Zimmerman verdict strikes chords locally

Harriett Gaston of Altoona is “concerned” about the not guilty verdict returned by a Florida jury in the George Zimmerman murder case, and she considers the death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin a “tragedy,” but she also asks whether it is appropriate to attempt to resolve America’s racial issues in a courtroom trial.

There was the O.J. Simpson case and the Rodney King beating case, both situations that focused the nation’s attention on the law and justice for African Americans, the chairwoman of the African American Heritage Project of Blair County mentioned.

The Trayvon Martin case was similar in that Zimmerman, concerned about crime and a member of a neighborhood watch, began to follow Martin and in the end the two clashed. Zimmerman used a gun, he contended.

Gaston, in discussing the trial Sunday, said sometimes we impose the issues we are trying to deal with on other people and we have them carry the burdens.

“We get caught up in emotion. We want justice. Sometimes our vision of justice isn’t what justice is. We allow folks to stir it up. They do a good job,” she explained.

In the aftermath of the Zimmerman trial some expressed discontent and some planned marches, but Gaston said that putting the burden of our issues on this one trial may not be appropriate.

A trial focuses on the issues for a time but when it’s over, the issues are still there, she explained.

The overall picture, as she posed it, is that there are more young black men in prison than in college. She asked, “What does that mean?”

“We have a lot of work to do,” she said.

She said that everyday emphasis must be on making sure “folks, people, are being dealt with equitably,” making sure people have representation in the justice system.

If people are not getting legal representation, she said, we are just putting the lid on the pot with things still simmering inside.

“I just consider the incident a tragedy,” she said of the death of the Florida teen.

And, she pointed out George Zimmerman’s life has been changed by all that has happened.

Gaston added a different perspective to aftermath of the dramatic not guilty verdict returned in Zimmerman’s favor late Saturday night.

Other Blair County residents offered their opinions.

Michael Arter, an associate professor of criminal justice at Penn State Altoona, said he didn’t know the details of trial, so he limited his comment by saying, “It was one of those situations where the facts don’t match up with the law.”

The defense strategy in the case was to challenge the prosecution’s contention that Zimmerman was stalking and seeking to confront Martin in his neighborhood – the insinuation being that he was profiling the teen based on his race.

The prosecution, Arter said, had a difficult time proving its case and in the end was not successful.

He said he hopes the end result of the trial will not spill into the streets.

Don Witherspoon, the president of the Blair County Chapter of the NAACP, is hoping the same thing.

Witherspoon, speaking for the NAACP, said, “We are kind of disappointed in the verdict.”

“Overall,” said Witherspoon, “we have a good justice system.”

It makes mistakes, he said, but he said he supports the system.

Witherspoon is in constant touch with the Blair County justice system, daily following cases to make certain minorities are on a “level playing field” when they go into court.

In talking about the Zimmerman case, the defendant thought he was protecting his neighborhood, but the question that loomed large for Witherspoon was, “I don’t know why a gun got involved.”

He said, “We are praying we don’t have repercussions from the verdict.

“The country already has enough issues with unemployment …We hope cooler heads prevail,” he said.

“We are sorry for the victim’s family,” Witherspoon said,” but he added, we should “move on.”

Mirror Staff Writer Phil Ray is at 946-7468.