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Criminal Justice

Zimmerman Wasn’t Actually Guilty…And That’s Actually The Problem

I am shocked that people are shocked.

And for two primary reasons…

First, if you followed the Zimmerman trial (and I’m not a lawyer), from my vantage point, I’m not entirely sure how one can say that Zimmerman could be convicted. In fact, I don’t think you can. I understand the moral and logical sense, and I’m not saying that I believe Zimmerman’s story or that the situation wasn’t all types of fizzucked up.  But, truthfully, the evidence presented to the jury didn’t have a whiff of a chance of getting a conviction on 2nd degree murder. To put this on the white women in the jury (when not all of them were white, but who’s counting), isn’t really fair and, ironically, reflects more emotion, not logic in my opinion. There was reasonable doubt to be found everywhere in this case, given that there were no eyewitnesses (which is Zimmerman’s own doing of course) and the ways that the current laws are written in Florida. Manslaughter (the lesser charge which was not brought by the District Attorney initially for some strange reason), is trickier, but even that doesn’t seem to allow for George Zimmerman’s conviction under current laws in Florida as described here by Ta-Nehisi Coates (read the entire article por favor. It’s quite excellent, per usual). Sprinkle in some truly bad performances by a prosecution that may or may not have wanted to be in the courtroom in the first place, a history of alleged crimes such as this resulting in acquittals, and the even vaster history of the criminal justice system being weighted against African-American men and the final verdict seemed likely, not shocking.

Secondly, Trayvon Martin incidences are happening everyday, sometimes in more egregious instances. And I’m not echoing the faux strawman argument that people aren’t outraged by the unfortunately common violence that is visited upon black and brown boys everyday, because many are, though many more should be. Instead, I’m talking about the idea that they are targeted, not just individually by the George Zimmermans of the world, but systematically. How can one say that Zimmerman’s profiling of Trayvon Martin is “malicious”, “negligent” or is not “reasonable” (which one would need to do in order to convict him of either 2nd degree or manslaughter respectively), when, not only is it reasonable, it’s codified into practice by our government, institutions and law enforcement? NYPD’s Stop and Frisk policies are seemingly so unreasonable that the author / enforcer of said policies is being floated as a candidate to head the Department of Homeland Security (by “liberals” no less) and the totally pragmatic mayor of New York City, without much uproar, recently said:

“[People complain] ‘Oh it’s a disproportionate percentage of a particular ethnic group.’ “That may be, but it’s not a disproportionate percentage of those who witnesses and victims describe as committing the murder. In that case, incidentally, I think we disproportionately stop whites too much and minorities too little.”

The Zimmerman verdict, and the killing of Trayvon Martin are not novel, they are indicative, and in some ways, the logical extension, of larger issues that play out everyday.

So, why was this case such a big deal?

Of course, there’s the OJ factor. It became a litmus test of sorts regarding race and the criminal justice system, in a slightly perverse way. But, similar to OJ, I think class was a factor as well. Immediately after he was killed, Trayvon was initially portrayed as an honor roll student, a devoted son, carrying skittles and iced tea through suburbia. He was a “good” kid…in other words, the modern day Theodore Aloysius Huxtable. This is not only problematic because it makes a distinction that his death was somehow less justified because his name wasn’t Bodie, but it also presents an issue of identification.  In response to the verdict, I’ve personally seen a lot of people I know, middle and upper class Blacks, expressing that they are perplexed, bewildered, outraged, and, frequently, scared for their kids to grow up in this cruel world. What’s interesting is that these feelings never really surfaced when the boys getting profiled and gunned down had chalklines that were found in inner cities as opposed to gated communities. That’s not a judgment, given that there are some natural instincts at play here, but it is instructive.

Because, I think the strategy of a lot of Black people has been to protect themselves individually, which, if anything, the Trayvon Martin story shows is flawed.  That is to say that many of us seek to climb the ladder, get a high paying job, buy a house in a good neighborhood, send our kids to private schools. Reach that status level that we too can yell at someone to Hurry Up With My Damn Croissants.  But as Kanye also says in his ever contradictory way, we are “new slaves” too. Individual achievement doesn’t change the structural issues that still remain.  It blunts the impact, surely, but as I see people saying they feel (newly) vulnerable, it certainly feels like we need to shift from blunting the impact to curing the disease. Depending on your definition of disease, that can mean fighting for gun control, racial profiling laws, rethinking capitalism, how we govern ourselves, or completely shifting individual and societal priorities from materialism to holistic health, wellness, sustainability and equity (I trend toward the latter myself). What it doesn’t mean though is moving on up like the Jefferson’s (by yourself) and hoping that these structural issues won’t follow you.  Because to achieve those goals requires changing oneself first, then focusing on collective action instead of individual in order to directly and unrelentingly address the structural, institutional, and systematic issues which impact everyone instead of the specific which only affects ourselves.

I think the answers are there. The question is are we willing to move forward…together.

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