Criminal InJustice† is a weekly series devoted to taking action against inequities in the U.S. criminal justice system. Nancy A. Heitzeg, Professor of Sociology and Race/Ethnicity, is the Editor of CI. Criminal InJustice is published every Wednesday at 6 pm CST.
After Trayvon Martin
by Kay Whitlock with Nancy A. Heitzeg
Tonight, Criminal Injustice (CI) is remembering Trayvon Martin in historical context, calling the names of at least a few of those who, over the centuries as well as today, perished alongside of him. We can’t list all of the names – they go into the millions. But we can invoke both the humanity of those whose deaths result from structural racism and inhumanity of those who do and permit the killing with a few images.
Ponder the images. Read the links – not all at once, but over time. Reflect on what you encounter.
All of those noted above – including Trayvon Martin – are dead because they were Black. Dead because they were “out of place”, “out of bounds” — Dead because of some imagined transgression against the psychic and physical space that is “whiteness”. Dead because of the hair-trigger nature of structural white supremacy.
Trayvon’s death at the hands of a self-appointed vigilante in Sanford, Florida is tragic beyond words. But it was also, given this nation’s history of structural racism, entirely predictable. Even normative, you might say, since this country has always found and continues to find countless ways to render the lives of black people expendable.
Today, young black people are especially at risk for the cradle to prison to death by white privilege pipeline.
Our country does not do this openly, of course. That would show blatant “prejudice.” Rather, our nation inserts the death warrants into structures that govern the wildly unequal, racist distributions of policing and imprisonment, appropriate and affordable health care, excellent education, jobs, income, and wealth. To do its dirty work, this society utilizes racist criminalizing archetypes that embody the presumption that black people are intrinsically criminal and up to no good, whether walking home from a 7-11, pulling into their driveways, speaking up for rights and recognition, preparing for the birth of a new baby, going to school, attempting to cast a vote, or trying to hail a taxi.
That’s the norm.
“Between 1882 and 1968, an estimated 4,742 blacks met their deaths at the hands of lynch mobs. As many if not more blacks were victims of legal lynchings (speedy trials and executions), private white violence and ‘n– hunts,’ murdered by a variety of means in isolated rural sections and dumped into rivers and creeks. ..
“Even an accurate body count of black lynching victims could not possibly reveal how hate and fear transformed ordinary white men and women into mindless murderers and sadistic torturers, or the savagery that, with increasing regularity, characterized assaults on black men and women in the name of restraining their savagery and depravity. . .whatever their value as laborers, black people [are] clearly expendable and replaceable.” Leon F. Litwack, in Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America
A few of the names of black people who were lynched:
Mary Turner, in her 8th month of pregnancy
Black people are, by virtue of white racism, perpetually rendered “suspicious” and worthy of rapid white “Stand Your Ground” execution, or the slow but often equally lethal treatment of entrenched poverty, crumbling school infrastructure, zero tolerance school policies, and mass incarceration and the prison industrial complex.
But when Trayvon, or one of his historical kinfolk, is killed, we feel enormous pain and fear and rage and grief. So often we want to believe that such killing is an aberration.
It’s not. And just signing online petitions won’t produce the systemic change that is needed.
It may produce a hastily-cobbled together investigation. But whatever the outcome, and even if George Zimmerman were found guilty and warehoused away for a few years, justice would not be served. Not nearly.
That’s because what killed Trayvon is systemic, not the action of an extremist, a lone “bad apple.”
What killed Trayvon is a systemic devaluing of black lives, and especially young black lives.
What killed Trayvon is a systemic willingness to erase black people from any authentic vision of justice and community well being.
What killed Trayvon is a systemic investment in policing the borders of whiteness by legal and extra-legal violence.
What killed Trayvon is systemic white failure to challenge and dismantle structural racism.
|Tulsa (Oklahoma) “Race Riot” of 1921
More than 1,000 homes and businesses were destroyed, and as many as 300 people, overwhelmingly black, may have died. As armed street violence waned, state violence stepped in. The city was placed under martial law, thousands of people of color were held under armed guard, and the state’s second-largest African American community had been burned to the ground.
CI writes week after week about the ways in which systemic death warrants are regularly issued to communities of color. We write regularly about how the criminal legal system itself enforces and strengthens structural racism – and about how “get tough” fuels that system, mass incarceration, and the morally bankrupt, out of control expansion of the prison industrial complex.
But it’s still so hard for so many good people to see beyond “get tough with George Zimmerman” as a response/solution to a much, much larger, deeper issue. And that’s because “get tough” – Harsher punishment! Longer sentences! Worse conditions of confinement! – is the only response our society knows how to give. Even those of us who are liberal and progressive so often clamor for “get tough.” We need to realize that accountability and justice are not the same as “get tough.” And we need to realize that “get tough” always morphs into support for mass incarceration and expansion of the prison industrial complex.
George Zimmerman must be held accountable, absolutely.
But we cannot simply lurch from episodic outcry to episodic outcry (Amadou Diallo! Troy Davis! Oscar Grant! Duanna Johnson! James W. Byrd, Jr.! Trayvon Martin!), signing our online petitions and demanding harsher policing and imagine that anything remotely approximating justice will result.
The criminalizing, racist shadow of mass incarceration falls over the whole of civic life in the United States. And no amount of “get tough” and “prejudice reduction” will ever be sufficient to change that fact. Nor will it be sufficient to address the sickening reality that today, 24 states, including Florida, now have NRA-promoted “Stand Your Ground” laws – and additional states are considering them.
|The Destruction of Rosewood, Florida
For one week, starting on January 1, 1923, against a backdrop of racial tension and lynching in Florida, Rosewood, a majority black community in Levy County, was assaulted by a white posse and burned to the ground. The incident that ignited mob action: a white woman’s wholly unsubstantiated claim that she was assaulted by a black man from Rosewood.
Many people were wounded. Among the dead were two white men, who belonged to the invading mob, and several black people:
During his tenure as Florida governor, Jeb Bush dedicated a marker, even as he presided over the growth and privatization of Florida prisons.
Look at these images. Visit the links. Reflect on what you encounter. And then please come back to CI, whenever you can, to share with others what you found, what you learned, how you think you might translate what you know into grassroots community organizing. Organizing with a purpose of transforming the norm by dismantling the lethal practices embedded in structural racism – and that dismantles the racist criminal archetypes that have always in this country been evoked to justify the intentional killing of a young man who “majored in cheerfulness” because he was black and suspicious in a white supremacist society. Organizing at the intersections to seek alternatives to reliance on policing and prisons — Critical Resistance, Incite!, The Audre Lorde Project, FIERCE, Gender Just, Project NIA. (Please add the names of others we should know about and remember in your comments, together with any links where we can learn more.)
Until we address the structural underpinnings, until we uproot the racist criminal archetypes that re-enforce white supremacist fear and violence, there will be another Trayvon Martin and more.
Today. Tomorrow. Next week.
It is long past time to say Enough!
Addendum: This post was written prior to the so-called, “unauthorized leak” from within the Sanford, FL police department regarding Trayvon Martin’s short-term suspension from school and information that is intended to support George Zimmerman’s actions by framing them clearly as “self-defense.”
Now, media attention is focused on the leak. Trayvon’s parents have rightly protested obvious police attempts to demonize their son while providing legal justification for Zimmerman’s shooting.
For a long time, CI has been writing about racist criminalizing archetypes and narratives that drive the harsh policing and punishment of people of color – and especially young, black men. Now you are seeing it in action.
And you are seeing the old Distraction Shell Game in motion, the one that tries to show us a picture of criminal Travyon fighting law-and-order advocate Zimmerman who is only trying to defend himself against an archetypal “black thug interloper.”
No one can reasonably believe that this leak wasn’t intentional. Of course it was intentional, and it was wholly directed at the media.
But let’s not be distracted, either. Let’s label this for what it is: the deployment of an historically long-lived, racist, criminalizing narrative that tries to dismiss violence against black people and entire communities by hinting at the alleged poor character of the black person who was killed.
And let’s reframe this travesty in this way. We don’t want vigilantes in our communities. We don’t want vigilante action justified by claims of “self-defense.” That’s old, that’s tired, and we will persistently expose it for the lie that it is.
Mass incarceration must go – and challenges to it should be infused in the agendas of every organization that purports to work for social and economic justice. The prison industrial complex must go.
Community safety and well being depend on just social and economic relationships, not disgruntled armed men with hair trigger tempers who fear black kids in hoodies.
Let’s name the Criminalizing Shell Game for what it is: a justification for violent racism and a way to market that violence in the same of safety and security.