The Zimmerman verdict: a teachable moment for our children

The George Zimmerman verdict caught me off guard and upset me. Both make it hard to talk to my children about it.

I do need to talk with them. We talked about Trayvon Martin’s death when it happened, and stories about the verdict have been in the newspapers that end up all over our house, as well as on NPR which our kids end up listening to in the kitchen or car. It’s going to come up. It already has with my 15-year-old, who is furious.

I just didn’t expect him to be acquitted. I guess I expected at least manslaughter. But as President Obama said in his statement, “…we are a nation of laws, and a jury has spoken.”

Not that juries always get things right. But I want my children to understand that we are indeed a nation of laws—and not just any laws, but laws that are designed to protect the innocent. When we chose the mantra “innocent until proven guilty,” we knew that some of our guilty would go unpunished. But we decided that was OK; protecting each and every person, including George Zimmerman, was—and is—important to us.

Sometimes it doesn’t feel so OK. But I admire the honor and integrity of that decision to protect the innocent; the values it embodies are values I want my children to learn and live.  That’s what I will tell them.

However, the fact that a jury has spoken doesn’t mean we should say “oh well” about Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman and get back to life as usual. That would be a terrible mistake. We need to stay upset and angry—but not necessarily about the verdict.

It’s pretty clear that Zimmerman “profiled” Martin. He decided he was dangerous and up to no good purely because of how he looked, nothing else. The events of his death were set in motion because he was a young black man walking at night. We need to stay angry and upset about that until things change.

Racism is embedded into our culture—not just in how we see each other, but in our criminal justice system as well. In a really great blog, Robin Kelley writes, “Unless we challenge the entire criminal justice system and mass incarceration, there will be many more Trayvon Martins and a constant dread that one of our children might be next.”

We have our work cut out for us. In his statement, President Obama also said:

“…we should ask ourselves if we’re doing all we can to widen the circle of compassion and understanding in our own communities. We should ask ourselves if we’re doing all we can to stem the tide of gun violence that claims too many lives across this country on a daily basis. We should ask ourselves, as individuals and as a society, how we can prevent future tragedies like this. As citizens, that’s a job for all of us. That’s the way to honor Trayvon Martin.”

There is so much we can do, each and every one of us, to honor Trayvon Martin and prevent more families from losing their children. We can take every single opportunity to teach our children tolerance. We can get to know our neighbors, and offer help when it’s needed. We can talk with our elected officials about how to keep us safe from gun violence. We can work to make our schools better, and higher education more affordable for everyone. We can create jobs for youth and safe places for them to meet, play and learn. We can fight for justice and equality and teach our children to do the same.

That’s what I want to talk to my children about: about what we can and will do. I hope you do too.