Washington DC – The Vermont Avenue Baptist Church, founded by freed slaves in the 1860s, gathered for a special service on the afternoon of July 14th, the day after George Zimmerman was acquitted in the murder of teenager Trayvon Martin.
The worshippers, most of them greying, wore downcast expressions with their Sunday’s best outfits. Fifty-seven years after Martin Luther King Jr preached at the church, for them the Zimmerman verdict underscored the unfulfilled promise of equality for African-Americans.
“When we look at the injustice, racism, hatred, and killing of our men in this country – not only Trayvon Martin. We have to work for peace, harmony, love, and oneness before the Lord,” thundered Pastor Brian Watson, who was visiting from his own church seven kilometres to the northeast.
The verdict came just weeks after the US Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the landmark legislation that scrapped voting restrictions on African-Americans. Section 4 of the law – which determines the purview of Section 5, the key provision requiring states with a history of discrimination to get advance federal approval for changes to their voting laws – was deemed unconstitutional. Section 5 is effectively null without Section 4.
“Nearly 50 years later, things have changed dramatically,” Chief Justice John Roberts, a longtime opponent of the law, wrote for the majority. He added: “[W]hile any racial discrimination in voting is too much, Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions.” Congress had reauthorized the bill four times, most recently in 2006.
As Pastor Watson’s sermon suggested, few African-American men here agree with the court’s underlying logic. Instead, most say the two verdicts only confirm their status as a population under siege in the land of the free.
Across town, 16-year-old Anthony Holloway sought refuge from a summer heat wave on a park bench beneath a patch of trees.
“It’s crazy he got away free. Michael Vick got put away for dogfighting, but George Zimmerman didn’t get time,” Holloway told Al Jazeera, referring to the American football player who was jailed for organising dogfights.
“They’re saying dogs are more than African-Americans. It’s telling me we’ve got to look out because people will stereotype black people.”
It's crazy he got away free. Michael Vick got put away for dog fighting, but George Zimmerman didn't get time.
Indeed, racial and ethnic minorities have long been disproportionately targeted by the American justice system. African-Americans use drugs at a rate equal to whites, but are arrested for it three times as often.
Black youth make up 17 percent of the young population, but account for 37 percent of detainees and 58 percent of youth held in adult prisons. The category of homicides most likely to be found justifiable in court are those committed by white civilian assailants against young black victims.
“I think if it was me who killed [Martin], it would’ve been a different story,” Joshua Ligon, a polite 26-year-old with tattoos and a backward hat, told Al Jazeera. “If you sit here and watch enough, you’ll see police here pull up and mess with us. You go to file a report at the district, they just file it and throw it away. We go to the mall and get followed around at stores.”
Ligon, who said he works at the department store Macy’s and studies business management at Westwood College, added: “They do a lot of profiling. They don’t realise we’re hard-working men. We get off work and have nothing to do. We don’t have kids. We come and chill, but they see us as criminals and thugs. We don’t pay it any mind. We’re used to it.”
Rolling back rights
The Supreme Court ruling was only the latest blow in a fight for African-American voting rights throughout American history. Following the Civil War, southern blacks tasted legal equality for the first time, sending 14 deputies to the House of Representatives while electing two Senators.
But the Supreme Court helped outraged whites eviscerate the gains, and African-Americans were purged from the voter rolls. New restrictions on voting – including poll taxes and literacy tests – were adopted to circumvent constitutional guarantees of equality.
A wave of civil rights activism forced a reluctant President Lyndon B. Johnson to enact the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The attacks on black political participation never abated. Between 1982 and 2006, the act blocked more than 1,000 discriminatory changes to voting laws.
After 2010, Republican-driven legislation in more than a dozen states approved fresh voting restrictions. In 2013, more than 75 have been adopted nation-wide. These provisions, many of which affect African-Americans disproportionately, add to the existing problem of felony disenfranchisement, which has deprived about seven percent of black men of their voting rights.
|Inside Story: Justice, Law and the Zimmerman case|
“The US Supreme Court is rolling back civil rights protections and legislation on the pretense that we are now colourblind, even as America maintains a blatantly biased criminal justice system, including a system of mass incarceration that governs and controls millions of black and brown people,” legal scholar Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, told Al Jazeera.
For Samuel Jordan, an African-American attorney in Washington DC, the Supreme Court ruling was no surprise. Having grown up in Goldsboro, North Carolina – a town governed by “strict apartheid” in his words – he said he has no illusions about American justice.
“As the Republicans see it, you can have a whiter party, and white domination of politics, and by extension society and the economy in the south, if you can manage the enfranchisement of African-Americans and other peoples of colour. That decision was a step in that direction.”
Dark days ahead
As a veteran of the civil rights movement and former head of Amnesty International’s campaign to abolish the death penalty in the US, Jordan sees dark days ahead.
“I expect to see not only extended felon disenfranchisement, but an impact on voter registration and voter turnout for African-Americans and people of colour throughout the country,” he said.
Alexander concurred. “We can expect to see increasingly aggressive efforts to draw legislative districts in a manner that suppresses the power of African Americans and Latinos, as well as more legislation that makes the process of voting more burdensome, designed to keep poor people from the polls,” she said.
Theoretically, Congress could draft a new coverage formula for the Voting Rights Act, or pass new legislation. But that is little consolation for activists, considering the deadlock currently prevailing in the assembly.
“We need great movements among masses of people – not only African-Americans but their allies across race, ethnic, and class boundaries – because we’re all in need of a nation that promotes democratic participation at every level,” Jordan told Al Jazeera. “There are no prospects for participatory democracy and equality in current social arrangements.”
Back at the church on Vermont Avenue, worshippers bowed their heads and held hands for a closing prayer. Pastor Watson prayed for the homeless, people with psychological problems, the poor, “racial harmony”, and the American legal system.
“Let the church say, ‘Amen,'” the congregation said in unison.