The predictions were dire: Black people would burn and loot America’s cities if George Zimmerman was found not guilty. White people everywhere would be attacked in revenge for the killing of Trayvon Martin.
Judging from water-cooler conversations, social media and viral emails, many people took these warnings seriously — yet they proved to be largely wrong.
Community leaders and scholars say the overwhelmingly peaceful response to the Zimmerman verdict reflects increased opportunities for African-Americans, the powerful image of a black president voicing frustration with the verdict, and the modern ability to create change through activism and social media rather than a brick.
“There was the assumption that black people, Latino people, inner-city people are inherently violent, and that’s the farthest thing from the truth,” says Kevin Powell, whose BK Nation advocacy group helped organize peaceful marches involving thousands of people in New York City.
“They need to stop racially stereotyping people,” Powell says. “It’s the same thing George Zimmerman was engaging in. To automatically assume an explosion from the Zimmerman verdict — I don’t think they understand black people.”
The talk of violence originated long before the verdict with some conservative commentators, who said riots should be blamed on liberals who distorted facts to make Zimmerman look guilty.
“Media’s dishonest motives in Trayvon Martin case could end in riots,” read one headline on Glenn Beck’s website.
Speculation intensified when news broke that Florida police were preparing for possible unrest. Pundits highlighted dozens of tweets from average citizens threatening violence if Zimmerman was acquitted. Reminders circulated about a handful of “this is for Trayvon” assaults by black people when the case first gained national notice.
“I fully expect organized race rioting to begin in every major city to dwarf the Rodney King and the Martin Luther King riots,” wrote former police officer Paul Huebl. “If you live in a large city be prepared to evacuate or put up a fight to win. You will need firearms, fire suppression equipment along with lots of food and water.”
In the week after the verdict, amid peaceful protests involving tens of thousands of people across the country, there was some violence.
In Oakland, protesters broke windows, vandalized a police car and started street fires. In Los Angeles, people splintered off two peaceful protests to smash windows, set fires, attack pedestrians, and assault police with rocks and bottles. About 50 teenagers took the subway to Hollywood to rob pedestrians; 12 were arrested.
Individual attacks were reported in Mississippi, Milwaukee and Baltimore, where black people were accused of assaulting two white people and a Hispanic in Martin’s name.
Overall, the response to the Zimmerman verdict was nothing like the massive 1992 Los Angeles uprising that killed 53 people, injured more than 2,000 and caused $1 billion in damage after police officers were acquitted in the Rodney King beating. And there was no comparison with the 1960s riots that struck cities across the country in response to oppression of African-Americans and the assassination of Martin Luther King.
The ’60s riots sprang from a sense of deep frustration that progress was being thwarted, says Max Krochmal, a history professor at Texas Christian University.
“They saw the limits to what they could achieve,” Krochmal says.
President Barack Obama, who spoke emotionally after the verdict about the frustrations many African-Americans felt over the verdict, is a reminder that limits have been lifted.
“In the ’60s, there was just a lot of anger with the way things were. There was a hopelessness. When King was killed, that was the worst. It was like killing the hope,” says the Rev. Herbert Daughtry, 82, who leads The House of the Lord Church in New York.
“Maybe the anger is not there like it was before,” says Daughtry, who organized several peaceful rallies after the verdict.
He added that Obama’s statement helped keep things calm. The president told people that “I feel pain, I’ve been through the same thing, I’m not distant to the pain you feel,” Daughtry says. “I’ve got a man in the White House who knows that pain.”
For many, social media has been a constructive outlet for that pain.
“I definitely think that social media has helped to defuse anything that happens out on the streets,” Powell says. “Because people are able to use their voices. They can be heard.”
“Imagine if there was no Twitter and Facebook and this verdict came down,” he says. “Where would people go?”
“People are using social media to vent,” Powell continues. “That’s where all the energy is being placed. It’s easy — people can click a button and say exactly what they want — like boycott Florida.”
John Baick, a history professor at Western New England University, says the Zimmerman trial is another skirmish in the battles over the direction of American culture.
“Use of the word ‘riot’ is talking about race without talking about race,” Baick says. “It’s like, look at ‘them.'”
“The word riot says so much about fears, about assumptions,” he says. “It’s deep in our culture that we are afraid of ‘them.'”