Crowds React With Disbelief To Zimmerman Verdict

The acquittal of George Zimmerman in the death of Trayvon Martin came as a surprise to many outside the courthouse in Sanford, Florida, and around the country. Host Rachel Martin speaks with NPR's Code Switch blogger Gene Demby.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

For more on the reaction to the verdict and the national debate it sparked, we've brought in NPR's Gene Demby. He reports on race for NPR. Thanks for coming in, Gene.

GENE DEMBY, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So as we just heard in Greg Allen's piece, last night the lawyer for the Trayvon Martin family said, quote, "We have to have very responsible conversations about how we get better as a country, and move forward from this tragedy and learn from it." How do you do that? What's the way forward?

DEMBY: So one of the major disconnects about the way this conversation has gone is that the jury has been asked to decide something very narrow; something very, very specific and technical. But the conversation around the case has been about all these big social issues - racial profiling and gun laws. And a lot of people wanted this trial to be - resolve a lot of those questions, or move those conversations forward.

But as we've seen, criminal trials are really poor proxies. There's no way this trial would have resolved itself that would have satisfied many people.

MARTIN: But from the time this story came to national attention, people have seen it - as you say - as a frame for much larger issues; racial profiling, even gun control. I imagine those people where then disappointed that those issues were not resolved.

DEMBY: Right. And this case, again, was a really bad place to resolve those things. George Zimmerman was not acting in any official capacity as a police office. And so the conversation about racial profiling doesn't get to that, right? It doesn't hit - any way this case would have been disposed of, would not have gotten to official racial profiling, right?

Any way this case would have been disposed of, would not have gotten to the question of Stand Your Ground, which a lot of people thought would have been central to it. But Stand Your Ground wasn't even invoked in the case.

MARTIN: Florida's controversial self-defense law...

DEMBY: Right, that's right.

MARTIN: So what do you expect the reaction to be, as we move through the coming days? The verdict came down around 10 p.m. last night. There have been scattered protests outside the courtroom, elsewhere in the country.

DEMBY: As you've said, there have already been protests. Here in D.C., there've been protests all around the city. In Tallahassee, there have been major protests. One of the things we're going to be looking at on Code Switch, in the next few days, is what's happened to the activism infrastructure that popped up around the case. So many organizations popped up to organize rallies and protest around the shooting of Trayvon Martin, and to fund George Zimmerman's defense.

We don't expect that those organizations are just going to disappear and scatter into the wind. We imagine they'll pivot to new things. And so we're going to take a look at what, exactly, happens to them now, and what will be the focus of tensions going forward.

MARTIN: I understand last night, you tweeted out the following question: Did you watch the verdict come down with your kids? And I understand, you got some interesting responses?

DEMBY: Yes. To my surprise, that was retweeted about 4- or 500 times, and we got lots of really moving and somber responses. People were watching the verdict with their children; and they were kind of wrestling with these big questions about race, and about our criminal justice system.

I should read a few of them to you. One person said: My son asked why people weren't celebrating, and I told him because a young man died. Regardless of the verdict, there's no time to celebrate. Another person said: My 14- and 16-year-old kids are both astonished by the verdict, but I explained reasonable doubt to them. Another person was saying - who had an African-American son. He gave his 14-year-old son a bear hug and said: There's no justice for you. Just try and do what's right.

MARTIN: Which raises a lot of questions about how families are talking about this issue. Since the trial began, black parents have been talking about the need to have the talk with their children about how to deal with a potential confrontation with the police, a conversation you say is along the lines of having a conversation about the birds and the bees - equally as uncomfortable, but perhaps necessary.

DEMBY: Yeah, perhaps just as necessary. The conversation was happening before the trial. But I think Trayvon Martin, circumstances of this case, made it more salient for a lot of people. And so a lot of people have been talking very publicly about having to have these conversations about how to comport oneself to the police so as not to escalate some situation that may get out of hand.

And, you know, it may be like those little nuclear drills where you hide under the - hide under the chairs, right? I mean, maybe it's just this idea of controlling the situation. There isn't any. I mean, there may not be - nothing to do. I know that - I know personally, if I can tell a personal story - my mother, it was one of her like, waking concerns; that I would go out one night, and something might happen. And so, I think we may have had that conversation even before we had the birds and the bees conversation.

And so it's a well-worn conversation; and it's an unfortunate fact of life for a lot of young, black men. And so regardless of how this trial played out, and regardless of where people's sympathies lay, one of the ways this resonated with so many people was because this didn't seem implausible. It didn't seem like, you know, some abstraction that could happen to someone you didn't know. It seemed like something that could happen to you and so, you know, this idea that you constantly have to be on guard and ready for something to get out of hand, was one of the more sobering but consistent threads of this whole conversation around this case.

MARTIN: NPR's Gene Dumby. He is with the NPR Code Switch team that reports on race and ethnicity. Thanks so much, Gene.

DEMBY: Thank you so much, Rachel.

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MARTIN: You're listening to NPR News.

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