been carrying a gun and itching to play wannabe cop by pursuing a stranger after a 911 dispatcher told him not to. Supporters of Zimmerman say Martin shouldn’t have been so aggressive, pummeling the neighborhood watch volunteer while he was on the ground and repeatedly slamming his head into the concrete.
Unfortunately, in the nearly 17 months since that night, many of the commentators haven’t conducted themselves much better. Just a few weeks after the shooting, President Obama made the provocative comment: “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon Martin.” The president seemed to taking sides, and improperly injecting himself into a local investigation before anyone had been charged with a crime.
All the more reason that Obama deserves praise for what he is saying now that Zimmerman has been acquitted of second-degree murder charges. Less than 24 hours after the verdict, the president issued a written statement in which he acknowledged that the case had “elicited strong passions” but also stressed that “we are a nation of laws, and a jury has spoken.” Obama has taken heat from some African-Americans for saying that.
But this is the right message. A jury reached a decision, and the verdict should be accepted whether we agree with it or not.
The president also urged restraint on the part of those who are angry over the verdict.
“I now ask every American to respect the call for calm reflection from two parents who lost their young son,” Obama said. “And as we do, we should ask ourselves if we’re doing all we can to widen the circle of compassion and understanding in our own communities.”
The Justice Department must not have received the memo. In a statement of its own, it signaled that this heartbreaking drama might not be over after all.
Now that Zimmerman has been acquitted in state court, federal prosecutors are looking into the shooting to determine whether they should file criminal civil rights charges.
Filing charges would be a mistake. Unless those federal prosecutors are certain that they could prove that Zimmerman singled out Martin because of his race and violated his civil rights, this whole thing could be headed for another acquittal. The fury and disappointment that the African-American community is feeling would only be compounded. What then?
Besides, prosecutors are supposed to look only at the facts and the law, and not worry about placating angry mobs. Florida prosecutors went to great lengths, for the most part, to keep race out of the state trial. It’s hard to see how government prosecutors could bring that touchy subject into a federal one.
The president is right, a jury has spoken. And in our legal system, prosecutors don’t get to retry a defendant over and over again for the same crime until they get the desired outcome.
Meanwhile, outside the courtroom, there is a powder keg. There have been protests in a number of cities, including Los Angeles and Oakland, Calif., where hundreds of demonstrators gathered to show their anger. Many smashed windows and sprayed graffiti on private businesses. A few of them even burned the American flag.
Certainly, it’s not helpful to have the usual grievance merchants stirring the pot. The Rev. Al Sharpton called the verdict “an atrocity.” PBS host Tavis Smiley said on ABC’s “This Week” that the jury’s ruling was evidence of the “incontrovertible contempt that this nation often shows and displays for black men.” The Rev. Jesse Jackson declared Martin a “martyr,” and compared him to Emmett Till and Medgar Evers, two casualties of the civil rights movement.
Till and Evers were killed by white supremacists. Is that what Jackson thinks George Zimmerman is?
Obama is asking Americans to “widen the circle of compassion and understanding.” At the moment, the circle seems to be getting smaller and smaller.
Ruben Navarrette is a columnist for The Washington Post.