UMass forum on racial fall-out of Zimmerman verdict

Last modified: Wednesday, July 31, 2013

AMHERST — Those who spoke at a Friday night forum said the verdict in the trial of George Zimmerman exposes some ugly truths about the state of race relations in America.

“People are not judged by the content of their character,” said Trevor Baptiste, one of about 40 in attendance at the University of Massachusetts Campus Center. “They’re judged by ‘you’re not white.’ ”

Zimmerman was acquitted July 13 by a Florida jury of a charge of murder in connection with the Feb. 26, 2012, shooting death of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old black high school student.

That “gut-wrenchingly painful” verdict, Baptiste said, demonstrated the inherent risks involved in being a young person of color in America.

“It’s always been a dangerous world,” he said. “The veil has been pulled from a lot of people’s eyes to just how dangerous it is.”

Baptiste said the racial intolerance he believes led Zimmerman to pursue and gun Martin down is born of a system that teaches people to fear people of color.

“The system is designed to get people to fear you,” he said.

That institutional fear is what makes Zimmerman only the latest in a series of people who have assaulted or killed black men without any legal repercussions over the years, said Camilla Carpio, who begins her senior year at Amherst Regional High School in the fall.

“This is a system that has been ingrained into our everyday lives,” she said.

Carpio, using statistics from the New York Civil Liberties Union, said despite being less likely to be found carrying drugs or weapons when stopped by police when compared to whites, blacks and Latinos are arrested, convicted and jailed in much greater proportions.

Carpio suggested Zimmerman’s defense team used that to their advantage by consistently portraying their client as white, despite his Peruvian heritage.

Christopher Tinson, associate professor of African-American Studies at Hampshire College and co-host of Trgger Radio on WMUA said, “When I think about Trayvon’s death and this verdict, part of me crumbles all over again.”

Tinson said for many people of color, the aftermath of the Zimmerman verdict is just a respite before the next incident of unpunished violence.

On the Monday after the verdict, Tinson said he discussed the case with a white man in a coffee shop.

Tinson asked the man if he planned on discussing the case with his 12-year-old daughter. The man said he didn’t.

Tinson said that exchange demonstrated a fundamental difference between being white and non-white in America.

He said the white father had the option to discuss with his children how Zimmerman’s acquittal might affect the way they conduct themselves in public and what to do when confronted with violence.

Tinson said he doesn’t feel he has a choice whether to have that discussion with his own son, considering it necessary in light of the verdict.

Harry Rockland-Miller, director of the Center for Counseling and Psychological Health at UMass, called the verdict a “collective trauma.”

“Trayvon could have been any of our sons or brothers,” he said.

Rockland-Miller said Zimmerman’s acquittal has re-awakened existing traumas in people who have come to his office since last week’s verdict.

“When there is a collective trauma, it hits all of us individually; our reactions are different,” he said. “It gets complicated.”

The forum, “Social Justice and Trayvon Martin: An Evening of Contemplation, Support, and Sharing” was sponsored by the office of the chancellor and the division of student affairs and campus life at UMass Amherst.

Bob Dunn can be reached at


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