Web Only / Features » July 15, 2013
Justice for Trayvon
‘The whole damn system is guilty.’
Trayvon was not killed by a police officer, but he was killed and his killer given a pass by a broader criminal justice system that sees young black men as suspicious, only able to be controlled through violence.
By now of course you've heard that George Zimmerman, the admitted killer of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, has been acquitted of murder by a Florida jury.
You have probably also heard that thousands of protestors swelled the streets of New York, Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay Area, Chicago, Atlanta, Detroit, and many other cities. You may have been there, and may have spilled from sidewalk to street and stopped traffic for a while with your grief. You may have carried a handwritten sign, or seen the ones that read, “Will they shoot me too?” or “Trayvon Martin is my son” or “We are united in anger and we too will stand our ground,” or that simply called for justice.
The legal system did not deliver justice, if justice would have been Zimmerman going to prison. Justice will have to come through other avenues.
In the wake of the acquittal, the U.S. justice department may consider a civil-rights prosecution, and civil charges from Trayvon’s family are possible. In Florida, there are calls to overturn the ALEC-backed “Stand Your Ground” law that allowed Zimmerman to go free after the shooting.
Zimmerman might never have stood trial at all if people across America had not taken to the streets. Six weeks passed between the night he was released, having claimed self-defense, and the date he was finally charged with second-degree murder. In that time, his case had become a national cause. Many of the people who rallied together after the verdict had stood together, marched together, during those six weeks in 2012, as people around the country called for Zimmerman to face a jury. Politicians donned hoodies like the one Trayvon wore that day and stood in protest in the halls of city councils and state legislatures and on the floor of the House of Representatives. A group of young people who call themselves the Dream Defenders came together to call for justice for Trayvon—they marched 40 miles from Daytona, Florida, to Sanford, where they held a sit-in outside of the police station and demanded answers.
They demanded a response from the authorities who believe that a young man being black is reason enough to be afraid of him, that shooting an unarmed teenager is an appropriate response to seeing that teenager walking in your neighborhood. They demanded attention from a wider society that has been taught that blackness is a threat and that white people are justified—even expected—to take violent action in response.
The movement worked—Zimmerman was arrested and faced a jury of his peers. But that jury, which was almost all white, didn't convict him, apparently finding the antics of a defense attorney who at one point claimed that Trayvon had been armed with “the sidewalk” more sympathetic than the friends and family of a teenage boy who'd had nothing but Skittles and an iced tea in his pockets.
It may be naïve to expect justice from a courtroom in a country whose Supreme Court just gutted the Voting Rights Act, declaring in effect—and wrongly—that the fight against racial discrimination has succeeded.
We will have to make much more fundamental changes. Justice for Trayvon, for Sean Bell, for Oscar Grant (who is the subject of a film that opened this weekend, Fruitvale Station), Kimani Grey, Ramarley Graham, and so many others, will not be “found” in the current legal system, where young black men are never presumed innocent. Justice is not a passive object to be stumbled across or to be granted from above. We will have to create our own justice.
A sign that appeared at several rallies this weekend read, “The whole damn system is guilty.”
I live in New York, where the public, legalized face of white supremacy is a policy called Stop and Frisk. Ostensibly aimed at getting guns off the streets, Stop and Frisk leaves young men, almost always of color, at the mercy of the police who patrol their streets. A Twitter user with the handle “stopandfrisk,” aggregating data from the New York Civil Liberties Union, quotes the NYPD’s stated reasons for stops: “furtive movements,” “fits a relevant description,” “suspicious bulge” and just “other.”
Stop and frisk is not just racial profiling. It is a policy of daily acts of violence against young black and brown people, mostly men. Kristen Gwynne at AlterNet documents how the young men targeted by the NYPD feel about the constant harassment:
A black teenager in Bedford-Stuyvesant described how embarrassed he was to have “old ladies” watch as his pants landed around his ankles while police searched him. A 17-year-old in the Bronx explained that police, “They go in my pants. You’re not supposed to go in my pants.” Being touched by a female police officer can be especially upsetting for adolescent males. “It’s annoying because it doesn’t matter what kind of cop it is, female or male, they’re gonna frisk you. If you say something to the female about it, the female says something to you like ‘What? I can do what I want.' And they still frisk you. You can’t say sexual harassment, nothing,” 18-year-old South Bronx resident Garnell told me last year, adding, “And they go hard, grabbing stuff they’re not supposed to.”
In New York, the movement against Stop and Frisk has won some recent victories: The City Council passed two bills in June aimed at curbing the policy. One bill, which passed with a strong 40-11 veto-proof majority, would create an inspector general to oversee the NYPD; the other, which passed with just one vote past the veto-proof threshold, would allow New Yorkers who've been stopped to sue if they feel they've been racially profiled. Billionaire mayor Michael Bloomberg is expected to use his own fortune, as well as his considerable powers of, shall we say, persuasion, to try to peel off one vote and prevent the anti-racial-profiling bill from becoming law.
Ray Kelly, the police commissioner, staunchly defends the program and his department’s use of it, even in the face of criticism from the Obama justice department and an ongoing federal lawsuit that could result in the appointment of an outside monitor to oversee the department.
In the course of that trial, State Senator Eric Adams, a former police captain, testified that when he raised questions about the disproportionate impact of stop and frisk on young men of color, Kelly told him “he targeted or focused on that group because he wanted to instill fear in them that any time they leave their homes they could be targeted by police.” On Nightline in May, Kelly argued, “About 70 to 75 percent of the people described as committing violent crimes—assault, robbery, shootings, grand larceny—are described as being African-American. …The percentage of people who are stopped is 53 percent African-American. So really, African Americans are being understopped in relation to the percentage of people being described as being the perpetrators of violent crime.”
Bloomberg has echoed those comments. Yet according to the NYPD's own reports, nearly 90 percent of those stopped and frisked are innocent—and the white people who are stopped are almost twice as likely to have a weapon or drugs on them.
But New York will soon have a new mayor, and many of those mayoral candidates have been loud critics of stop and frisk. Bill de Blasio, Bill Thompson, and even Christine Quinn—who has been quite close with Bloomberg—have called for reforms. John Liu has demanded an end to stop and frisk entirely.
Yet this past week, when news broke that Janet Napolitano was leaving the federal Department of Homeland Security, several of those candidates supported the call from New York Senator Chuck Schumer to make Ray Kelly the head of DHS. (That’s especially painful because the other major complaint against Kelly in New York City is his targeted surveillance of Muslims for possible “terrorism.”)
Brad Lander, Brooklyn City Councilmember and one of the sponsors of the package of anti-stop-and-frisk bills, called out the opportunism of one mayoral candidate on Twitter Sunday night. When Anthony Weiner (who has said that he would not have Kelly back as commissioner but would support him getting a promotion to DHS) tweeted, “Let’s make the legacy of Trayvon a commitment to ending racial profiling,” Lander replied, “Start by supporting our efforts to end it here.”
Trayvon was not killed by a police officer, but he was killed, and his killer was given a pass by a broader criminal justice system that sees young black men as suspicious, and uncontrollable except through violence. As Michelle Alexander has written in her book The New Jim Crow and has argued in relation to Trayvon's shooting, white supremacy is sustained by this ideology; the continued criminalization, incarceration, harassment and killing of black men creates what she calls “a permanent American undercaste.”
Alexander told NPR, “I would love to see the Trayvon Martin tragedy help to birth and fuel a movement to end mass incarceration, a human rights movement for education, not incarceration, for jobs, not jails, a movement ought to inspire people, to view a young kid like Trayvon Martin even in his hoodie as a young kid who might well be president of the United States one day rather than someone who looks like he might be on drugs or up to no good.”
A good start would be understanding that one cannot oppose racial profiling and stop and frisk and yet approve of the person who implements and defends them.
Jumaane Williams is a Brooklyn City Councilmember who has led the fight to reform the NYPD since his own run-in with the police at 2011’s West Indian Day parade, and the other sponsor of the anti-stop-and-frisk measures. He said of Zimmerman's acquittal, “Our society must be re-examined at every level, from law enforcement to criminal justice to the basic way we relate to each other.”
He took the streets yesterday with the crowds, in a hoodie that read “Unarmed Civilian.”
This is my first time writing publicly about Trayvon Martin, because I didn’t want to insert myself into the story. This isn't about me examining my white privilege in public.
But I do want to tell you a story that I think is relevant. I want to tell you about friends of mine in high school, teenage boys who liked to smoke marijuana and to shoplift 40-oz malt liquor bottles on occasion, boys who begged me to buy them cigarettes because I was 18 and even wanted me to try buying beer because I was a girl, and thus, they figured, might get away with it. Boys who got in fights sometimes, who got chased by the police for skateboarding on private property.
Boys I loved. Boys who were the best and most loyal friends I ever had, some of whom are still my friends today. Boys I cried over when they took stupid risks, committed petty crimes, got caught, and went to jail.
They all–each and every one–got out, rebuilt their lives, and today are what almost anyone would call contributing members of society.
They all got that chance because they were white. Some of them were working-class, some were upper-middle-class, and you bet that had an impact on how long they spent in jail if they did get caught. Regardless, they got out far faster than they would have had they been black.
I know what it’s like to worry that the people you love will have a bad run-in with the cops. But I didn’t have to worry the way so many of the fathers and mothers who took to the streets yesterday with their children do. I didn’t fear that my friends would be shot or be arrested for things they didn't do. We didn’t worry that the cops would throw them up against the wall, pat them down and search for any piece of evidence to put them away because their very bodies made them criminal.
They were less “innocent,” by whatever measure we count such things, than Trayvon Martin—their “crimes” worse than being caught with a little pot. They were kids. They all got to grow up. They got second and third chances.
Trayvon didn't need a second chance. He just needed to not be black in a system that always sees black men and boys as threats to be eliminated, as examples to be made. That whole system needs to be dismantled.
This is not a tragedy for “the black community,” as mainstream media figures like to say. It is a tragedy for all of us. It is up to all of us to create justice for Trayvon.
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Sarah Jaffe is a former staff writer at In These Times and author of Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt , which Robin D.G. Kelley called “The most compelling social and political portrait of our age.” You can follow her on Twitter @sarahljaffe.
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