assistant professor of history
I was a graduate public administration student at Murray State University in the spring semester of 1991 when I saw the video tape of the beating of motorist Rodney King by Los Angeles police officers. To be quite honest, I was outraged, but I was willing to allow the system to play out and deliver justice as determined by the facts and the law.
When the “not guilty” verdict was returned in April 1992, I was equally incensed, but I was horrified by the rioting that occurred. As a student of the non-violent resistance motifs of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi, I personally felt that more constructive and peaceful ways of protesting the jury’s verdict were in order. Just the same, the Los Angeles riots had a chilling effect on race relations for many years after that, exacerbated by the controversies over the trial and acquittal of O.J. Simpson some three years later.
As we approach the 20th anniversary of those riots, there are still deeply polarizing issues of race and resentment that our nation is yet to work through, even with an African-American president in the White House.
The murder of a Florida teen, Trayvon Martin, has awakened many of those issues that bitterly divide our nation and could very well set the stage for more intense conflict down the road if cooler heads do not prevail and soon.
The facts are still being investigated as to whether or not George Zimmerman acted in cold blood or in self defense, and at the time of this writing he has not been charged with a criminal offense. Meanwhile protests, many of which are of a constructive non-violent nature, continue unabated to demand his immediate arrest.
And this controversy has become politicized as pundits, candidates, the White House and journalists weigh in on the matter. As each new revelation about the character of Martin and Zimmerman, the actions of the Sanford Police Department, the Florida State Attorney General’s office and the Justice Department emerge, the story becomes more convoluted and the tensions increase on either side of the debate.
And let me state for the record, I support the immediate arrest and trial of George Zimmerman if for no other reason to allow the facts to come out at trial and the law equitably applied.
The fact remains that a precious life was taken, and there is a lot that we still do not know about the events of that tragic evening. It is time for both sides to come clean and the record set straight for justice’s sake. This is a historic national opportunity to discuss the role of stereotypes and perceptions and how they govern our treatment of each other.
This tragedy can also be used as a constructive forum to address alleged bias in the criminal justice system, issues of inequality, historical racial and socio-economic resentments and all of the other domestically based issues that continue to divide our nation. And this is a moment that the nation cannot take lightly. Because if we don’t, the inner collective bitterness on either side of the racial divide will fester until the next crisis emerges.
With our economy in its most fragile state, political and electoral discourse at its most uncivil and a geopolitical order that is becoming increasingly fragmented and violent, the last thing that our nation needs is an eternal social conflagration that could be gradually resolved if we would simply take the time to talk to and listen to each other.