Over the past several years, the focus of the national debate, water-cooler conversations and household discussions has been about the troubled economy. Our well-being as a country and a community is strongly tied to our economic health. That dialogue continues to dominate the political agenda today.
Despite the importance of our economic situation, however, we must not forget that this country has other issues of great importance. Recently, we received a very sad reminder of some of them in the Trayvon Martin shooting in Florida, where we lost a young and promising life for no reason at all.
Truly, his death was a heartbreaking tragedy. It is always terrible when we witness such senseless loss of life. The incident, however, has also shined a bright light on the problems with our laws, legal system and culture that allowed this tragedy to happen and almost go unpunished.
Trayvon’s killer, George Zimmerman, an armed vigilante acting on what appears to be a racially motivated impulse, represents a threat not only to our safety but to our way of life. Zimmerman felt he had the power to take the law into his own hands. He tracked down this young man and cast a death sentence only because he suspected that a black youth wearing a hoodie was likely up to no good. Authorities even told Zimmerman to stop following the youth when he called 911 to complain about a young black man in his neighborhood, but he still pursued and executed him nonetheless.
Even after this senseless act, it took law enforcement more than a month to make an arrest. If it wasn’t for the national attention over the case, it may never have happened at all. Florida’s gun control laws favor shooting first and asking questions second. Many people there seem to be much more concerned with their rights to own guns than the rights of its citizens to be safe and not discriminated against.
Zimmerman was finally arrested, but it took an act from a special prosecutor appointed after the local state attorney stepped down amid mounting criticism. Zimmerman was released on bail of $150,000, an amount more appropriate for a burglary case than second-degree murder. The police commissioner of the local community tried to resign over his handling of the situation, but the town officers actually denied his ability to quit. While Zimmerman is widely perceived as a national villain, it appears he still has many friends at home.
The corporate-funded American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) is not only responsible for drafting Florida’s unjust “Stand your Ground” law, which has protected Zimmerman, it has also provided draft legislation to legislatures across the country to suppress voter participation and revoke worker rights in both the private and public sectors. ALEC, and the right-wing politicians who follow its lead, are truly a threat to the life and liberty of all Americans.
This shooting has touched a nerve in many people of color because it highlights many different issues that affect them deeply. Most obvious is the continued stereotyping or outright discrimination faced by so many African-Americans, especially young men. In this country, a person is supposed to be innocent until proven guilty. But if you are a young black man, wearing a hoodie and strolling on the street by yourself, then you are presumed guilty of something. Zimmerman represents the extreme example — a paranoid near-fanatic willing to take a life — but a similar mind set is all too common. We have come a long way in combating racism in this country, but that fight is far from over.
The case also shows the continued struggle with gun control and gun violence. Many of our communities, especially in New York, are still overrun by guns trafficked in from the south. Many parts of this country still believe that guns are a way of life. Sadly, they are in some neighborhoods in New York City and other urban areas. Illegal guns are responsible for too many deaths of our youth. Our police officers and public safety officials are facing increased violence and shootings every day, as we have seen with several cop killings in recent months.
All this leads to a culture of fear and anger, which is poison to the American ideals of fairness opportunity and peace. Parents see the fate of Trayvon Martin and hope that their child will not be next. They are worried and upset that the justice system can come so close to failing them. How can we have a free and democratic society if people feel discriminated against and unsafe? We can’t.
The economy is important, but it is not everything. Jobs are vital, but they are nothing if we cannot walk down the street without fear of bullets flying around us. Even in troubled times, we should not lose sight of the values that make this country worth reviving. Our economy will rebound, but if we lose our souls in the process, where will be then?