CI: After Trayvon Martin

March 28, 2012 at 7:03 pm by: nancy a heitzeg Category: Anti-Racism, Civil Rights, Criminal Injustice Series, Intersectionality, Prison Industrial Complex, White Privilege

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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.

Emmet Till

Medgar Evers

Fred Hampton and Mark Clark

Oscar Grant, Troy Davis, Amadou Diallou

Duanna Johnson, James Byrd Jr

Susan Bartholomew, Jose Holmes, James Barset, Ronald Madison

Donnell Herrington, Marcel Alexander, Chris Collins, Willie Lawrence, Henry Glover

Anthony Scott

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
Luther Holbert & His Wife (her first name not recorded)
Laura Nelson & Her Son
Lee Walker
Sam Hose
Lloyd Clay
Nelse Patton
John Hartfield
Anthony Crawford
Dick Robinson
Will James
John Richards
Will Moore
Joseph Richardson
Fred Ingraham
James Green
Frank Embree
Garfield Burley
Curtis Brown
Lige Daniels
Augustus Goodman
Rubin Stacey
James Clark
Ernest Harrison
Sam Reed
Frank Howard
Ami “Whit” Ketchum
Luther H. Mitchell
William Brooks
Virgil Jones
Thomas Jones
Robert Jones
Joseph Riley
Lee Hall
Bunk Richardson

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

Over the course of 18 hours, spanning May 31 and June 1, 1921, long-simmering social and economic tension sparked a horrific white supremacist assault on the Greenwood District, a 35-square block area that comprised Tulsa’s entire (racially segregated) African American community. The incident that “sparked” white rage was an accusation that a black man had sexually assaulted a white woman. Local newspapers ran sensational, racist stories, stoking white rage, and a white mob attempted to lynch the man. Armed black men – many of them veterans of WW I – stepped in to defend the accused, and the frenzied white mob turned to the task of destroying Greenwood.

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

Sara Carrier

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:
Lexie Gordon
Sarah Carrier
James Carrier
Sylvester Carrier
Sam Carter
Mingo Williams

In the wake of the destruction, remaining residents left Rosewood, never to return.

During his tenure as Florida governor, Jeb Bush dedicated a marker, even as he presided over the growth and privatization of Florida prisons.

Additional Rosewood links here and here

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.


Hello this whole case is causing nothing but racial tension. i almost feel like that's what the media is intentionally trying to do..

Seeta moderator 3 Like

 @executivegifts If this case involved your child, would you not want the media paying attention to it?  Might the media's attention to the murder of a child have something to do with the Sanford police department's gross negligence and failure to apprehend the self-professed killer of a child, who was merely walking home, when there was abundant probable cause to do so?  Might it have something with the fact that if were not for the media's attention to this matter, the Sanford police would have continued to cover  up this matter, thereby failing to hold the self-professed murderer accountable to the community and family he has irrevocably harmed?  The fact matter is that the murder took place Feb 26 and it is now April and the murderer has yet to apprehended and charged with a crime.

conlakappa 4 Like

 @Seeta  @executivegifts

 Seroiusly.  It's the "causing" racial tension that rubs the wrong way.  If racial tensions no longer existed in this country, I must have missed it.  Yes, it's not every day Birmingham 1963 but it sure as hell doesn't approach any post-racial paradise.

kabrahamson19 4 Like

Thank you all. This discussion has been extremely helpful to me in clarifying the facts of the Trayvon Martin case. There has been so many different stories in the media that I start to get confused with all the different instances that have been brought to attention in the media. I just can not stop thinking about the fact that if the roles of Trayzon and Zimmerman would have been reversed. The shooter would have been most likely arrested on at the time of the shooting or at least within the week. It is a sad story. 

Chey Bryant
Chey Bryant 1 Like

I think I might be already 'fed up' or unsatisfied with *talking* about Trayvon Martin and the injustice that surrounds his death. That sounds mean, or sad, but there is something very crucial happening right now around discussion of his murder. I know from past disasters that this is a very crucial moment that we very rarely get. This is a moment when the entire country is paying attention, the news stations are paying attention, and the federal government is paying attention. Whether the attention is bad or good everyone is paying attention. That doesn't just happen all of the time, and when it does it doesn't last for long. So how do we use this time of recognition to begin destroying the issue of systemic racism? 

Though Zimmerman is not the source of the issue, maybe he is the beginning? I don't really see another logical way to 1) get the justice due to Trayvon & his family and 2) break into destroying one of (if not the biggest) issues with out criminal justice system. So while the world is watching, maybe we should be be working to make sure that Zimmerman experiences the full extent of the law for his crime, just as if would probably happen if the tables were turned. 

This may not be the best way, but it is a suggestion. I wonder if it may help at this definitive moment. 


-Chey Bryant  

nancy a heitzeg
nancy a heitzeg 1 Like

yes -- we need to


"1) get the justice due to Trayvon & his family and 2) break into destroying one of (if not the biggest) issues with out criminal justice system."


my concern -- as always  - is that many if not most will be satisfied with 1), that is Zimmerman alone and fail to move the issue to the macro level of systemic racism


That is ultimately where we need to go

Panyia 3 Like

'That’s because what killed Trayvon is systemic, not the action of an extremist, a lone “bad apple.”'.....I agree with this quote. So many people are blinded from reality and forget that individuals themselves are not the only agent in controlling their lives.  And yes, many forgot that there are larger social forces that regulates peoples lives. So how do you go about this????  Should we do something about it or should we leave it alone?  Either way, both ways have their own pros and cons right?

nancy a heitzeg
nancy a heitzeg 2 Like

 @Panyia We always must do something and creating awareness of the structures that make this and otehr tragedies possible -- even probable - is always a place to start 

Yasuragi 3 Like

Trust you guys to always, always cut to the heart and truth of the matter.  Thank you for this.

rubyr 3 Like

Absolutely crucial diary, ladies. So educational, as per usual. Thanks so much.


In the NYC area:


1. Stay in touch with Middle Church's anti-racism work:

2. April 21-24--Building multiracial congregations conference:


No matter your position on religion, organizations like churches that are

fighting for social justice are a good place to start and meet like-minded people.


Middle Church held a hoodie service for Trayvon Martin. Hundreds attended and

there was a heavy media presence. Spreading the word about these atrocities, one

step at a time.

KayWhitlock 2 Like

 @rubyr Thanks for the Middle Church news, rubyr.  Very good to know for those in the NYC area.  Happy to see you.

PatriciaLevesque 3 Like

Where do you start with this?  Do you start with the predominately white/male NRA gun lobbies that promote "stand you ground" legislation for exactly this type of situation, or the "party of white men" politics of the GOP which constantly undermines any effort to even the playing field for minorities with decent health care and access to education?


For the last couple of years I'v been listening to Dan Savage putting it out there that they aren't (the GOP/right wing conservatives) just coming for gay marriage, they're coming for straight women's right to self determined reproductive rights, collage education for minorities, true religious freedom and separation of church and state.  The truth is that any political state's ultimate goal is the perpetuation of it's own existence.


While we often see the drama of politics played out on the national stage with voices given to people of all shapes and shades, the majority of political power in this country is still controlled by white men who do the bulk of governing quietly with little notice.  The only real goal of this body politic is to continue the power and right of the white male.  Trayvon is the latest victim of this reality, but we can certainly hope that maybe this time the general public will finally see through the smoke to the men behind the curtain. 


um, sorry about the rant 

KayWhitlock 3 Like

 @PatriciaLevesque Excellent rant, Patricia.  Thanks for it.  Sberel is right in suggesting to work in our different spheres of influence.  I also advocate a politics of intersection - tell groups you're involved with that you're not a single-issue person, that right-wingers have a unified view.  So that whether they're on issues of reproductive justice, attempts to repeal the Voting Rights Act, working to enact and expand anti-immigrant legislation, assaulting queers and queer rights and recognition, or simply promoting wealth for the wealthy and hardship for everyone else, they have meta-frames:  Oppose Big Government so Your Rights Aren't Taken Away.  Family Values for White, Christian, Nuclear Families with Married Heterosexual Parents.  "They" Are Destroying Traditional American Values.


Perhaps surprisingly, while I loath the Right, I think they are effective in their unified vision.  And while I might have contempt for, say, Rush and Rick and others, I do not have contempt for ordinary folks who are swayed by the 24/7 "fear and smear" tactics. 


Because we haven't effectively challenged them.  We fragment into a million single issues, and then compete with one another for attention.  There is no unified strategic set of frames.  I don't have the answers, but I do know that frames such as "Safe and JUST Communities Without Violence" could incorporate battles against police misconduct and brutality; hate violence; AND state violence.  Such a frame - and others that might be suggested - can permit us to move many issues forward within frames that are hopeful, forward looking, and real.  And that offer us leverage to unpack "fear and smear."


Clearly a discussion I'm passionate about!


Too many times, as a progressive queer, I heard from mainstream gay organizations that racism and economic justice "are not gay issues."  Or from (white dominant) women's rights groups that mass incarceration and police brutality aren't feminist issues.  And on and on.  It's like slitting our own throats, and doing it with a sense of self-righteousness.

PatriciaLevesque 2 Like

KayWhitlock That is spot on.  I know too many friends who vote only on their own "hot button" issues, not realizing that we are in a multi-fronted war with a very well organized machine. 


"It's like slitting our own throats, and doing it with a sense of self-righteousness."


Sberel 2 Like

 @PatriciaLevesque Patricia, I think for each person, there is a slightly different answer, because we all have different spheres of influence.  I think the key is to figure out where your own sphere of influence is and build/effect change from there.  The thing in common is to (1) educate self (2) educate others (3) get people who 'get it' into sensitive positions (sheriff, county attorney, etc (4) put pressure on the people in such positions to do the right thing (5) listen to oppressed people (6) as much as you can, share your own privilege (use what you have to empower people who don't have that advantage) (7) be humble (8) have a center that you go back to (community, congregation, etc. (10) don't let the immensity of the work stop you from doing what you can.


Ashley Curley
Ashley Curley 3 Like

This case in general makes me sick to my stomach. I hear constantly about how racism rarely exists anymore. Those people must be living under a rock or something. For a young boy to be shot and killed walking home just because the color of his skin made him look "suspicious" is ridiculous. Also the fact that the white male that shot him is not being charged is in my opinion not just. If it were a person of color who shot a white person because they thought they looked suspicious I am almost positive that the person of color would be arrested and charged in some degree. 

KayWhitlock 2 Like

 @Ashley Curley  It's how our (white supremacist) society wants to define racism - that unless it's intentionally announced as racism, it's not racism.  That belongs to the past!  That's the Ku Klux Klan, not "respectable us."  That's the Criminalizing Shell Game.

Ashley Curley
Ashley Curley 3 Like

 @KayWhitlock That is a very good point. It also makes me think about the way society is shaped. When you mentioned "respectable us" I get irritated because I know that society is looking for us to act a specific way and keep our mouths shut on the issue because to them it is not a problem. More people need to step out of their comfort zones and out of the social realm and speak up for themselves. Let the people in "power" and "control" know what they are doing is wrong. Nothing will change if people keep their mouths shut. 

Ashley Curley
Ashley Curley 3 Like

 @KayWhitlock Very true and I am a firm believer that change is possible. People just have to be willing to act upon their words. 

KayWhitlock 3 Like

 @Ashley Curley Exactly:  more people need to step out of their (our) comfort zone...and speak up!  The powers that be rely on our silence.  Let that silence be shattered forever.

ScottieThomaston 4 Like

Thanks for putting this fully in context. If this doesn't make people angry, nothing will.

Sberel 4 Like

 Thank you.  I'm having a hard time with the video of Zimmerman at the police station.  Just wishing blessings to all at this moment. 

KayWhitlock 4 Like

 @SberelI just watched it too, Sberel.  He looks fine.  No injuries.

Sberel 4 Like

 @KayWhitlock I think this essay is very helpful and productive.  Keep the light on the structural racism.  The individual situation is tragic, and there needs to be justice for Trayvon Martin's family.  But it is so hard not to get sucked into focusing on that.  That is just (an essential) piece.  But that is not the work.  The work is to dismantle the system so as to prevent more deaths.  


To me, that is one of the props for the white supremacy system, the worldview that has you running from situation to situation, not addressing the root problems. 

KayWhitlock 3 Like

 @Sberel "chaos" is right. Wedge politics are regrettably effective - even in some liberal/progressive arenas.

Sberel 3 Like

 @KayWhitlock The insight is actually from a anti-oppression workshop called "dismantling chaos".  They went into how the oppressive system creates so much division, so much chaos, that it is hard to link up and break the system.  Thank you for all you do 

MK 5 Like

AMAZING! Thanks to both of you Nancy and Kay.  I would love to eventually repost this at Prison Culture so please let me know if that would be possible.  I am rendered speechless by this.  Rest in Power to Trayvon and all of those unjustly targeted and murdered.

nancy a heitzeg
nancy a heitzeg 4 Like

yes -- of course..Would be honored


Thank you MK!

KayWhitlock 4 Like

Yes, of course you can repost!  Thank you for being here, MK - and for the work of Prison Culture Blog and Project NIA.

conlakappa 5 Like

It's still all too painful.  POU has video footage that Adept tweeted of Zimmerman just after he was taken into custody.  He's showing no sign of having been in an altercation.  And was handcuffed.

Seeta moderator 3 Like

 @conlakappa yes, adept posted it here:   the video shows shirt tucked in, no injuries.  there is no evidence he sought medical treatment.  thanks nancy and kay for this -- i hope this "rising up" will be sustained to fight this new jim crow and not simply be another short-lived outcry and then back to bizness as usual.  the 60s are back in full force ... ...people need to wake up.  

KayWhitlock 3 Like

 @Seeta  @conlakappa And this time, we know that "get tough" was the right-wing response to the liberation/freedom/economic justice movements of the 1960s.  A response embraced by too many moderates, liberals, and even progressives.

KayWhitlock 4 Like

 @conlakappa The more that comes out about Zimmerman, the worse it is.  Have you seen the Joe Oliver interview with O'Donnell?  It was just posted recently on CMP.


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