15/07/2013 10:15 BST | Updated 13/09/2013 06:12 BST

George Zimmerman's Acquittal Proves That Malcolm Was Right


In the end there was a banal inevitability to the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the killing of Trayvon Martin.

Perhaps it was because the jury comprised six women, all but one of whom were white (the demographic that feels most threatened by young black men in the US), in a state - Florida - not known for its warmth towards black people. Or perhaps it was due to the history of race relations in the US and the nature of a society in which blacks continue to fare worse than every other racial group according to social indicators when it comes to poverty, education, housing, health, crime, and life expectancy. Most probably it was both of the aforementioned combined.

The point is that the tragic and senseless killing of black teenager Trayvon Martin in Florida on the night of February 26 2012 - and the controversy that has erupted over the acquittal of the man responsible, George Zimmerman - confirms that race remains an ever-present corrosive in US society, despite the election of the nation's first black president in 2008.

Indeed, rather than the culmination of Martin Luther King's dream of an America shorn of racism and prejudice, an America where men and women are not only created but also treated equal, Obama's election for an increasing number merely papered over the cracks for an all too brief moment. In truth - much more than the Ivy League patina of opportunity, enterprise and dynamism with which the nation prefers to identify itself - the United States is defined by social and economic injustice, statistically proven to be closely connected to race.

No matter, in Obama's story liberal America found the neat and tidy denouement to the civil rights movement of the sixties it had long craved. And in a country reared on a diet of Hollywood happy endings it was a story which gained huge traction, allowing the millions who supported and elected the first black president to suspend disbelief.

Given the regularity with which young black men are racially profiled as criminals in towns and cities across America, the facts of this particular case hardly seem to matter. In sum Trayvon Martin was killed as a direct result of being racially profiled as a criminal suspect. He was a victim of the demonisation and criminalisation of young black men in a society in which they occupy out of all proportion to their number the bulk of the nation's prison population, a population that now stands at over two million.

The unconscionable aspect of Trayvon Martin's killing is that the man who shot him, George Zimmerman - a self appointed neighbourhood watch captain and one of the vast army of wannabe cops who seek the next best thing working in the multi-billion dollar US security industry - was originally questioned by the police and released after he'd cited the state's 'stand your ground' law, which allows lethal force to be deployed in acts of self defence under certain circumstances. It is a law as bizarre and elastic in its hostage to interpretation as any you could possibly find, especially in a part of the world where the Old Testament increasingly vies with the Constitution for supremacy when it comes to forming the basis of the judicial system.

Bad enough if Trayvon Martin had been the gang member, criminal, thug stereotype that US society has labelled young black men like him. He wasn't. However he was a 17 year black man dressed in a hoodie making his way home to his father's girlfriend's house after a trip to a local grocery store. And in a town like Sanford, Florida this made him guilty. In fact what more evidence did George Zimmerman need to get out of his car, follow and apprehend him?

The frontier spirit of the law in states like Florida has long stood behind such acts of vigilante justice. But in this instance there was a national backlash. Immediately after Martin's killing, and the initial decision by the local authorities to allow Zimmerman to go free, protest marches and rallies took place across the country. The ensuing controversy forced prominent public figures up to and including the president himself to come out with statements. Obama was particularly poignant when he said, "If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon Martin."

What will he say now though? What can he say? At a time like this words of conciliation and peace are empty. How there be conciliation and peace when there is no justice?

Sadly, Trayvon Martin's death and the acquittal of the man who pulled the trigger reminds the world that when it comes to black people in America it was Malcolm X and not Martin Luther King who understood most clearly the reality of their plight. Particularly prescient was Malcolm's statement in response to MLK being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, which in light of this tragic event could have been made yesterday in relation to the president, himself a recipient of the same award.

He said:

"He got the peace prize, we got the problem.... If I'm following a general, and he's leading me into a battle, and the enemy tends to give him rewards, or awards, I get suspicious of him. Especially if he gets a peace award before the war is over."

It would be hard to find a black person in America right now who would argue with this statement, never mind 40 years ago when it was first made.