By Rich Bockmann
In southeast Queens, where the issues of racism and gun violence — and the point where the two often meet — are everyday realities, the acquittal of George Zimmerman Saturday night in the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin has sparked impassioned conversations about prejudice in America.
“You don’t even have to be white anymore. You can just look white and you can get away murdering a black child,” Winston Hurley said at a forum about the trial in South Jamaica Tuesday night.
Since the Florida jury’s controversial decision Saturday, community members have been overwhelmed with frustration that the letter of the law appeared to be followed, and that in places as different as Florida and New York City, the deck seems to be stacked against minorities.
State Sen. James Sanders, Jr. (D-Jamaica) set up the forum in the days following the verdict and convened a panel of legal experts and community leaders to perform what he called an autopsy to find out how “we got a dead, stinking result from a trial like that.” He said the meeting was a chance for the more than 100 attendees to come to terms with the jury’s decision, vent and then work toward strategies to deal with what everyone agreed was a great injustice.
Leonard Baynes, a law professor at St. John’s University and director of the school’s Center for Human Rights and Economic Development, discussed the way the jury was instructed not to consider Martin’s and Zimmerman’s races, and said Florida’s “stand your ground” law placed the burden on the state to disprove Zimmerman’s claim of self-defense.
Those at the meeting discussed ways to combat racism, such as working to change negative portrayals of minorities in the media and putting pressure on the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate federal hate crime charges against Zimmerman.
Norman Siegel, former director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said the Justice Department may have just as much difficulty arguing hate crime charges as the Florida prosecutors had with their case.
“I don’t want people to be given false expectations. We see so many politicians and people signing petitions calling on the Department of Justice. [The DOJ] didn’t help us with Sean Bell,” he said. “I’m not saying don’t answer the call, and I’m not saying don’t sign the petition, but don’t put your eggs in that basket.”
Siegel said he thought the best course of action would be for the Martin family to file a civil suit against Zimmerman in which he would be required to testify.
Attendees at the forum discussed what they could to do to prevent something like Martin’s killing from ever happening again, such as working to combat racial stereotypes.
The Rev. Phil Craig, head of the Queens chapter of the National Action Network, is helping organize a protest outside the Federal Court House at 500 Pearl St. in Manhattan Saturday at noon.
U.S. Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-Jamaica) stood with members of the city’s congressional delegation outside the building Monday and called on the Justice Department to investigate Martin’s killing.
“Our justice system and political system include processes and procedures by which citizens can continue to pursue justice for Trayvon Martin, including – as my colleagues and I are doing today – calling on the Justice Department, first, to review this case for civil rights violations; and second, to monitor ‘stand-your-ground’ laws to ascertain whether they are having a racially disparate impact,” he said.
Reach reporter Rich Bockmann by e-mail at [email protected] or by phone at 718-260-4574.