The Perils of Civilian Policing


A hundred years of lynching, justifiable homicide.  Same thing.

Protester’s sign, Sanford, Mar 21, 2012

‘We report all suspicious persons and activities to the Sanford Police Department.’  Or at least, that’s the policy of the Neighbourhood Watch program in force in Sanford, Florida scene of the shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin by his alleged killer George Zimmerman on February 26.  It seems that Zimmerman, as neighbourhood watch captain, had not read the large print on the board, let alone consult his remit. Zimmerman himself claims that, in the violent encounter, he was injured.

The interpretations of the event are numerous, and gathering steam with a hurricane like force.  A pornography of violence is taking shape.  Reporters feel it appropriate to mention that, according to the Sanford police report, five witnesses of the event were ‘white’, with the race of the sixth a mere ‘O’ – other.  David Martosko of the Daily Caller (Mar 27), a rag that has taken a clear dislike of Martin, finds it interesting to discuss the respective size and weight of the protagonists.  ‘Martin’s weight was recorded at 160 pounds.  The report does not list Zimmerman’s weight.’  Martin was ‘six feet tall when he died’ (prior to that he had been, presumably, of a different height) relative to ‘the 5-foot, 9-inch tall Zimmerman’.  Little stress is placed on the fact that Martin was not armed.

In terms of the legal babble involved, police officer Ricardo Ayala, who filed the report, cited the alleged crime as a violation of Florida statute 782.11 – ‘Unnecessary killing to prevent unlawful act.’  At least the law does specify that a person in the process of committing a felony can hardly be justifiably killed when being prevented from completing his act.

Zimmerman, at the very least, would be up for manslaughter, though prosecutors and the police have been resisting trial.  This, in itself, suggests an acceptance of the principle of violent civilian policing.  Better allow a private citizen the pleasure and consequences of shooting a teenager from a particular group, than the police, who are the traditional culprits in the US race wars.

Zimmerman provides a convenient crucifixion, a personalised flashpoint, but the problem lies more broadly with the concept of self-policing and ‘civilian’ defenders.  The fear factory has its workers toiling away to keep the fires going, and the neighbourhood watch scheme yields its noxious fruit.  Individuals like Zimmerman are hot heads at the ready, with murder lurking around the corner.  Despite being told by a police dispatcher not to follow the teen, Zimmerman kept in pursuit.  That is not to suggest that the man is an irredeemable monster, though he may well have proven to be an unstable one.  Zimmerman’s lawyer Craig Sooner has protested about the incomplete picture that is being offered about his client.  Then again, the legal process regarding Zimmerman’s apprehension has been sorely lacking.

Martin’s own past is being trucked through the mud.  He dabbled in graffiti.  He was suspended from school a total of three times before he was shot, as if to say that a regular class attendance is an insurance against a brutal death.  He might have attacked a bus driver (oh, the wonders of scatterbrained Twitter land).  The Miami Herald remarked that the teen had been caught with a ‘burglary tool’, an impossibly vague description centred on a screwdriver.  (He did, the paper also noted, have jewellery in his possession.)

Martin’s killing has done more than anything else to suggest the fundamental problems with the Neighbourhood Watch concept, a vigilante movement of social control that turned all too ugly.  Gated communities produce nervous guards.  ‘Suspicious’ people and activities are bound to be spotted everywhere.  If the inappropriate racial profile pops up, so do the weapons in the name of ‘self-defence’.  In Zimmerman’s own 911 call, Martin was ‘up to no good or he’s on drugs or something.’  If it isn’t one thing, it’s always something. The teen was, in the Zimmermann argot, a ‘coon’, and these types are always up to something.

Vigilante behaviour is a mirror of itself.  The New Black Panther Party has dangled the prospect for summary justice for Zimmerman, offering a $10,000 reward for his capture.  Rev. Jesse Jackson has proclaimed that ‘targeting, arresting, convicting blacks and ultimately killing us is big business’, doing his bit for what the conservative black pastor C. L. Bryant has branded ‘race hustling’.  What such tragic points reveal is that the process has brutalised every participant, ruined the alleged parties, and again underlined in deep, bloodied red, the race problems of the United States.

The nervous white rearguard is being drawn up by Rich Santorum and Newt Gingrich, both keen to attack President Obama on his intervention in the case.  Gingrich was his prickly self on the Sean Hannity radio show: ‘Is the president suggesting if it had been a white who had been shot, that would be OK because it wouldn’t look like him?’  Hardly, though that will not stop some assuming that to be the case.  The gated fences, and the neighbourhood watch captains, will continue to do their worst in the name of reassuring policing.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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