I wish I could say that I'm overjoyed that a special prosecutor in Florida has seen fit to charge George Zimmerman with second degree murder for killing Trayvon Martin. I'm not.
It's about time.
I and many African-Americans have seen this movie before -- they should just title it "Self-Defense: White Man Kills Unarmed Black Man and Gets Away With It." My unarmed African-American male cousin was killed three years ago by a white man who also claimed self-defense. Mind you, the white man was in a truck, speeding down the street when my cousin yelled at him to slow down. My cousin had been out walking with his children at the time. His killer turned his truck around, came back towards my cousin, exchanged foul words with him (my cousin had sent his children home by this time), and then the killer reached into his glove compartment, pulled out a gun, and shot across his own special needs child in the passenger seat to kill my cousin. He then drove off, dumped the gun at a boat launch at a river, washed the gunpowder residue from his hands, and kept going. When he was finally caught, he claimed self-defense.
Yep, self-defense. Despite the fact that my cousin was on foot and the killer had been in a truck. Self-defense even though the killer could have driven away. The killer claimed that my cousin had had a gun and that, after he shot my cousin in the chest, my cousin disposed of a gun.
Self-defense. And he almost got away with it.
The district attorney's office initially declined to charge the killer, claiming they could not disprove the killer's claim of self-defense. It took my cousin's relentess mom and fiance, along with my family, a meeting between our family and the District Attorney himself, and some tough legal questioning from the former president of the Wiley Manuel Bar Association (the Sacramento affiliate of the National Bar Association)and from Black Man Not Blogging to get the district attorney's office to bring in the FBI to investigate and consider charging it as a hate crime. Although the FBI didn't find enough evidence for a hate crime charge, a change in the district attorney's prosecutorial staff and some hard work by a relentless Assistant District Attorney, his law clerk, an investigator and topo-flight computer forensics staff resulted in a conviction for second-degree murder with a mandatory fifteen year enhancement for firing a weapon from a vehicle, an enhancement intended for gangbangers doing drive-bys.
Had my cousin's mom and his fiance simply accepted the district attorney's office claim that there wasn't enough evidence to overcome the killer's claim of self-defense, there would have been no justice. Victim's rights advocates and even a local restaurant owner who owned a restaurant near the courthouse rallied around and supported my late cousin's mom and his fiance throughout the trial. Even they could see that the justice system had gone terribly awry given that it took so much effort by my cousin's mom and his fiance to get charges filed.
What investigators would later learn was that my cousin's killer had a history of visiting white supremacist hate websites and had an arsenal of weapons in his home which his stepfather helped to get rid of before the police searched the property.
So when Trayvon Martin was killed and no charges were filed against George Zimmerman because he claimed self-defense, I wasn't surprised. What I was surprised by was the clamor for justice across all the lines that seem to divide us as Americans -- race, class, political affiliation, geography. I couldn't have been more proud when members of the California Legislature held a press conference wearing hoodies and demanding justice for Trayvon, and when students of all colors marched on Sanford to demand charges. I'm glad charges have been filed and George Zimmerman now has to prove self-defense, not just claim it as some form of unquestionable immunity from prosecution whenever the victim is a black man.
But what I hope comes from this sad situation is that, in the future, the mere utterance of the words "self-defense" by a killer will not be enough to absolve anyone of killing unarmed black men.
I hope Trayvon Martin's family gets the justice they're seeking. But they're going to have to fight for it. Our family had to.