At some point in the saga of George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin, it became a truism in certain quarters that a not-guilty verdict in the Zimmerman trial would be greeted by fire, chaos, and mob violence. This idea has apparently survived the almost completely peaceful protests over the verdict that took place this weekend: on Monday, Newt Gingrich—a man who has taught history in the state of Georgia—remarked on CNN that those in the crowds were “prepared, basically, to be a lynch mob.” The faulty narrative of impending doom has yielded to an equally inaccurate story of doom narrowly averted.
The prediction of violence was not simply wrong. It was wrong for all the wrong reasons, in an echo of the way responsibility in the case was shifted onto Martin’s shoulders. There’s a sly inversion at work in the references to lynch mobs and riots, one that takes Zimmerman’s acquittal and expands it to all of American history. This country has a long history of lynchings, but not one in which non-black defendants needed to fear the fury of black mobs. Amplifying the irony is the fact that the verdict was announced on July 13, 2013—the hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary of the Civil War draft riots in New York City, in which white mobs pursued and killed blacks on the streets and burned a black orphanage to the ground. America’s past is populated with similar rioters, driven by a desire to eliminate black voting, to discipline purported black criminals en masse, to veto school integration at the grassroots level. We scarcely discuss them and would like to believe that they have no bearing upon the present. The mass uprisings that followed the Rodney King verdict and Martin Luther King’s assassination remain lodged in public memory. The riots to prevent busing and punish blacks who wandered into white neighborhoods do not.
The Zimmerman alarmists fit into a broader, increasingly popular narrative, wherein whites are the primary victims of racism. It’s not solely a matter of historical revisionism—it’s also contemporary revisionism, reflecting a skewed perspective on the events in Sanford, Florida, and what followed them. Thousands of people gathered without hostility in cities across the country last year to ask that Zimmerman be arrested, and that the justice system be given a real chance to work. They sought legal redress, not bloodletting.
Last spring, I watched as hundreds of people, almost all wearing hooded sweatshirts, gathered in Union Square for an impromptu “Million Hoodie March” in solidarity with the parents of Trayvon Martin. A current of outrage, undoubtedly, circulated within that throng. But Martin’s mother and father, Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton, were models of grace and fortitude, making consistent appeals for peace; they were not wild-eyed demagogues whose vision of justice was located somewhere between the Second Amendment and the Old Testament. I could barely hear them when they spoke to the gathering, but, even so, the calm dignity of their words and their gratitude for the outpouring of support were obvious. What I remember most is the sight of them making their way through the protesters to a waiting car, as if they were drifting on a tide of grief. There was anger in the crowd, but the sentiment that predominated—as it has in the immediate aftermath of the Zimmerman verdict—was simply sadness.