Mar 18 2012

Trayvon Martin and Black People For The Carceral State…

As tragic and disgusting as it is, the Trayvon Martin case, is merely a symptom. We’ve yet to address the virus.” – @1SunRising on Twitter.

So I am about to become even more unpopular than I already am but I find that I have to say a few things today…

A couple of years ago many people were very upset when Oscar Grant’s killer Johannes Mehserle received a two-year prison sentence for his crime. At the time, I wrote a piece titled “"We Hate Prisons But That Guy Needs To Be Locked Up". I am certain that the post didn’t gain me many new friends and that’s alright.

Yesterday I listened to a piece of a 911 call made by George Zimmerman, a vigilante who seems to have killed 17 year old Trayvon Martin in cold blood. Let me say upfront how incredibly heart-broken I am for Trayvon’s family and friends. I can’t begin to imagine the depth of their grief and sorrow. I have previously written about the tragedy of this case. Second, let me stipulate that I believe that Zimmerman did not shoot the young man in self-defense.

Trayvon Martin

Having said this, I think that making the main focus of our activism with respect to Trayvon’s killing the prosecution of George Zimmerman is short-sighted. Additionally, it does nothing to address the root causes of racism and oppression which were surely the fuel for this murder. For black people, our history on issues of crime, law, order, and punishment is complex and usually conflicting. In this moment, I question why we as black people who know that there is no “justice” in the legal system are expending the majority of our energy demanding “justice” from said system. How are we going to find “justice” in the prosecution of Zimmerman? The answer is quite simply that we will not. “Prosecute” and “prison” fit on bumper stickers. During a time a genuine grief and pain, these seem to be a balm for the soul. It costs us little to call for these as the solution to injustice.

But I worry that all of the black people who are calling for the prosecution and ultimately the incarceration of Zimmerman are facilitating the carceral state. How can you decry the unjustness of the current legal and prison system while simultaneously calling for the prosecution and imprisonment of more people? Is this not contradictory? If you think that prisons are ineffective and counterproductive, then aren’t they going to be the same for Zimmerman and his ilk too?

Will we have addressed why Zimmerman felt that young Trayvon, who was simply walking to and from the corner store, was “suspicious” through prosecuting and locking him up? If you believe as I do that the “justice” system is irrevocably broken, then how can you rely on it to deliver the “justice” that you may rightly crave? Additionally, what exactly do we mean by “justice” when we invoke it?

In our grief and anger, I think that we are conspiring to cement and bolster a more punitive “law and order” climate in the country. That will not help us as black people in the long run. Why? Because that climate is exactly what has helped to funnel millions of black and brown people into the prison industrial complex. We are inadvertently helping to sow the seeds of our own destruction.

I know that many people who read my words will find them infuriating and that others may question my sanity. However, I only ask that you take a step back to consider the questions that I pose. You might come back at me and ask your own questions. Perhaps one of them is: “Well what do we do with people who kill young black men in cold blood?” My answer to you will be, “I don’t know but the killing of young black men in America has been going on for centuries even though some of the perpetrators have been prosecuted and imprisoned for their crimes.” Young black men are still being killed in cold blood so that must mean that prosecution and prison are not acting as effective deterrents.

These words by Crunktastic over at The Crunk Feminist Collective blog are challenging:

As we appeal to the system, signing petitions calling for the prosecution of George Zimmerman, we hope against hope, that the system will not decide that Blackness alone makes one a probable threat, worthy of execution, just a few hundred feet from one’s home. And yet, that decision has been made thousands of times. Will Trayvon be any different?

My question is “what will be different if Trayvon’s case is in fact prosecuted by our current racist legal system?” Will this now mean that blackness no longer makes “one a probable threat, worthy of execution?” Is it our belief that prosecuting and imprisoning every single person who murders someone else addresses the underlying oppression and racism in our society? Once the Department of Justice gets involved in the case as many are now calling for, what then? Are we done until the next Trayvon? Because be assured that there will unfortunately be many more Trayvon’s going forward since we are not addressing the root causes of racism and oppression but simply relying on a racist system for recourse.

We must consider other models perhaps based on transformative justice instead of our current failed system of punitive and retributive justice. Let’s mandate that Zimmerman must take 1000 hours of political education classes at the Highlander School and that he then has to spend another 20,000 hours working in a school in rural South Carolina with black and brown children. After that, if Trayvon’s family would allow it, let’s expect Zimmerman to speak with them about what he has learned about himself, about Trayvon, and about his heinous crime through these experiences. Zimmerman could then be encouraged to take his story on the road and share it with others across the U.S. Some will suggest that this is not “workable” as an alternative to incarceration. I would ask what “works” about our current “justice” model. For those who think this would mean that Zimmerman gets off “lightly,” I would only ask that you examine your own ideas about punishment and retribution.

I know that it may be too soon to broach this subject but I believe that this is the time that we must challenge ourselves to consider what else might be more effective in addressing the problems of oppression, racism and violence.

I remind everyone that nothing good ever comes from prison and retribution. Nothing.

Update: Jasiri X tells the heartbreaking story of Trayvon in this new video.

  • By nancy a heitzeg, March 18, 2012 @ 11:18 am

    This —

    “Because be assured that there will unfortunately be many more Trayvon’s going forward since we are not addressing the root causes of racism and oppression but simply relying on a racist system for recourse.”

    Thank you

  • By rageahol, March 18, 2012 @ 11:32 am

    You raise some perfectly valid points. I don’t think it’s hypocritical to call for intervention by the DOJ when an injustice has been done, while at the same time fighting for reform of the prison system. I think that’s part of what makes working for prison reform so difficult. If one advocates directly for less severe punishment for a particular population, one is accused of being soft on crime or whatever.
    I think it’s important to call for equality in terms of prosecution and sentencing even as we decry the harshness of that sentencing, or the inadequacy of funding for programs that reduce recidivism, or the very idea that retributive punishment is necessary.

  • By Janice, March 20, 2012 @ 1:21 am

    I am disgusted by this case. He seems to be a vigilante for sure. Having said that, when we don’t have places/spaces that we can all walk around and feel safe…when we live behind gated communities, when we drive our kids everywhere, because we are afraid of all the violence, we lose our humanity and no one is trusted. In addition, the idea to me of people carrying concealed weapons is flawed. I am a Canadian living in the US for about 25 years, but I maintain that carrying handguns is a bad idea! Furthermore, what kind of law allows self defense without witnesses—this is a recipe for allowing cold blooded murder or going back to the old days of duals. I always thought Florida was a little odd, hopefully they will rethink this law.

  • By kate, March 21, 2012 @ 12:50 pm

    thank you so much for writing this. i have been asking myself these questions and trying to articulate them to other people for weeks now, but my combined emotional reaction to what happened to trayvon along with my frustration over the rhetoric about it have kept me from doing so. this is the conversation we should be having even though it is painful and unpopular.

  • By Tom, March 21, 2012 @ 10:41 pm

    Thank you for a reasoned discussion of the prison industrial complex

  • By Kay Whitlock, March 22, 2012 @ 6:08 pm

    I just saw this post; it is fierce and exactly right. Long past time to have the deeper, more painful, unpopular discussions – and to shift organizing from signing internet petitions to deep, grassroots community organizing that rejects mass incarceration and works to create authentic racial, gender, sexual, and economic justice.

  • By Jacob Klippenstein, March 26, 2012 @ 6:57 pm

    I think white people first need to set their priorities straight. We need to acknowledge, understand and address the current system as it is. Racism is a systemic problem as you pointed out and does not start or stop, in my opinion, with mr. zimmerman.
    I think there will be no true systemic justice though until white people stand up and demand it. I heard somebody once say, “you never saw a riot until you see the majority riot.” The dismantling of the PIC requires making changes from the inside out for all including those who are not protected by the law, but disenfranchised by it.

    I think that the discussion of the PIC can be multi-faceted as to not mistake this case over important. The treatment of mr. zimmerman’s case can be an example, though I think to pick this case out to showcase transformative justice might be a mistake. I think it might shift focus off the issue as a systematic problem onto fixing this one individual (in the media at least). And if he never kills another black boy again does that mean he is healed? It’s very hard to tell. He will be wrestling with this for the rest of his life as will all of us who heard about the murder and saw the reaction of people en masse across the nation.

    As i’m reading through some of the hate/threats the media is highlighting i realize how important this discussion is, how desperate/helpless people must feel and i don’t mean to diminish how real and powerful of a show of force it would be to confront Zimmerman with a radical call for transformative justice. I guess I am conservative in my approach because from my experience transformative justice requires a lot of attention/energy (essentially a community) and i’m not sure this is a method that everybody involved will agree on.

    In my opinion, this would need to involve people within the community, who were dedicated to the community and zimmerman’s good will, which at this point it seems he’s in hiding. This alternative at this point seems too idealistic, but i’m so glad it’s an option and people are talking about it so we can build for a time when it is viable.

  • By Elizabeth, March 27, 2012 @ 8:40 am

    thank you for articulating what i have been feeling about this tragic case.

Other Links to this Post

  1. Barber Shop Show recap: Can George Zimmerman be brought to justice? What does justice look like? | Chicago Muckrakers — March 26, 2012 @ 9:27 am