A little girl standing on the periphery of the circle of bowed heads and praying people innocently asked her mother, “What happened?”
The 7-year-old’s question came Saturday, outside the federal courthouse in Kansas City, just one of hundreds of such gatherings nationally following the not-guilty verdict in the trial of George Zimmerman over the death of Trayvon Martin.
She asked the most pertinent question now, a week after the verdict. Time enough for critical thinking to override sheer emotion.
Anyone who watched the case with a legal eye was not shocked by the decision. That doesn’t mean they readily accept it as just. But prosecutors did not meet the burden of proof for second-degree murder. Statute-bound jury instructions and a range of factors, including jurors’ inability to connect and sympathize with Trayvon as readily as they did Zimmerman, also likely contributed to the outcome.
And it is unlikely that any sort of federal civil rights charge will prevail either. That is simply factual, based on experts’ analysis so far.
So the easy answer to the little girl’s query is that a murder that never should have occurred happened.
She needs to know that a young man died needlessly. That another man must live with the knowledge that he killed someone. And that the people gathered Saturday were honoring the dead teen and steadying for what they might accomplish next.
After all, most media, many peoples’ lives, have already moved away from this story. Martin’s death still marks a real opportunity. Some of us have been begging for these broader conversations and significant action since the story broke.
The case can be a basis for deep intellectual discussions about how stereotypes originate with a sliver of fact, then spiral out of control to horrendous ends. It can inform thoughtful conversations and action around self-defense and stand-your-ground laws and broader understanding of federal civil rights law.
Or it can predominantly become a story that gets twisted, with Martin/Zimmerman myth-making and opposing views cherry-picking elements of the story to bolster not so much truth but what they wish to believe and highlight. Such has been race in America.
Maybe not this time. The tenor of the weekend’s vigils and the near heroic calm of Martin’s parents have set the tone for better outcomes.
Whatever happens next will fully answer the little girl’s question.