Crenshaw was one of the hot spots 21 years ago when Los Angeles exploded after the acquittal of the white police officers who had been captured on tape beating Rodney King. For years, the broad thoroughfare was lined with empty buildings. But things have been changing in one of the last African-American neighborhoods in the city. Back in 2006, an African-American investor led a major renovation of the "mall." It now includes a Wal-Mart where area residents both shop and work.
So why riot and loot your neighborhood retailer?
That is, of course, precisely what happened this past Sunday night, when the Los Angeles Police Department, suited out for "riots" and "mass arrests," broke up not so much a riot but a crowd of looters protesting the acquittal of George Zimmerman?
I ask again: Why does damaging a store that serves the African-American community, in a mall whose primary investor is African-American, whose very purpose was to provide both retail and employment opportunities in the African-American community, why does doing that in Los Angeles serve the cause of social justice for African-Americans?
I can understand the frustration many feel with the Florida verdict. As a law professor, I can explain to you why it is understandable and even entirely predictable that the jury would have "reasonable" doubt about who started a fight when only one of the participants is alive to tell his story (albeit without taking the stand and facing cross-examination). I can try to convince you that it is not the job of the criminal justice system to solve the social ills of our society, real and deep though they are, and that when jurors try to do that, they often do more harm than good. Even if you disagree, why destroy a store that serves the very community that is understandably feeling injured?
I have no doubt that something went very wrong the night Trayvon Martin was killed by George Zimmerman. An unarmed kid should not be killed on the way home from buying candy. He should not be killed even if he was obnoxious and aggressive; and he certainly should not be killed because the man who pulled the trigger was afraid of other young men in hoodies, even if that fear was — at least judged statistically — painfully rational.
I heard some commentators trying to explain how it was that race had nothing to do with the verdict. Maybe they believe that. I'm certainly not accusing any of the jurors of acquitting Zimmerman because he is white and Martin was black. I have to assume, and I think we all should, that they did their best to look only at the evidence presented to them, without regard to race, and analyze whether the elements of self-defense had been met.
But let's be serious: Would George Zimmerman have had the same reaction to a white kid in a Lacoste golf shirt? Would any of us?
The problem isn't George Zimmerman and it certainly isn't the Crenshaw Wal-mart.
It's that young black men are way too likely to be criminals. Not because they are young and black. We are talking about a correlation, not a causal connection.
The African-American attorney general appointed by the African-American president can give all the speeches in the world criticizing state self-defense laws, but the real problem with those laws is that they become the avenues through which our tragic fears are translated.
Rev. Jesse Jackson admitted more than a decade ago to feeling relieved when he turned to find that the footsteps behind him were not those of young black men. Tragic relief.
If this administration wants to do something to get race out of the criminal justice system, then they are going to have to start at pre-school, and do it. Break the correlation between being young and male and black and in trouble with the law. Break that, and you don't need to loot the local Wal-Mart's. Don't break it, and the looting will confirm — and not undermine — a tragic verdict.
(Susan Estrich is a professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Southern California Law Center. A best-selling author, lawyer and politician, as well as a teacher, she first gained national prominence as national campaign manager for Dukakis for President in 1988.)