Trayvon Martin And The Pursuit Of Justice

Oceans of ink have already been spilled in commentaries on the death of Trayvon Martin, and on the acquittal of his accused murderer, George Zimmerman. Were oceans more to be spent, we would still be no closer to achieving what all who have cared about this case crave most of all– certainty about what really happened that tragic night when a teenage boy lost his life, and a grown man’s life was changed forever.

The absence of a witness, and, of course, of Trayvon Martin himself, left not only us, but of course the jury itself, with but one version of the way the event played out. All that is for sure is that Trayvon Martin is dead, and George Zimmerman is a free man. And many of us– myself included– have been left with a sad and distressing feeling that, though the law, such that it is in Florida, was technically served, justice was not necessarily done.

In a state where the acquisition and ownership of firearms is far less restrictive than New York, it seems to me that a law like “Stand Your Ground,” which allows great latitude in the matter of self defense and how it is understood, is nothing less than an invitation to tragedy. Both the fact that Trayvon Martin was shot to death, and that the man who took his life was acquitted, are not shocking.

And, although I of course have no way of empirically proving this, I am completely convinced that, all protestations to the contrary, considerations of race and profiling were front and center in this case. Trayvon Martin may not have been an angel– few teenagers are– but it’s hard not to see what he did wrong, if he did anything wrong, as being “guilty of walking while black,” or, even worse, guilty of walking while black and wearing a hoodie. Were Trayvon Martin white and George Zimmerman black, who among us, in his heart of hearts, truly believes that this case would have resolved as it did?

Whether we want to admit it or not, what the sorry story of Trayvon Martin illustrates quite clearly is that we very far from living in a “post-racial society,” as some would like to have us believe. Yes, America saw its way clear to elect an African-American president. To some degree, that is a sign that we have, indeed, progressed to the point where we are, under certain circumstances, able to see beyond the color of a person’s skin. President Obama’s Harvard pedigree, coupled with his oratorical eloquence and gifts as a writer, made him, I dare say, much more palatable to those who might not have been inclined to vote for a candidate of color.

But the experience of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates not that long ago, when a Cambridge police officer arrested him on suspicion that he was breaking into his own home in Cambridge from which he was locked out, made it eminently clear that, for many people, pre-determined assumptions based on what something “looks like” are as likely as not to determine how we act. Gates was black, a white police officer assumed that a black man fiddling with a lock in Cambridge was trying to break in because he associated urban crime with black people, and the rest is history. Similarly, George Zimmerman assumed that a black teenager wearing a hoodie in a predominantly white neighborhood in Florida was up to no good, and the rest is history with that story, too. Except for one big difference: in the first case, Professor Gates was furious, but alive. In the latter, a teenaged boy is dead.

As I wrote earlier, oceans of ink cannot and will not resolve the uncertainties of this case, because there is no way to know or discover what actually happened. There is not even a “he said, he said” to parse.

That said, I find myself left to deal with my own sense of unease with the decision of the jury. And in so doing, my mind turns quickly to a text that Jews will be reading in just a few short weeks as we make our way through Deuteronomy and move inexorably towards Rosh Hashanah.

Deuteronomy 16:20 states what might fairly be considered Judaism’s clarion call to a society based on justice and equity. Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you might live, and inherit the land that the Lord your God has given you.

The use of the word “pursue,” tirdof in Hebrew, is what is of significance here. The same root, which implies “to chase after,” is used in a famous description of Aaron, Moses’ brother who served as the first High Priest in the desert sanctuary. Aaron is referred to in our tradition as an ohev shalom v’rodef shalom, not just a lover of peace, but a pursuer of peace as well. Though tradition faults him for his relentless pursuit of peace because it was understood to have contributed to the sin of the golden calf– Aaron should have gotten angry at the restless mobs instead of trying to appease them– his constant desire to achieve peace even under the most difficult of circumstances was considered, on the whole, a most admirable quality.

In a similar vein, the fact that the Torah text forcefully exhorts us not merely to value justice, or to live justly, but to actually pursue justice when it seems not to be present, is ultimately instructive. Where there is no justice, we must pursue it. Without that commitment to a just society, the Torah essentially says that we would be unworthy of inhabiting the land of Israel. You can’t make a more powerful statement about the absolute imperative of social justice in society than that…

And that is why, as a Jew, I cannot accept that the matter of Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman is over because the jury in criminal court found Zimmerman not guilty. Where the justice– the justice, not the letter of the law– is so clearly absent, it must aggressively be pursued, if not by the local prosecutor then by the federal authorities as a civil matter. Otherwise, the blood of Trayvon Martin will continue to cry out from the earth, as Abel’s did. We are our brother’s keeper… even if we never met him.

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.