Civil rights leader Jesse Jackson said Friday that he’s grateful the rest of the country has sat up and taken notice of the tragic slaying of Trayvon Martin. But he can’t help but wonder: Why has it taken so long for everyone else to recognize the chronic injustices that African Americans face?
“We’re surprised that everyone else is surprised,” Jackson told the Los Angeles Times. African Americans have tried for decades to get the rest of America to understand their plight, he said, particularly their beliefs that justice is still elusive in many parts of America, especially the Deep South.
Then along comes the Trayvon Martin case, and facts that are not in contention: Volunteer neighborhood watch captain George Zimmerman pursued and then gunned down the unarmed 17-year-old last month, and never faced arrest because police said there was no evidence to contradict his claim that he fired in self-defense.
“I hope that this will be a transformative moment,” Jackson said.
Jackson was speaking Friday morning from the Chicago offices of his Rainbow PUSH Coalition. He had just returned from duties in Belgium and Switzerland. He was in Geneva on Wednesday as part of a delegation of religious leaders trying to find a way to end the violence in Syria. Jackson was preparing to get back on a plane for a flight south so he can add his voice to the growing protests in and around Sanford, Fla., where Martin’s shooting took place.
Jackson said the Martin case is getting plenty of media attention overseas, attention that is both embarrassing to white America and humiliating to black America.
Moreover, he said, the failure to make an arrest in the case takes away the nation’s “moral authority” to address injustices in other countries when it fails to do the same within its own borders.
Jackson predicted that the protests will continue to multiply in number and that the ranks of protestors will swell until Zimmerman is arrested.
“As long as he is outside of the court system, the protests will intensify and spill over into other dimensions,” Jackson said. “His lack of appearance in the court system is a source of embarrassment and humiliation. He needs to face the court.”
Jackson said that there is a mistaken assumption in some corners of America that all racial problems went away with the election of President Obama. “There was this feeling that we were kind of beyond racism,” he said. “That’s not true. His victory has triggered tremendous backlash.”
He added: “Blacks are under attack.” African American families are facing record home foreclosures and unemployment. Their children are burdened with student loan debt. States, particularly conservative ones, are passing voter laws that leaders know will disenfranchise blacks and other minorities. Meanwhile, the nation’s prisons are brimming with black faces, he said, and their numbers that suggest that the legal system is quicker to send blacks to prison than whites.
Jackson said gunfire in America continues to be a problem for all Americans -- not just blacks. Why, he asked, isn’t America outraged, that far more people die of gun violence in one year in America than the number of soldiers killed in the wars waged in Iraq and Afghanistan?
“Our disparities are great,” he said. “Targeting, arresting, convicting blacks and ultimately killing us is big business.”
Jackson said he also wants to see the Martin protests accomplish something else beyond justice for the slain teen’s family. He said he wants the repeal of Florida’s controversial “stand your ground” law, which gives legal protection to people who fight back in self-defense. Some believe that the Florida police were nodding to that law when they declined to arrest Zimmerman after the Feb. 26 shooting.
Many other states have similar statutes, Jackson said, and he wants them all repealed, starting with Florida’s.
“No justice, no peace,” he said. “The indifference to this kind of pain is just going to intensify the protests.”