In the pre-Civil War era, courts in the U.S. regularly gave legal cover to slave catchers to search across the countryside for runaway slaves in order to return them in chains to face torture, rape and murder. After abolition, Black people were convicted of petty or nonexistent “crimes” to create chain gangs as a “legal” source of slave labor, particularly in the South.
Courts were not used to prosecute lynch mobs and Klan murderers. They in fact acted to give them legal authority after the fact.
What about today? The huge number of oppressed people behind bars shows that the courts are just a transit point to fill the prisons with African-American and Latino/a youth. And even when a huge public campaign forces the killer of a Black teenager to be tried, the courts do not lose their racist character.
In the Florida trial of George Zimmerman, Trayvon Martin’s killer, there is not one African American on the jury.
Nevertheless, brave individuals will dare to stand up and speak the truth, even in this den of injustice. For two days, Rachel Jeantel, a high school senior and longtime friend of Martin, testified at Zimmerman’s trial. For hour after hour, she stood up to a withering cross-examination by Zimmerman’s lawyer that was clearly designed to put both Martin and her on trial.
On the night of Feb. 26, 2012, Jeantel was on her cell phone talking with unarmed Martin as he walked to his father’s home. He realized he was being stalked by Zimmerman. Jeantel told the court of Martin’s growing fear. She described how momentarily he thought he had lost his pursuer, only to discover that he was still being closely followed.
Jeantel testified she heard Martin shouting, “Get off! Get off!” before the phone went dead. Zimmerman had shot the teenager through the heart.
Don West, Zimmerman’s lawyer, relentlessly attacked Jeantel and her devastating testimony. Over and over, he suggested that she “knew” that Martin had attacked Zimmerman before he was shot. And over and over, she said that was absolutely not true, that it was Zimmerman, not Martin, who started the fight and then killed her friend.
At one point, Jeantel said that Martin described his follower as a “creepy-ass cracker.” West seized on this to mean that it was Martin’s “racist” attitude toward his armed stalker that somehow caused his own death. Jeantel challenged that falsehood, saying that race was an issue because white Zimmerman was following Martin in the gated Florida neighborhood. Martin had done nothing. Why was Zimmerman pursuing him, unless he considered the Black youth a criminal for just being there? A profanity-laced tirade by Zimmerman against “those people,” quoted by the prosecutor, reinforced Rachel Jeantel’s point.
Testimony in the Zimmerman trial is expected to continue for two more weeks. Despite all the obstacles in seeking a fair trial in a U.S. court, the galvanized Black community campaign, combined with the courageous words of Rachel Jeantel, offer the best chance for justice in this case.