ORLANDO, Fla. — If you want to better understand Colin Kaepernick’s message, spend a few minutes speaking with George Zimmerman’s lawyer.
That might sound odd, as the Zimmerman trial and 2013 acquittal ignited a firestorm that in some ways led directly to Kaepernick’s actions. But the lawyer who represented the man who shot Trayvon Martin has a long legal career aside of his work on that trial, and it has led him to some of the same beliefs Kaepernick has voiced – that America “oppresses black people and people of color.”
“No question,” says Mark O’Mara, “the system is biased against black members of the community.”
Asked about Kaepernick’s use of the word “oppresses” to describe what African-Americans and other minorities face, the attorney and CNN analyst answered this way: “Oppression has a nice tone to it because it’s an emotional word,” O’Mara said. “If we dissect the word – for reasons of the system instead of the self – well yeah, that’s what implicit bias is: a systemic degrading.”
O’Mara and Kaepernick are not in lock step. The lawyer isn’t thrilled with Kaepernick’s method of protest. He doesn’t particularly like how kneeling during the anthem has spread to colleges and high schools. “Go help out at a kid’s center,” he says. “Help out at a youth center.”
America concurs, according to a Yahoo Sports poll that shows that 44 percent of Americans still oppose Kaepernick’s choice to kneel during the national anthem.
But O’Mara sees the “implicit bias” in the criminal justice system every day, and he says he’s seen it for many years.
“If my client base is 30 percent black, let’s just say, and 15 percent of the people in my area are black, what does that tell you?” O’Mara says. “I’m not seeking blacks to represent. They are being dragged into criminal justice system higher than they should be.”
Some point to higher rates of criminality in the African-American community as an organic problem, rather than a symptom of bias. O’Mara says he’s seen too much over 30 years to believe that.
“You’re not going to get to the point [the percentage discrepancy between black arrests vs. black population] where it’s justified by their actions,” he says. “It’s just not.”
Kaepernick has laid the heavy share of the blame on the police. O’Mara sees that too, but he feels it’s more a general bias that is highlighted by the behavior of police, who stand at the “gateway” of the criminal justice system. The police, O’Mara says, reflect a bias that’s in the education system, the job system, and everywhere in America. We all have bias of some sort. It’s just that police bias can escalate into something that’s potentially deadly.
“It comes down to micro-decisions,” he explains. “The cop says something, the black person says, ‘Why are you asking?’ These micro-decisions get to the point where nobody planned it but this kid is going to get arrested. That’s what gets us to where double the black community is involved in the criminal justice system. Our cops, like the rest of us, walk into their job with predisposed concerns.”
One could argue micro-decisions led to Zimmerman’s fatal confrontation with Martin. Zimmerman likely did not intend to kill Martin the moment he saw him. But a crime wave in his area and his suspicion of the 17-year-old in his hoodie led to his call to the police – “This guy looks like he is up to no good” – which led to him exiting his car with his a gun. Moments later, there was a scuffle and Zimmerman shot Martin dead. Zimmerman was released, and the police chief said he had the right to use lethal force to defend himself. O’Mara successfully argued that point in the trial.
Zimmerman was not a police officer, but the case (and the acquittal) led to a deepened sense of fear and alarm in the black community. If a boy can get shot and killed in the act of carrying Skittles back to the gated community where he was staying, what would happen to me or my child or my brother or my son? President Obama said if he had a son, he would look like Martin. LeBron James and the Miami Heat took photos in hoodies. The anger was not just at the shooting, but at the seeming lack of accountability. It’s a concern that connected the Zimmerman case to police shootings in the four years since: Are black people safe and are shooters held accountable?
Many see the Zimmerman trial as a miscarriage of justice, but to have all of those facts out in the open, in a very public display, shed light where perhaps it needed to be shed. It was a painful awakening for many, even though for many minorities it was another example of a recurring problem.
Part of that problem is the implicit bias O’Mara speaks of, whether it’s in an individual or an institution. The remedy goes beyond body cameras; awareness is needed. And awareness is needed of bias against the police, too.
“We have to deal with the reality that cops have a very, very tough job,” O’Mara says. “They get disrespected for a living. Now people are disrespecting cops even more. We need to acknowledge it.”
What can be done? That’s where Kaepernick’s protest has run into even more debate. Will things really change from kneeling during the anthem? Will things change from legislative upheaval? From police reform? Or will they change, slowly but surely, from increased awareness? “Implicit bias” thrives when it’s unacknowledged.
“If you stay ignorant of this reality,” O’Mara says, “you’ll never sense the need to address it.”
That’s probably something Kaepernick would strongly agree with.
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