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Of Criminals and Crackers: A Personal Essay On the Zimmerman Trial By a Grown-up Florida Boy

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When people think of Florida, they think of oranges and pink flamingos, palm trees and beaches, the blue-green ocean. They think of Disney and margaritas. ... But it has a feral heart, a teeming center that would rage out of control if not for the concrete and rebar that keeps it caged.
             -Lisa Unger, from Black Out

As I watched the trial of George Zimmerman in Sanford, Florida, and absorbed the verdict of six White or Hispanic women jurors, my involvements with race in Florida as a kid all rushed front and center in my mind. The trial was an amazing racial lightning rod saturated with the unpleasant legacy of race in America, especially in the South. It seems appropriate that it unfolded in Florida, which has become the nation's most bizarre and confused state.

Given this, it's easy to understand why Seminole County Circuit Judge Debra Nelson sternly kept race out of the trial. In the end, while it may have tempered sensationalism in her court, the decision feels like an example of the problem itself and very much a real shortcoming of the trial. The way things work, thanks to the double jeopardy issue, the State cannot appeal the verdict. Had it gone the other way, appeal geniuses like Alan Dershowitz had already begun working the angles for a lengthy appeal process, like he was ready to do for O.J. Simpson and did for Claus Von Bulow.

As it stands, the only appeal process George Zimmerman has to face is possible threats to his life. His security concerns are no doubt serious; one might say, while he may have "walked," it might be prudent if he walked fast under an assumed name to a secret location.



Judge Debra Nelson, Trayvon Martin and Trayvon's mother Sybrina Fulton by unknown


The most amazing thing about the trial was that the dead victim seemed to be the one on trial. I was often confused which legal team was the "prosecutor" and which one was the "defense." It felt to me that the defense attorneys, especially Don West, were acting like prosecutors, while the prosecutors were acting like defense lawyers. As it turned out, the real prosecutors were acting pretty ineffectually in that role. You had to wonder whether this might be because it's anathema to prosecutors to seriously question the actions or motives of a police officer or -- in this case, a "wanna-be cop."


In an interesting footnote to the case, George's father, Robert Zimmerman, a full-time magistrate from 2000-2006 in Virginia, wrote an e-book entitled Florida v Zimmerman: Uncovering the Malicious Prosecution of My Son George in which he calls the Congressional Black Caucus a "pathetic,  self-serving group of racists" advancing their purely racist agenda." He also writes that the NAACP "simply promotes racism and hatred for their own, primarily finical [sic], interests."

One hypothetical we'll never see is how might things have been different if a robust and strong prosecution had been undertaken by the Martin family's African American attorneys if they had somehow been allowed to try the case. It was their pressure that led to Zimmerman's arrest in the first place.

The abject absurdity of a man getting off scott-free (not even a slap on the wrist) for "standing his ground" in self-defense against a 17-year-old kid who was, it seems clear, the one who was initially defending him-self from the threat of a mysterious man eleven years his senior stalking him. The fact this man's ultimate act proves he was lethally dangerous was never apparently even raised by the prosecutors. For the sake of justice, one must ask: Was the prosecution lacking in effectiveness because Florida prosecutors aren't constructed to think hostilely toward insiders in the Criminal Justice System? It may be racially provocative to point it out, but a cursory examination of the record will, I think, show prosecutions of cops who kill black men do not often get to the indictment or conviction stage. At best, they end up in the place Geraldo Rivera of Fox News placed the Zimmerman case: "It was just a tragedy."

Joy-Ann Reid of MSNBC and The Grio blog summed it up succinctly when she pointed out there were two winners from the Zimmerman verdict: "the gun lobby and stereotyping." Front and center in all this, of course, is Florida's gun-lobby-friendly Stand Your Ground law.

A Florida Boy

In 1958, when I was eleven, my family moved from a town 20 miles outside New York City to a little scorpion-infested concrete-block house in rural South Dade County just north of the Florida Keys. I adjusted to a life of separate drinking fountains, which my mother carefully explained to me in a grocery store, and two "separate-but-equal" segregated school systems. I wasn't aware of the term at the time; but the vestiges of a Jim Crow racial hierarchy were strong in South Dade County in the late fifties and early sixties.

It was a world in which I became accustomed to migrant labor camps near my house and underage drinking parties in avocado groves. I picked limes for 25 cents a field crate next to migrant Hispanics and poor blacks during the summers. I lost my virginity to a black prostitute in a shack in an avocado grove. I learned that a baseball bat was also known as a "n-word knocker."

After a tour in Vietnam, I went to Florida State University in Tallahassee in the panhandle. I then left the state and have lived in the Philadelphia area ever since.

The state of Florida is a unique ethnic mix of the very rich and the very poor. There's traditional white southerners, home-grown African Americans, lots of transplanted white Yankees like my family, Haitians and all varieties of Hispanics and Chicanos. The Miami area has become a capital of sorts for the Latin American right, with anti-Castro Cubans in the lead. The warm climate also seems to draw all sorts of high- and low-rent criminal types. There's over 2,000 miles of beach coastline with the upper class Palm Beaches and Naples and working class resorts like the "Redneck Riviera" in the panhandle. Finally, to complete the gothic possibilities, there's vast interior stretches of primeval swamp like the Everglades, populated with alligators, snakes and inbred humans.

I don't wish to tarnish the goodness of fine, decent Floridians, of which there are countless many. And Florida certainly has evolved in many positive ways over the years. Still, the place is a pop-culture magnet for weirdness, scams and violence. Someone once said the nation was tilted to the southwest and the nation's oddest-balls rolled by gravity to California. I would argue that the nation may have shifted and gravity is now rolling the odd-balls to the Florida peninsula.

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I am a 65-year-old American who served in Vietnam as a naive 19-year-old kid. From that moment on, I've been studying and re-thinking what US counter-insurgency war means. I live outside of Philadelphia, where I'm a writer, photographer and a video (more...)
 
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You said:" there's vast interior stretches of prim... by Bill Johnson on Monday, Jul 15, 2013 at 12:35:13 PM
Much of what you said I agree with other than smea... by Bill Johnson on Monday, Jul 15, 2013 at 12:46:09 PM
Something else that was severely lacking in your s... by Bill Johnson on Monday, Jul 15, 2013 at 1:31:51 PM
Florida is a direct result of the north eastern i... by Bill Johnson on Monday, Jul 15, 2013 at 1:34:41 PM
The wave of settlers that your family was a part o... by Dave Lindorff on Monday, Jul 15, 2013 at 2:15:27 PM
A license to describe should not include a license... by Bill Johnson on Monday, Jul 15, 2013 at 3:13:05 PM
Truth is, this is true of many states. I knew a do... by Dave Lindorff on Monday, Jul 15, 2013 at 2:06:02 PM
I lived there for 5 years and  I am sure of m... by Mark Sashine on Monday, Jul 15, 2013 at 3:33:35 PM
Mark, Thanks for this. Florida is actually a prett... by John Grant on Tuesday, Jul 16, 2013 at 11:55:11 AM
my new effort to have Florida license plates chang... by Daniel Geery on Monday, Jul 15, 2013 at 6:30:00 PM
Flori-duh. Sad but really funny!... by John Grant on Tuesday, Jul 16, 2013 at 12:32:22 PM
I was not selling myself as anything other than wh... by John Grant on Tuesday, Jul 16, 2013 at 11:49:29 AM
I consider this  the only really good piece o... by Mark Sashine on Monday, Jul 15, 2013 at 2:30:33 PM
Florida. I remember the Florida of Carrie Meeks, J... by E. T. SIMON on Monday, Jul 15, 2013 at 5:02:40 PM
I agree the state has been sullied by the ill repu... by Bill Johnson on Monday, Jul 15, 2013 at 8:38:21 PM
Yeh, but it's all those damn many varieties of "ri... by John Grant on Tuesday, Jul 16, 2013 at 12:06:49 PM
Dear Ms Simon, I recall the wonderful local coral-... by John Grant on Tuesday, Jul 16, 2013 at 12:04:41 PM
Thank you again John Grant for your insight and lo... by E. T. SIMON on Tuesday, Jul 16, 2013 at 1:24:31 PM
I was wondering how to treat the race issue in the... by C. S. Herrman on Monday, Jul 15, 2013 at 5:08:44 PM
I responded to your essay with this: Some of the p... by John Grant on Tuesday, Jul 16, 2013 at 12:29:59 PM