- - Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Recent calls to impose an economic (or in the case of celebrities, a personal) boycott on the state of Florida because of dissatisfaction with the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial need to be reconsidered. Certainly, boycotts can be powerful weapons, especially in a free-market economy. However, they need to be utilized appropriately and with great wisdom rather than in a reactionary way without thorough consideration of the ramifications.

In the mid-1950s, Montgomery Ala., was a bastion of racism. One of the manifestations of systemwide discrimination against blacks was the rule that blacks had to sit in the back of the bus — even though they paid the same fare as everyone else. This long-standing tradition was tolerated but despised by generations of hard-working black citizens, who had grown accustomed to being treated unfairly. Fortunately, a young, very wise leader appeared on the scene and, at a series of church rallies, was able to explain to the black community the economic power they possessed if they collectively decided to withhold those bus fares and walk or carpool. They also boycotted many unfair merchants throughout the city. Initially, those being boycotted tried to pretend that this would have no impact whatsoever on them, but Dr. Martin Luther King and other wise leaders held the boycott together month after month until the racist establishment yielded to economic pressure and changed their de facto rules.

After the verdict was handed down in the Zimmerman case, the rage was immediate, widespread and understandable. A black teenager who was walking home and apparently minding his own business ended up being killed, and no one was penalized by the legal system. On the surface, this certainly would seem to be a miscarriage of justice to most fair-minded individuals. However, a jury was impaneled and our legal system — rightly or wrongly — concluded that George Zimmerman was not culpable in the death of Trayvon Martin after the facts in the case were carefully examined.


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In a case that was bound to be highly controversial and racially charged, it would have been wise to include jurors who shared the ethnic backgrounds of both parties involved. Frankly, it is hard to understand why the lawyers on either side did not seem to understand the implications of the composition of the jury in a racially controversial case. Nor was there appropriate understanding of the importance of optics in a case where the public interest was so high. There is no question that we have made substantial racial progress in American society and that we were moving toward a post-racial society until recent years. We must not abandon the idea of judging people by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin, and at the same time, we must be mature enough not to inject race into every issue that involves people of different racial backgrounds.

Preserving peace and safety is the job of police officers, but organizations such as neighborhood watches can be very helpful to police when properly supervised. Will there be tragedies caused by inappropriate judgments by neighborhood watchmen? Of course this will occur as long as imperfect human beings are involved. Even the police themselves are sometimes wrong because they, too, are human beings. There are plenty of cases today throughout the country where the police are accused of discrimination or other inappropriate actions. A few of these cases are justified, but the vast majority of police are decent and fair, in my experience. I invite those who feel otherwise to imagine an America or any other nation devoid of police for just 24 hours.

There are many things that can be learned from the case at hand, and we would be wise to concentrate on those things with the hope of avoiding these kinds of tragedies in the future. First of all, neighborhood watchmen should be certified by the local police, who can instruct them on what to do in situations such as this. For instance, they could have told Mr. Zimmerman to call out to a suspicious individual, identify himself as a neighborhood watchman and ask him where he was going or what he was doing. If the answer is unsatisfactory in such cases, the police should be called immediately. The police could teach the neighborhood watchmen that it is inappropriate to approach a suspect and also instruct them on the appropriate use of any weapons with which they might be armed.


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Opinions will vary on the outcome of this case based on ideology, upbringing and life experiences, but our legal system has spoken. The resultant controversy creates an opportunity to explore important issues of race and our judicial system, but calls for a boycott of Florida are unwarranted at this time. Such actions should be reserved for clear cases of systemic injustice.

Ben S. Carson is professor emeritus of neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins University.