[note: This entry was written in the early afternoon of July 12, before the jury returned a verdict in the George Zimmerman case. It is the first of two in a series.]
“I don’t know [how they could convict Tom Robinson], but they did it. They’ve done it before and they did it tonight and they’ll do it again and when they do it – seems that only children weep.” – Atticus Finch, in To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
I miss my students. I miss their creativity, energy, insight, and stubborn insistence that they are doing their best to be exactly who they were meant to be and that they can help make the world a better place. I miss their spontaneous discussions about the issues of the day during Morning Announcements, when discussing books, when sitting in study hall, or when just hanging out together. And these days, I can’t help but wonder what they would be saying about the George Zimmerman trial.
I remember when the case first burst into our national consciousness, several of the then-seventh graders brought a proposal to Student Council that we declare a schoolwide “Trayvon Martin Day” and that those who wished to show solidarity with him would be able to wear hoodies. Those same students are now rising ninth graders, and I imagine they have been following the trial with the same increasing sense of frustration and anger I see among many of the people on my Twitter and Facebook timelines. And were school in session, that sense of fairness so characteristic of middle schoolers would no doubt drive our discussion to a great extent.
They would wonder to what extent racism was an issue, both in Mr. Zimmerman’s behavior and in the behavior of the Sanford police that night. They would wonder whether Mr. Zimmerman could get a fair trial, and they would wonder to what extent and with what frequency a jury’s verdict reflects the truth. They might also ask if we could read To Kill a Mockingbird, following which I might ask them if there is a mockingbird in this situation, and if so, whom they think it is and why. And perhaps one of them, particularly up on current events, would bring up the case of Marissa Alexander.
This is the case to which Elon James White was referring when he tweeted, with more than a tinge of sarcasm, “Note: #SelfDefense is only a defense if there’s a dead #ScaryNegro. If you’re a Black woman & no one died? 20 yrs in prison.” Marissa Alexander, when threatened by her husband, fired a warning shot into the wall. She was found guilty of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and, in accordance with Florida law, is serving a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years. She attempted a “Stand Your Ground” defense but saw it thrown out given that she exited the house, retrieved her gun, and re-entered – even though what were arguably the worst threats didn’t take place until after she came back inside.
One can be forgiven for believing that justice treats you differently depending on your race and your gender. Indeed, statistics prove it. We know that Black men are disproportionately incarcerated (only Black trans women are imprisoned at a higher rate at some point in their lives – an astounding 47%, nearly triple the already-depressing rate for Black men).
As I write this entry, the jury in the Zimmerman trial is preparing to begin deliberations. I hold out the hope that, however good a job the judge, prosecution, and defense team have done in fairly presenting pertinent facts of the case, the jury will do their level best to be fair and impartial and decide the case based on its merits. I further hold out the hope that the experiences my students have had and will continue to have at our school will prepare them to be well-informed, critically thinking, fundamentally fair-minded people working for justice throughout their lives. The world is certainly a better place than during the time in which To Kill a Mockingbird was set, and than during the time in which it was written. My students are currently on the right path. But they cannot do it alone.
They cannot do it alone.