Justice for Trayvon

‘The whole damn system is guilty.’

Sarah Jaffe July 15, 2013

A portrait of Trayvon Martin in the hoodie he was wearing when he was shot (Molly Crabapple/ All Rights Reserved.)

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.

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.

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. 

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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