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Awkwardly Awaiting The Zimmerman Trial's Outcome

Members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (from left: the Rev. Levy Wilcox, the Rev. R.L. Gundy, the Rev. Jake Stovall, and Jerry West)  appeal for calm in Sanford, Fla., before a verdict in the Zimmerman trial.
John Raoux
Members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (from left: the Rev. Levy Wilcox, the Rev. R.L. Gundy, the Rev. Jake Stovall, and Jerry West) appeal for calm in Sanford, Fla., before a verdict in the Zimmerman trial.

With the verdict looming in the trial of George Zimmerman, who's charged in the 2012 shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, suddenly speculation has turned to this: the possibility of angry protesters turning to violence if the outcome isn't the one they envisioned.

For more than a year, the case has sharply divided onlookers. Did Zimmerman racially profile the black male teen? Was he standing his ground and defending himself? Against that backdrop, it should come as no surprise that there's also a debate over whether even suggesting there could be post-verdict rioting is racist.

Yet with tensions running high, the threat of violence is very real. Just look at the riots and looting that happened in Oakland, Calif., after Oscar Grant was killed by BART Police Officer Johannes Mehserle in 2009, and after Mehserle's involuntary manslaughter conviction the next year. And you don't have to dig too deep on social media to unearth the ugliness on both sides of the current case — pro-Zimmerman and anti-Zimmerman.

Still, it's weird to be sitting around discussing human behavior like weather patterns, right? That storm front we've seen coming through could finally hit shore this weekend, and there are signs it could be a violent one!

Some folks reacted to the general oddness of this moment of nervous anticipation the way many of us react to uncomfortable moments — with dark humor.

As funny as that Twitter exchange is, it raises a question: How do you prepare for, maybe, possibly, there-could-be-but-we're-not-quite-sure-it's-going-to-happen, violent rioting?

Daniel Myers, a sociology professor at the University of Notre Dame, points out what should be obvious: If there's an opportunity for people to gather in big groups following the verdict, there's a chance for things to get out of hand. And don't let it be hot, because people go outside when temperatures are hot.

"You have to find ways of keeping people from gathering where events can occur," says Myers, who has done scholarly work on the racial rioting of the 1960s and '70s. "That's tough to do in a situation like this."

In Florida, police could put on a show of force and have officers lined up along the street outside the courthouse ready to act, but that introduces a new danger: clashes between the police and people in the crowd.

"Rumors spread that the police hurt someone, people gather ... and it increases chances for those sparks to go off," Myers says.

Technology could fuel the fire since it's easy to coordinate over your cellphone. Meet me at the corner of Toil and Trouble streets right now! Social media can also help quicken the pace. It wouldn't be the first time protests have been organized via Twitter, Facebook and other social networks. It's hard for officials to counteract that.

The Broward County Sheriff's Office has decided to be proactive with the Zimmerman trial by creating a video that urges people in the community who are unhappy with the verdict to "Raise Your Voice, Not Your Hands," by "standing together as one, no cuffs, no guns."

The concept isn't new. Back in the 1990s, after people died in riots following a previous Chicago Bulls' NBA championship victory, Michael Jordan, Phil Jackson and Dennis Rodman urged fans to celebrate the team's achievements with style and dignity. A few years later, the Los Angeles Lakers stole that idea, and Glen Rice, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal asked their fans to celebrate their team's achievements with style and dignity.

However, this isn't a basketball tournament, and these aren't fans. And as Gene Demby pointed out earlier this week, this case has a lot of different issues tangled up in it.

"Who that message seems to be coming from will be critical as to whether people pay attention to the message," Myers says. "The mayor saying 'Don't riot,' could be seen as scolding."

Which brings me to this point: Preparing for the threat of violence in a tense situation isn't anything specially related to black people.

Back on June 7, 1963, Eugene "Bull" Connor — yes, the man best known for ordering cops to set fire hoses and dogs on black protesters in Birmingham — addressed a Citizens' Council rally (<--that's video of Connor's speech) ahead of the scheduled integration of the University of Alabama campus. The fear at the time? That white people would riot to stop black students from attending the university.

Anyway, here's what he told folks that day:

"Don't go around that university! Let the law enforcement agency — that's what you got 'em hired for — and the governor of the state of Alabama handle this thing," Connor said.

"Tell your friends when you leave here between now and Tuesday, 'Don't go up there, leave it alone. They gonna handle this situation. Just leave it alone.' "

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tanya Ballard Brown is an editor for NPR. She joined the organization in 2008.
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