Filed Under:  OpEd, Opinion

To get away with killing a child in Florida, it helps to be Zimmerman

22nd July 2013   ·   0 Comments

By Tonyaa Weathersbee
Guest Columnist

Too bad Alvin Wilkerson wasn’t George Zimmerman.

If he was, he might be walking around free today for a tragedy that was more of an accident than a crime.

But unlike Zimmerman, who is now free more than a year after fatally shooting Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager, and claiming it was in self-defense, Wilkerson had no such luck.

The black trucker was sent to prison in 2008 – two years after he fell asleep at the wheel of his semi while driving in North Florida. He slammed into the back of a car carrying seven white children, killing them all.

No doubt, the tremendous loss of life was horrific. But here’s the thing: Wilkerson wasn’t on drugs.

Nor was he drunk.

Nor did he utter obscenities under his breath about kids always getting away with joyriding; the driver of the car, in fact, was 15 and unlicensed.

No.

This tragedy occurred because Wilkerson defied his bodily urges to get more sleep. Zimmerman, on the other hand, set a tragedy in motion because he defied a dispatcher’s advice not to follow Trayvon, and because he flouted neighborhood watch rules that forbid the carrying of guns.

Yet in the jacked-up justice system that governs this state, when black men like Wilkerson and Trayvon make mistakes, they still tend to be viewed through the lens of criminality and incorrigibility, while when men like Zimmerman – a white Hispanic – make mistakes, they are viewed through the lens of nobility and good intentions.

That pretty much explains why, in 2008, Wilkerson was sentenced to seven years in prison. He received a year for each of the white youths who died.

That pretty much explains why Wilkerson’s sentence marked the first time in Florida history that a person was convicted as a felon for causing an accident by falling asleep at the wheel.

And that pretty much explains why Wilkerson, a family man with no criminal record, was instantly viewed as reckless and sinister, not overworked and overly loyal.

It explains why the exemplary life that he led before that tragedy, a life, in fact, that many black men are often demonized for failing to lead, suddenly evaporated in the heat of revenge and a judge’s obsession – he said he cried at seeing the makeshift memorials to the crash victims – to make an example out of him.

Even. Though. It. Was. An. Accident.

But let’s talk about Zimmerman, shall we?

Apparently, that mostly-white jury was more swayed by the scars on Zimmerman’s head than the sight of Trayvon’s corpse splayed out on the lawn of the housing development.

They cut Zimmerman a lot of slack for the fatal “accident,” he caused. Juror B37, in fact, said she believed that Zimmerman’s heart “was in the right place,” and that Trayvon’s killing was “an unfortunate incident that happened.”

They empathized with Zimmerman’s zeal for protecting his neighborhood. But the zeal that led Wilkerson to cause that fatal accident in Union County, his zeal being trying to work to care for his wife and three children, only earned him condemnation.

And he’s still doing time for it.

Now I’m not saying that Wilkerson shouldn’t have been punished. But by any stretch of fairness, seven years is unduly harsh. And what the unfairness of it all says to me is that in Florida, the lives of black men like him, and black boys like Trayvon, aren’t valued as much as those of white men like Zimmerman.

It’s a reminder that in this state, black men continue to pay for that constant devaluation – whether the price is an unduly long stretch in prison for an accident.

Or a bullet to the heart.

This article originally published in the July 22, 2013 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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