Protests across the US that erupted in the wake of a Florida jury's acquittal of George Zimmerman over the fatal shooting of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin have largely focused on race. The civil rights activists who are calling for justice have stirred passions, in some places sparking violence that could easily spin out of control. President Barack Obama has rightly called for calm and restraint. But words alone are not what Americans need. In a country so riven by race, despite the denials of many politicians, damage control and making streets safe to walk are what most matter.
There can be no denying the racial elements to the case: an African-American shot dead on a rainy night 17 months ago in the name of self-defence by the son of a white father and Peruvian mother on the streets of a middle-class neighbourhood that had experienced a spate of robberies. Protesters allege racial profiling by the defendant and police and bias by the six-member jury, white bar one. But it was not the judge's job to help mend the US racial divide. Her role was to see that a fair trial was conducted, and, under Florida's laws, that is what happened. The decision was arrived at without a confession, scientific evidence or a definitive witness. Matters like the state's lenient gun laws, controversial self-defence legislation, the authority of vigilantes and whether race played a part were not factors.
Zimmerman may yet face federal prosecution or a wrongful- death civil action for damages by Martin's parents. Whether crucial details that have yet to be revealed would then come to light is debatable. But however the case evolves, it will not make Florida's cities safer, day or night.
Eliminating racism may never be possible. More constructive, then, is for Americans to focus on the attainable: ensuring that the streets of their cities are safe. Gun-toting citizens who appoint themselves law enforcers have no place. Laws in states like Florida that permit this must be changed to give police sole responsibility for protecting communities.