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.
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.
Tonyaa Weathersbee is an award-winning columnist based in Jacksonville, Fla. Follow her @tonyaajw. Or like her at www.facebook.com/tonyaajweathersbee.
#FightingForTrayvon: Images of Nationwide Protests
1. Protestors converge on Union Square, Sunday, July 14, 2013, in New York. (Photo: AP)1 of 16
2. A BART police vehicle is vandalized during a protest after George Zimmerman in Oakland, Calif. (Photo: AP)2 of 16
3. Workers board up windows at Flora restaurant in downtown Oakland, Calif., early Sunday, July 14, 2013, following protests. (Photo: AP)3 of 16
4. Demonstrators march through the Lower East Side neighborhood of Manhattan in New York, Sunday, July 14, 2013. (Photo: AP)4 of 16
5. A window is smashed at a Chase Bank in Oakland, Calif. (Photo: AP)5 of 16
6. Demonstrators converge on Union Square, Sunday, July 14, 2013, in New York, during a protest against the acquittal of neighborhood watch member George Zimmerman. (Photo: AP)6 of 16
7. People gather Sunday, July 14, 2013, in Raleigh, N.C., to protest the acquittal of George Zimmerman. (Photo: AP)7 of 16
8. Protesters make their way down Washington Ave., from Grand Circus Park in Detroit to the Federal Building during a protest against the verdict in the trial of George Zimmerman. (Photo: AP)8 of 16
9. James Brewton, 39, from Brandon, hoists his portrait of Trayvon Martin along with a group of about 175 as they gather at Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park in Tampa. (Photo: AP)9 of 16
10. Demonstrators cross Marietta Street in Atlanta as they march in protest. (Photo: AP)10 of 16
11. A bag of Skittles candies hangs out of the pocket of Latressa McVey, 35, of Atlanta, during a protest. (Photo: AP)11 of 16
12. Tabatha Holley, 19, of Dawson, Ga., chants as demonstrators march in protest as a police cruiser follows. (Photo: AP)12 of 16
13. Abdul Kebbeh, 6, holds a sign at Westlake Park on Sunday, July 14, 2013 in downtown Seattle. (Photo: AP)13 of 16
14. Demonstrators converge on Union Square, Sunday, July 14, 2013, in New York, during a protest against the acquittal of neighborhood watch member George Zimmerman. (Photo: AP)14 of 16
15. Nichole Mitchell wipes away tears during the sermon at a youth service at the St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church in Sanford, Fla. (Photo: AP)15 of 16
16. zimmerman-verdict-protest-ap-1616 of 16
Celebrities React To the Zimmerman Verdict Via Twitter
1. Jennifer Hudson1 of 56
2. Star Jones2 of 56
3. Ice Cube3 of 56
4. Octavia Spencer4 of 56
5. Diddy5 of 56
6. Sybrina Fulton6 of 56
7. Rihanna7 of 56
8. Claudia Jordan8 of 56
9. Shaquille O'Neal9 of 56
10. Royce Reed10 of 56
11. Dwayne Wade11 of 56
12. Dwayne Wade #212 of 56
13. Tichina Arnold13 of 56
14. Russell Simmons14 of 56
15. Gabrielle Union15 of 56
16. Nicki Minaj16 of 56
17. Nicki Minaj #217 of 56
18. Corey Holcomb18 of 56
19. TJ Holmes19 of 56
20. Aries Spears20 of 56
21. Rick Ross21 of 56
22. Whoopi Goldberg22 of 56
23. Will.i.am23 of 56
24. David Otunga24 of 56
25. Anika Noni Rose25 of 56
26. Actor Christian Keyes26 of 56
27. Big Boi27 of 56
28. Charlamagne28 of 56
29. ESPN Analyst Jemele Hill29 of 56
30. Tracy Martin30 of 56
31. DJ Funk Flex31 of 56
32. Solange32 of 56
33. Ben Jelaous, NAACP President33 of 56
34. Jill Scott34 of 56
35. Toure35 of 56
36. Chad Johnson36 of 56
37. Chris Paul37 of 56
38. John Legend38 of 56
39. Chris Brown39 of 56
40. Lupe Fiasco40 of 56
41. Miley Cyrus41 of 56
42. Michael Strahan42 of 56
43. Actor Dule Hill43 of 56
44. Sophia Nelson44 of 56
45. Stephen Hill, BET President of Programming45 of 56
46. Eric Benet46 of 56
47. Claudia Jordan #247 of 56
48. Rickey Smiley48 of 56
49. Torrey Smith #249 of 56
50. http://wordpress.com/#!/my-stats/AJ Johnson50 of 56
51. Charlamagne #251 of 56
52. Actor Corey Hardrict52 of 56
53. Baltimore Ravens' Torrey Smith53 of 56
54. Kathy Griffin54 of 56
55. Rapper Immortal Technique55 of 56
56. Kim Kardashian56 of 56