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Originally published July 29, 2013 at 9:28 PM | Page modified July 30, 2013 at 4:37 PM

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Guest: The racial self-policing that African-American men already do

The Zimmerman verdict means that even a man of color’s most benign behavior won’t save him, writes guest columnist Bryan Adamson.

Special to The Times

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AS a practicing lawyer for 20-plus years, I view televised trials with a level of emotional detachment. The George Zimmerman trial was another story, similar to the tragic circumstances surrounding the killing of Oscar Grant at Oakland’s, Fruitvale Station in California.

The race and justice lessons laid bare defy indifference. For the moment, my concern is not the verdict’s correctness, but the verdict’s meaning.

The jury’s acquittal of Zimmerman has legions of people of color asking: If the result is a child’s death and acquittal for the shooter, then exactly what behavior is nonthreatening?

On a rainy night in Sanford, Fla., Trayvon Martin, on his way home, wore a gray hoodie, talked on his cellphone, placed his hand at his waist sometimes and wended his way through his housing complex. Nothing criminal. George Zimmerman, armed with a gun, followed him.

That the unarmed Martin was killed and that, as some contend, Martin was somehow culpable for his own death leaves the code of black male behavior in tatters.

Parents of black and brown children bear the chilling burden of instructing them how to behave, places to avoid, what to wear or not wear and what to say or not say in the face of law enforcement.

The Zimmerman verdict reminds us that black and brown kids must self-police as a matter of survival against a common citizen. While African Americans, especially men, have learned and performed an entire code of behavior in the Jim Crow South and other parts of our nation, the fact is that the sorry lessons of history are forgotten.

As a black male, I consider myself sadly well-versed in the skill of racial self-policing. To this day, if I am pulled over by a police officer, I announce in advance every move I make. Hands at 10 and 2. “My registration is in the glove compartment, sir.” Pause. Reach after permission is given.

I am also well-versed in another type of self-policing: the skill of sublimation. Lest I be marked as an angry black man, I instead engage in purely mental calisthenics about why I’m being followed in a store or why I am being pulled over by a police cruiser for no apparent reason.

The code of racial self-policing is a deplorable fact of life for men of color. In the most perverse sense, it is one side of a social contract. Put bluntly, if I behaved a certain way and made no “furtive moves,” then I would not be shot.

The Zimmerman verdict shreds that agreement and replaces it with a kind of hopelessness which, to paraphrase Marvin Gaye, makes you wanna holler. Even a man of color’s most benign behavior won’t save him.

After the verdict, I’m left despairing just what exactly can I do so as to not raise the suspicion of someone armed with a gun and an arsenal of racial assumptions. Because like every man of color — indeed, like anyone — I can’t do it all.

Zimmerman had reported suspicious-looking black men in his neighborhood four times before he saw Martin. Significantly, Zimmerman did not see Martin peeking into windows, jiggling doorknobs, holding a weapon or hiding in shadows.

Yet, the absence of those acts did not seem to matter to Zimmerman. He chose to criminalize noncriminal behavior.

I cannot calibrate my life — every piece of clothing, accoutrement, every twitch, tweak or tic — to what’s comfortable for the George Zimmermans of the world.

I cannot always make sure my hand is not at my waist. I cannot promise not to get lost. I cannot let it rain and not put my hood over my head. I cannot stop the night from falling. I cannot stop the rain from falling.

I cannot stop the rain falling.

Bryan Adamson is associate professor of law at Seattle University School of Law.


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