Is "Justice for Trayvon" Even Possible?


Elvert Barnes / Flickr

For all the anger and disappointment that’s come with George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the killing of Trayvon Martin, it’s important to recognize that simply having this trial—regardless of the outcome—was a victory. Remember, the Martin saga began with outrage over the conduct of the Sanford, Florida police department. Zimmerman killed Martin, claimed self-defense, and was released after a night of questioning from Sanford detectives, who never challenged the claim. If not for six weeks of protests and demonstrations, which pressured Sanford police into bringing charges, Zimmerman would have walked away without having to account for his actions.

If police had immediately arrested Zimmerman, there never would have been a national movement around Trayvon. It was the lack of action, as well as the circumstances—a young black man, killed by a young white one, in a small Southern town—that sparked comparisons to the long history of unpunished violence against African American men, and galvanized people on behalf of Martin and his family.

Indeed, Zimmerman’s acquittal has inspired another round of protests. In demonstrations across the country, Martin’s supporters are pressing for “justice,” seemingly defined as some sort of punishment for Zimmerman, and more broadly, some recognition that black lives are valuable.

I have no doubt that the first is possible. That the jury ruled in accordance with the law—which presumes innocence, and places the burden on the prosecution to prove its case—doesn’t preclude Zimmerman from responsibility for the death of Martin. Nor does it vindicate Zimmerman’s story; the only thing the jury decided was that there was enough doubt in the state’s case to justify a verdict of not-guilty. There is no doubt he killed Martin, and plenty of evidence that he was the instigator of the encounter. Odds are good he’ll face a civil suit from the Martin family, to say nothing of charges and an investigation from the Justice Department.

As for the other part? It’s not unreasonable to demand the system affirm the value of black lives. But I don’t think it’s equipped to handle the request. The United States was built on hatred and disdain for black bodies and black experiences. It was codified in our Constitution, promoted by generations of our leaders, and turned into public policy. In America’s caste system, African Americans were the untouchables, excluded from mainstream life, blocked from economic opportunity, forced into positions of servitude and peonage, and policed with vigilante violence and state-sanctioned terrorism. Yes, there were individual successes, and some communities even managed to flourish—if they could avoid mass riots from white mobs—but as a class, blacks were pariahs.

Even now, it’s still true that we don’t have any particular use for the lives or experiences of black people. At most, individual African Americans can stand as bloodless symbols for hazy racial “progress.” It’s why Americans can feel proud of Barack Obama’s presence in the White House, and reject him when he acknowledges his blackness and the specificity of his experience.

But, he at least has that. Most African Americans have to live in a country—and again, a system—that sees limited use for their lives. It’s why a Florida woman was sentenced to 20 years in prison for firing a warning shot to escape a beating from an abusive husband—the state refused to apply the “Stand Your Ground” law to her defense—and why Michael Dunn felt gunfire was the appropriate reaction when faced with black teenagers listening to loud music. He fired into their car after getting into an argument with the kids, and killed 17-year-old Jordan Davis. His defense? “Dunn claimed that he feared for his life and that ‘they threatened to kill me.’” Two judges have recused themselves from the case, and investigators are looking into whether the teenagers had a weapon.

On one end, it’s clear that law enforcement is only doing its due diligence. But it’s hard to believe they would take this claim seriously if this were an SUV full of white teenagers. Of course, if it were an SUV full of white teenagers, it’s hard to believe Dunn would have fired a weapon. Likewise, there’s a reason George Zimmerman felt confident enough to confront Trayvon Martin and tell police that he feared for his life. In the America we’ve constructed, blacks are like the minions in a bad action movie. They’re both disposable and dangerous.

If this sounds hyperbolic, the consider the following. In the United States, implicit association tests find that white participants are more likely to register a threatening affect when presented with black faces. Likewise, a wide range of surveys find widespread anti-black prejudice. All white juries are more likely to convict black defendants, than white ones, and in states with “Stand Your Ground” laws, white defendants are more likely to find acquittal when the victims are black. African Americans are arrested and convicted for drug crimes at far greater rates than their white counterparts—despite lower rates of drug use—and blacks are more likely to have encounters with law enforcement, due to patterns of policing (see: stop and frisk in New York City). More than a third of all people affected by felony disenfranchisement laws are black.

If you can look at all of this and conclude that the system doesn’t have an embedded bias against blacks, I don’t know what to say. Because what’s clear to me is that, for all the real progress we’ve made, this country has yet to relinquish its long-standing hostility to blackness.