A Year After Trayvon-Zimmerman Verdict, What's Changed?
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
We'd like to return now to a story that sparked a great deal discussion, soul-searching and emotion last year. A year ago, July 13, 2013, George Zimmerman was found not guilty of all charges in the 2012 shooting death of the unarmed teenager, Trayvon Martin. The verdict sparked protests and intense emotion for many different people, but most especially the family of the teenager who was shot by the neighborhood watch volunteer while walking home from an errand. Here's Trayvon Martin's mother, Sybrina Fulton, speaking after the verdict.
SYBRINA FULTON: I thought, surely, that he would be found guilty of second degree murder - manslaughter, at the least. But I just knew that they would see that this was a teenager just trying to get home. This was no burglar. This was somebody - somebody's son - that was trying to get home.
MARTIN: President Obama even weighed in on the verdict, saying, quote, "Trayvon Martin could've been me 35 years ago." But others thought that trial's outcome was fair and that George Zimmerman was justified under Florida's so-called Stand Your Ground law, which allows the use of deadly force when someone feels they are at risk of bodily harm.
A year later, after all this, we wanted to go back to a number of people who offered thoughtful reflections on all the issues raised by the incident, to see what else is on their minds. So with us today is Michael Skolnick, editor-in-chief of GlobalGrind.com. He's a Trayvon Martin Foundation board member. Keli Goff is a columnist for the TheRoot.com and The Daily Beast. Neil Minkoff is a health care consultant and contributor to National Review Online, a regular contributor to our Barbershop Roundtable. And Leonard Pitts is the Pulitzer prize-winning columnist for the Miami Herald. Welcome to you all. Thank you all so much for joining us once again.
MICHAEL SKOLNICK: Thank you.
KELI GOFF: Great to be here.
NEIL MINKOFF: Thanks.
MARTIN: So, let us look back at that day a year ago. Michael, I'll start with you 'cause you had spent a lot of time the courtroom with the family over the course of the trial. And I wanted to ask you to go back to where you were a year ago and what you felt when the verdict came in. And how do you feel today?
SKOLNICK: Wow. We had decided at the end of the trial that we would not attend the verdict, and we all would go home to our respective families and watch it on television. Or some of us didn't watch it at all. I'd spent the - almost the entirety of those six weeks in Florida in Sanford at the trial with Trayvon's family and friends. And I sat and watched it with my girlfriend in my home in New York.
And really, we thought when we went into that deliberation that it was three-three, and it could've gone either way. We certainly were hoping for a guilty verdict, but knew that it could go either way. And when it came down, I sat for hours sort of motionless, thinking that the decision of six people has such a great impact on the history of our country. If that decision went a different way, one could imagine where we could be today, in terms of our conversations about race - in terms of our conversation about justice for young black men.
A year later, you know, I want to see more light and less tunnel, in this case and in life. So I think I want to be optimistic that Trayvon's parents, Sybrina and Tracy, even for the past year, have continued to lead the case for justice not just for their son, but for so many children, with incredible dignity and humility and compassion. And I believe in them, and I believe that they will heal the wounds from that night. And I believe they will heal the wounds from so many things that plague this nation in terms of race. So I'm putting my energy into them and putting my faith into their work.
MARTIN: Leonard Pitts, what about you?
LEONARD PITTS: What did I feel? An all-too-familiar sense of betrayal, I think, would be the best way to put it. What I felt was that we have, sort of, traveled in a circle to something that we've seen all too often, which is the justice system - or as I call it frequently in my column, the injustice system - failing to acknowledge and protect the humanity and the basic human rights of African American men, specifically because they are African American men.
I think it's a mistake to look at the Trayvon Martin verdict in isolation. I think if you look at the Trayvon Martin verdict in context of American history, you see a pattern that is undeniable. And the only thing that's surprising, if you want say it, about this verdict is that we're still dealing with this all of these - you know - all of these years later.
But, this is not the first time and not the first way in which the justice system has failed African American young people. I continue to rail about the war on drugs, which has, in fact, been waged as a war on African American men, even though African American men are, I believe, 15 percent of drug crime and-or drug use in this country. In some jurisdictions, they account for 90 percent of people doing drug time. There's something wrong with that picture.
And again, Trayvon Martin is just - is a piece of the puzzle, but there's a much larger picture here. And I would hope that, if anything, as we look back on this, we take this as an occasion not just to deal with that injustice that happened to that family, but this larger picture of which that's just a piece.
MARTIN: Keli Goff, what about you?
GOFF: Well, for me, it's not just so much about the - whether or not the verdict was just, but the law itself being unjust. And that's really, a year later, what I'm sort of focused on - is seeing what we can continue to do in terms of the Stand Your Ground laws. I'm also someone - as you probably know by now, Michel - someone who tries to find the light at the end of the tunnel. Or the sort of common ground that all of us, as Americans, can grow from whenever there's a tragedy or something that seems to divide us.
And for me, one of the at least positive outcomes from this severe, severe tragedy is the fact that I found myself having conversations about racial profiling with friends I've had for years who are white, who I'd never had had that conversation with before. You know, I had friends who I was telling my own stories of racial profiling in stores who said, I can't believe that would happen to you. And so to have me have those conversations - the president to finally have that conversation about it happening to him, it sort of - I know this is a bit of a stretch, but if you'll just bear with me in the analogy...
GOFF: ...In the same way that Emmett Till sort of forced the conversation about civil rights and segregation, which a lot of people said, it's not that bad, right? - I think that Trayvon Martin did the same in terms of racial profiling this country. Going from not being that bad or a minor inconvenience to being something that can be a matter of life or death.
MARTIN: Neil Minkoff, what about you?
MINKOFF: So I think I'm struck by the fact that I don't think it's had as much of an impact as one might have thought ahead of time. As much discussion as there'd been, I don't know any state where the Duty to Retreat or Stand Your Ground laws have been changed. And then you have someone as high-profile as Mark Cuban recently saying that he would rather cross the street than come across young African American man in a hoodie.
So the thing that, to me, is most striking is that for all of the attention that this case had, a year later it feels like much of it has receded into the darkness and that there isn't as much progress or as much discussion as one might have expected.
MARTIN: Leonard Pitts, you voiced a sense of disappointment. In fact, it's interesting that our panel here today is kind of - half of the group feels kind of optimistic that there is some kind of light at the end of the tunnel. There's some positive things that have come out of it. Half of our panel feels less that. You're of the disappointed and kind of less that side of the equation. Is anything that you feel would have made a difference or that could make a difference now, so that we're not having this conversation five years from now?
PITTS: I think that the problem, at it's root, is an unwillingness of this nation to have the conversation. I think that you can put it literally right in somebody's face, and if they have a vested and emotional interest in not seeing, then they will not see.
We've been talking for the last few minutes about, you know - that we're having more - we've had more conversations. I think that's true in one sense, but in the other sense, what is the point of having a conversation if half of us or better than half are not listening? Or are not - or are refusing to listen? And I think that's - you know - that's what the Trayvon Martin verdict tells me.
MARTIN: Is this a leadership issue? 'Cause, I know - I'm going to go to Keli Goff in a minute because - part of the reason is that Keli was critical of the president. At one point, she wrote that she felt it was unconscionable that there was no mention of race in the statement that the White House put out immediately following the verdict. Now, so, Leonard Pitts, I'm going to ask you first, then I'm going to go to Keli on this - was this a leadership issue, and if it's a leadership fail? And if so, whose leadership fail?
PITTS: I'm not much into the whole idea - you know, Gil Scott-Heron had a song about waiting on a train from Washington. It's 100 years overdue, so stop waiting for it. You know, I'm not much for the whole idea of who's going to be our leader, from Barack Obama on down. And that's not to say that he has not been unconscionably silent on occasions when perhaps he should have spoken up on matters of race.
But by the same token, I understand, and have understood for the last six years or so that he is constrained by politics and by the uniqueness of his own situation. You know, we people of conscience - we people who see what's going on here, we need to be about setting the agenda. And we need to be about moving to make the structural changes and the perceptual changes in this country that make something like this unthinkable five years from now.
MARTIN: Keli Goff, what do you think would make a difference - would have made a difference - would make a difference now, in feeling that there was more progress as a result of this terrible tragedy?
GOFF: Well, definitely if there's - something happened in terms of the Stand Your Ground law, and we saw real movement on those. And we haven't as of yet, Michel. And I mean, I don't have to bore everyone with the statistics, but, you know, I mean, they're out there. The one that shows that, you know, a white person is - was it 354 percent more likely to be acquitted? Or to be - for Stand Your Ground, to be seen as a viable defense if the person they shot is black versus if it's a white person shooting a white person.
So, you know, we're not, a year after the verdict - I think no one who opposes Stand Your Ground laws or thinks that they're flawed is happy with where we're at right now. I'm certainly not.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're talking about the impact of the Trayvon Martin case a year after George Zimmerman's acquittal. We're speaking about this with Keli Goff, Michael Skolnick, Neil Minkoff and Leonard Pitts.
Michael Skolnick, what about you?
SKOLNICK: I don't think we're at a tipping point, but I think we're certainly pushing towards it. You know, we talk about Stand Your Ground laws. Yes, we haven't overturned a Stand Your Ground law, but let us remember up until 2012, when Trayvon Martin was killed, we had 25 states pass Stand Your Ground laws with no questions asked. We have not had one state since pass a new Stand Your Ground law.
That is successful, and that is young people who took to the streets, who took to social media, who took two legislative, you know, houses and said, no more. At least, if we can't get them off the books, let's not put a new one on the books. And I agree with Leonard. I don't think it's happened yet, but it is happening.
And young folks - we wouldn't be talking about Trayvon Martin if it wasn't for young people who demanded an arrest in those first 45 days after Trayvon Martin was killed. I don't want to be stupidly optimistic, but I want to at least say that there's things happening in this country that are good. I want to keep fighting for those in people. I believe in them, and I believe they will make this country better.
MARTIN: Neil Minkoff, from a conservative perspective, does something need to be different? And if so, what? And if so, who needs to be leading that? How should that be...
MINKOFF: I think...
MARTIN: Who should be in charge of that?
MINKOFF: Sure. I mean, I think that one of the things that we're seeing here, in terms of potential lack of impact, is this ADD - Attention Deficit Disorder - that's been brought about to the nation by the perpetual cable news cycle. So a lot of the people who had very, very strong feelings about Zimmerman versus - the Zimmerman case and the Trayvon Martin shooting - have been - their passions have been taken up by Malaysian jets or Hobby Lobby decisions or border crises.
And it's hard to focus on any one issue, given the fact that the headlines change and the screaming and the shouting about the headlines change. I mean, the irony is that the person who has probably done the most to keep George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin in the headlines is George Zimmerman by being a celebrity boxer and by showing up at gun shows and by having the police called upon him repeatedly.
So I think that the thing - one of the things that has to change is if we're going to be serious about changes - if we're going to be serious about the need for an example like this to be brought forward - is that it's not enough to say that only one percent of the population or five percent or a few people who are truly committed should care a week after it's faded out of the headlines and move on to the next scandal.
MARTIN: So let me - let me ask each of you to conclude this. What would you like to see happen now? Leonard Pitts, I'll start with you 'cause you wrote a piece after the verdict directed really at black America, I think. Fair to say? Fair to say?
MARTIN: Saying, you know, "wake the hell up. We are living" - I'm quoting here - "we are living in a perilous era for African American freedom. The parallels to other eras have become too stark to ignore." What are you urging people to do?
PITTS: The dance of African American history has always been two steps forward, one step back. And we are now in a period of one step back with Trayvon Martin, obviously with the gutting of the voting rights act, et cetera, et cetera. I think it is incumbent upon African Americans to divorce themselves from the ADD that we were just talking about and to organize and to commit themselves to - ourselves to a program of changing some of these things. A program of using whatever pressure we can bring to bear to roll back these Stand Your Ground laws. But also, to do whatever we can to change the whole - I keep coming back to this - the whole perception of African American men.
MARTIN: Michael Skolnick, you're kind of a person who's an activist as well a columnist, very involved with social media. What's your charge here? What do you think should happen now?
SKOLNICK: I want to uplift the words of Leonard Pitts on the war on drugs. I think there are two very specific things we can do now. If we look at why young men - young men of color are profiled and the criminalization of young black youth, I completely agree with Leonard that the war on drugs was an absolute war against black and brown America. And that has to come to an end. And we have a piece of legislation in the Senate called the Smarter Sentencing Act, which would end mandatory minimums of drug crimes. We should fight for that to get to the floor and get a vote.
There's an incredible proposition in California on the ballot this year - Proposition 47 - which reclassifies five felonies of simple drug possession into misdemeanors. Could bring home 20,000 people - mostly black and Latino men - from prison immediately and change the records of over a million people to reclassify their former felonies as misdemeanors. So those are two things that I think we can do now - Proposition 47 in California and the Smarter Sentencing Act in the Senate needs to come to a vote.
MARTIN: Neil Minkoff, what do you want to see happen? What's your charge - if I could call it that?
MINKOFF: So I know you're not going to believe this, but I completely agree on Michael on this - which is we need to get out of the situation where crimes, such as the ones that have been - he mentioned - especially around the war on drugs. Do not ruin a young person's life and push them to becoming potentially - give them the opportunity to not become a criminal, so that they have the ability to start afresh and not be besmirched or have their life ruined by a meaningless charge at an early stage. I think that's a wonderful example of something we can do immediately that would be of lasting effect.
MARTIN: Keli Goff?
GOFF: Well, one of the most important things - and I'm not trying to be glib here - is vote. And I don't just mean in the presidential elections. These Stand Your Ground laws would not be in the books in most states if people actually showed up in local elections. And particularly young people are less likely to do so. All voters are less likely to do so, but particularly young people.
So we have to impress upon people the importance of voting for all those offices that you don't think matter and you never heard of 'cause they do. And that's how these types of laws get on the books. And the last thing I want to say, Michel - it sounds like a small one, but it's not - is I've never met a person who hasn't tried to get out of jury duty. And the wake-up call for me with the Zimmerman verdict was I've been one of those people too busy. I have a new job. I can't take time off. I have a trip planned.
And I got called for jury duty a couple of months after that verdict, and I served. I proud to do so. And I remember I went on Facebook and said, I've never been prouder to show up. And I think this should be a wake-up call for all of us that we should all wear serving on a jury as a badge of honor 'cause it could make a difference.
MARTIN: Keli Goff is a columnist for TheRoot.com and the Daily Beast. She was with us from our bureau in New York, along with Michael Skolnick, who's editor-in-chief of GlobalGrind.com and a board member of the Trayvon Martin Foundation. Neil Minkoff is a health care consultant and contributor to National Review Online. He was with us from Boston. And Leonard Pitts is a Pultizer Prize-winning columnist with the Miami Herald and author of a number of books. He was here with us at our Washington, D.C., studios. Thank you all so much for speaking with us.
SKOLNICK: Thank you.
PITTS: Thank you.
GOFF: Thanks, Michel.
MINKOFF: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.