A Verdict but No Answer to Why Trayvon Martin Is Dead

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Trayvon Martin's death in February of last year became, as so many things do these days, a front in America's political wars. A young black man shot and killed by an armed, non-black man was distilled into a number of important questions — Was Martin killed because he was black? Should George Zimmerman have been armed? Would Zimmerman have gone to trial at all had it not been for the public outcry? — and then distilled again into Democrat versus Republican, seen as black versus white. The not guilty verdict, a personal victory for Zimmerman, will be seen by many as a victory for a political party, or as an answer to all of those questions. It's an answer to none. And people of every political persuasion should now push even harder to answer them.

The only answer the jury's verdict provides is this: the state of Florida did not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that George Zimmerman violated the statutory mandates of the state's murder and manslaughter laws. We won't know immediately how close to that level the jurors believed the prosecution got, but it doesn't really matter. Reasonable doubt is a tricky, hazy marker that is as much a product of the jury and its members as it is of any sort of legal standard. The prosecution didn't get there. The jurors may believe that "stand your ground" laws are important, that concealed carry of firearms bolsters public safety, that American jurisprudence is beyond race. But that's not what they said when they checked the box next to "not guilty." No matter how you hold the jury's verdict up to the light, no matter how you interpret that "X," that's not what the verdict said.

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The loss of Trayvon Martin's life, everyone should and must agree, was horrible. But nearly as big a loss would be to consider the issues of racism and access to firearms and use of force now closed, resolved. They aren't. They remain painful gashes in America's complex and history-laden system of jurisprudence that the Trayvon Martin killing only broadened.

And they deserve immediate attention and contemplation and study. Perhaps with the verdict in, and, in a few hours or days, some cooling off of the frustration and elation felt by those hoping for one verdict or the other, perhaps then we can return to these issues. It's probable that the Martin killing forced these issues into the public conversation with an energy that prevented our considering them rationally and even-handedly. Once that furious energy dissipates, it is even a better time to figure out why Trayvon Martin is dead.

It is important for America to figure out if Trayvon Martin is dead because he was black and because he was young. It is important for America to figure out if we should outsource our safety to armed civilians. We should pour resources into resolving those questions once the spotlight has passed — examine the rates of homicide in communities of color and in Florida and the efficacy of "stand your ground." We should, of course, go further, looking at how and when and why America makes tacit and explicit distinctions between one group and another, or why some feel as though carrying a gun is important and vital and other find it frightening.

We are all mature and intelligent enough to understand, if pressed, the difference between being a Republican or a Democrat and insisting on the simplified party line on complex issues. We have to be. It's what our democracy depends upon. Outside of the crystallized tension of the verdict of George Zimmerman, we owe it to ourselves as a nation to figure out how this thing that should never, ever, ever have happened, did.

Trayvon Martin died before he lived his life. It's not a lot to ask that we try and figure out why he's dead. But: We won't. One side will claim victory. The other — the one that time and again has seen these questions remain unanswered — will be furious. And then those wounds and those questions will slip back into the background until some other horrible, stunning, preventable thing pushes them back into the spotlight.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.