Black Humanity on Trial in America, Again
“Let us banish from our minds the thought that this is an unfortunate victim of injustice. The very concept of injustice rests upon the premise of equal claims.”
— Richard Wright
The above quote from the author Richard Wright is a reminder that the consequences of enslavement are still very much a part of the cultural, social and political makeup of the United States of America. From time to time in the history of society there are incidents or series of incidents that brings together the central contradictions of a society. The acquittal of George Zimmerman in the case of the killing of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, was one such incident that brought out the entire history of racism, racial profiling, white vigilantism and the realities that black people and their allies have to organize to change the system. There is hardly a decent person inside the United States who was not moved by this verdict that was handed down on July 13, 2013. Throughout the trial and following the verdict, it became clear that the US system put on trial the unarmed teenager, Trayvon Martin, who was murdered by an armed stalker.
The trial dehumanized Trayvon Martin, put his friend Rachel Jeantel up for ridicule and turned the killer George Zimmerman into a victim. George Zimmerman was portrayed as someone merely defending himself, and was found not guilty of murder and manslaughter. Juror B37 stated that she and others on the jury believed that Zimmerman had a right to stand his ground. In the common law, a self defense argument generally states that if you are threatened with imminent bodily harm or death, you have a right to defend yourself. Significantly, it had the requirement that if one has the opportunity to retreat from that threat, you must do so. Stand Your Ground laws, removes that requirement. In other words, don’t retreat; take the other person’s life. What kind of legal system justifies laws such as the Stand Your Ground law that was used as part of the deliberative guidelines by the jury that acquitted Zimmerman? The application of this law in the jury deliberation buys into the Zimmerman story in which he stated that he resorted to shooting unarmed Trayvon Martin by way of self-defense against his perceived fear of harm from the fight he had started with a teenager that was minding his own business.
There have been numerous commentaries on this case which now stands out as the most recent example of the fact that blacks have no claim to equality before the law in the United States. Throughout the world, people are asking: “what kind of society has a system where a George Zimmerman can walk free?”
In seeking to answer this question, one would discover that this social system of racial terror was never meant to serve the needs of persons such as Trayvon Martin. Florida is a state of the Old Confederacy that fought against the freedom of blacks. It was and remains one of the states where the ideas of white supremacy are stamped in almost every aspect of life and the citizens of that state carry the memories of the dehumanization and lynching of blacks in that society. In many ways, the killing of Trayvon and the verdict of not guilty was a reminder to many who may have been living in a dream that the United States is a post-racial society.
As a resident of this society, we immediately cast our minds back to the previous experiences of the killings of black persons such as Emmet Till, Amadou Diallo, Oscar Grant and the thousands of black lives that are uselessly snuffed out needlessly.
In this analysis we seek to draw on the current conjuncture and how the experience of Trayvon Martin was acting as a wakeup call to galvanize a new movement for human dignity.
Memory of Racism and Dehumanizing Justice System in US and Florida
The Zimmerman case invokes the memory of rabid racist history in the US, and Florida in particular. This history is characterized by the killing of blacks by whites with impunity, white vigilantism (in which any white man has the right to stop, interrogate, and violate the humanity of any black person), and a legal system that was built to protect whites and their property against black people.
When Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin, it took mass mobilizations and protests to get the local authorities to arrest and prosecute this killer who had walked free for over one month after committing this crime. This kind of indifference by authorities to the wasting of black life is not new in Florida. In 1923 Rosewood, a black town in Florida, was terrorized, burned down and abandoned after white massacre of blacks. And yet no one was arrested or held accountable. A white woman in adjoining city of Sumner had accused a black man of assaulting her, following which white vigilantes lynched a black man from Rosewood. The defensive actions taken by Rosewood residents against further attacks led to a mass manhunt and massacre of blacks resulting in the abandonment of this black town, for which no arrest was made.
While the justice system ensured that there were no arrests and proper prosecution of crimes such as that committed in Rosewood against blacks, these same black people were almost immediately assumed guilty and terrorized by the slightest accusations from whites. In Groveland, Florida, the accusation by a white woman Norma Padgett, who claimed that she and her husband had been attacked by four black men in 1949, resulted in extrajudicial killings in the hands of Florida authorities – now notoriously known as the Groveland Shooting.
The same city of Sanford where Zimmerman killed Trayvon was one of the two Florida cities (the other being Jacksonville) that doubled down on racist segregation laws to mobilize against African American baseball icon Jackie Robinson in the 1940s. The action of the people of these cities ensured that Robinson’s team, the Dodgers, moved their spring training away to another location, the City Island Ball Park in 1947. Today, many young persons who haven’t read about this legacy of Sanford, Florida, can get an idea of its racist legacy from the movie, “42,” about the experience of Jackie Robinson in racist America.
The accosting of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman reminded all citizens of the United States of the Fugitive Slave Laws that gave whites the right to stop free blacks to verify their status. From 1793, the US Congress had passed Fugitive Slave Acts and were codified on September 18, 1850, as part of the Compromise of 1850. It declared that all runaway slaves were, upon capture, to be returned to their masters. Any white person could stop a black person. This was the white vigilante tradition that George Zimmerman was following.
The Humanity of Blacks and Rights in America
The argument that has been paraded by supporters of Zimmerman, including his defense team and one of the jurors (B-37) is that he had killed Trayvon Martin in self-defense. They even claim that Trayvon Martin caused or contributed largely to his own death. It is not surprising to me that this argument disregards the right of unarmed Trayvon Martin to defend himself against an armed stranger that followed and accosted him in the dark. The larger question here is whether blacks are indeed considered equal to white under the law. This question of equality before the law has been at the core of the struggle for human dignity by blacks in America.
Many observers around the world should now grapple with the historical reality that in many parts of the United States, blacks are not really considered full citizens. From the time of enslavement, black people were considered sub human. This view of black people as sub species had been enshrined in the US constitution when blacks were designated as 3/5 of a person. It required a major war, the American Civil War (1861-
1865), for the black people in the United States to be considered as citizens. Before this major war, there had been legal and political struggles such as the Dredd Scott case where the Supreme Court of the United States declared that “no black, free or slave, could claim U.S. citizenship.”
Last month the Supreme Court of the United States rolled back the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In every sphere of life, black and oppressed people are finding out that they have to develop new forms of struggles to change the social system. After a Civil War, the civil rights movement and the election of a President of African descent, the progressives are finding out that the removal of racism will require system change. Since a black man became the president of the United States, conservative forces have been hard at work in many states of their stronghold, devising ways to chip away the voting rights from blacks and other oppressed such as Latinos.
After the major struggles against slavery, Jim Crow and the civil rights rebellions, there had been complacency among sections of the two dominant political parties in the United States that the country was in a post-racial moment. In fact, the media specifically did not use the term racism but instead use the concept “race” to disguise and cover up the intensified racism and brutality against African Americans. This cover up did not hide the realities that in every sphere of life blacks were oppressed. The school-to-prison pipeline placed the black and brown population in a for-profit prison system where 70 per cent of those behind bars are black and brown. The killings of black people by racists and police have not abated. Whether it was the killing of Amadou Diallo, Oscar Grant or Trayvon Martin, black people are routinely and arbitrarily killed in the United States.
The acquittal of George Zimmerman has opened the eyes of millions of people to the conditions of the black and brown citizens. In an effort to create divisions between oppressed blacks and oppressed Latinos, the media has been touting the fact that George Zimmerman is Latino. But this has not disguised his profiling and racist intent in the murder of Trayvon Martin. All classes of blacks have now jumped in to demand that the Justice Department bring a civil suit against George Zimmerman.
Eric Holder, -the first African American Attorney General of the United States, in his address to the annual convention of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) on July 16 spoke about his own experiences of racial profiling reminding the audience that these practiced were still at large. He said in part,
“Years ago, some of these same issues drove my father to sit down with me to have a conversation – which is no doubt familiar to many of you – about how as a young black man I should interact with the police, what to say, and how to conduct myself if I was ever stopped or confronted in a way I thought was unwarranted. I’m sure my father felt certain – at the time – that my parents’ generation would be the last that had to worry about such things for their children.”
Eric Holder is now being pushed by the anger of a new energized and mobilized social justice community. The day before he spoke to the NAACP, Holder had made forceful statements about the case in his address to the influential African-American sorority Delta Sigma Theta. Holder was addressing the sorority’s national convention in its centennial celebration. This organization was founded one hundred years ago in the midst of segregation and lynching as a movement for civil rights. Founded by educated black women at Howard University, Delta Sigma Theta is the largest single organization of African-American women in the United States. Since the sixties, these women have moved into the middle and upper echelons of society and the members of Delta Sigma Theta represent a who’s who of African-American politicians, educators and activists. Many of these women consider themselves successful, but the acquittal of George Zimmerman reminded them that this system will never provide equality for black people. It is this reality that forces women of sororities such as Delta Sigma Theta to continue to be involved in the struggles for civil rights. Except that in this period of capitalist crisis, the struggles for civil rights are no longer simply about voting and equal access to housing, education and employment. Sixty years ago, the United States could have promoted the fiction that the legal struggles were separate from the struggles for a new social system, but the economic crisis since 2007 has clarified the bare realities of the class and racial polarizations so that even the “democratic” façade of the United States now stands exposed.
Dividing the Oppressed
During the trial of George Zimmerman, it was Trayvon Martin who turned out to be on trial and Zimmerman was portrayed as a victim. Trayvon’s mode of dress, wearing a hood was presented as a form of ‘deviance.’ During the trial, the lawyer for Zimmerman made a lot of to do about Trayvon. His school record was brought up. While all sorts of drug tests were conducted on an unarmed dead victim of profiling, the vigilante who killed Trayvon was neither tested for drugs or alcohol. It was revealed during the court proceedings that Trayvon had marijuana in his system and was thus characterized as a thug. In a strange twist of historical irony, one day after the verdict, the “Glee” TV star, Cory Monteith, died of an overdose of heroin and alcohol, but the media did not portray him as a drug addict but sympathized about “how his story was tragic.”
At the same time the media has been hard at workportraying Zimmerman as a Latino while conservatives have weighed in to argue that the passions evoked by this case has overshadowed the rampant crime inside the oppressed communities. The conservatives have labeled this oppression black-on-black crime. The term “black-on-black” crime has become popular in the playbook of those who want to deflect attention from the historical context of terror and dehumanization that undergird race crimes and brutality meted out on black and brown people by whites and law enforcement in America. They are quick to draw attention to crimes in some black communities. In my own home town, one of my colleagues in the Political Science Department of Syracuse University, Professor Laurence Thomas wrote an op-ed for the local newspaper on this theme of black-on-black crime.
Well, it is true that crime anywhere in the society is not desirable, and that more needs to be done to address them. But the term black-on-black crime is a misnomer that is not intended to tackle the root causes of these crimes, but concocted as an excuse to downplay the gravity of racist crimes. The same people who use this term would not use “white-on-white crime” to describe the killing sprees in schools, theatres, and malls in America, of which the perpetrators and majority of the victims are Caucasians. Instead, efforts such as gun control and the availability of resources meant to address these crimes – whether those prevalent in white or black communities – are frustrated by the merchants of the military industrial complex and the prison industrial complex who benefit from the deformed system.
Black Oppression and the Capitalist Crisis
The capitalist crisis has been felt disproportionately by the black and brown peoples in the United States. The Wall Street moguls have used this crisis to transfer wealth from the poor to the rich and to disenfranchise the poor. The city of Detroit, a predominantly black city is the most recent high profile case of a city where black citizens are being disenfranchised; where a republican governor has placed the city under an emergency manager. In reality, the task of the emergency manager is to shift responsibility for capitalism’s crisis away from bankers, CEOs and hedge-fund managers and onto the backs of the most vulnerable. In the case of Detroit, that means poor and working-class African Americans who make up the vast majority of the city’s population.
Oppression was always severe for the African descendants in the US but since 2008, there has been an intensification of black subjugation and mass incarceration. With unemployment in the black community way over 25 per cent, there have been increased racial attacks with a spiraling of violence and police brutality, emboldened dope dealers (destruction of public schools, governmental attacks on voting rights laws, etc.).
In New York City the establishment promote a stop-and-frisk policy by which a police officer who reasonably suspects a person has committed, is committing, or is about to commit a felony or a penal law misdemeanor, stops and questions that person, and, if the officer reasonably suspects he or she is in danger of physical injury, frisks the person stopped for weapons. Of the more than 700,000 persons stopped every year, more than 90 per cent are blacks and browns.
System Change Necessary for Justice
When the verdict came out on Saturday evening, July 13, the establishment worked hard to pacify the rage among decent people by pointing out that the courts had spoken. As soon as the verdict was made known there were spontaneous demonstrations all over the country. Young and old, black, white and brown, men and women, gays and straights spoke out against this blatant dehumanization of Trayvon Martin. African American churches immediately became spaces for ‘prayer’ vigils and other historical forms of meetings for mobilization. Significantly, despite the efforts to divide blacks from Latinos, in Washington Heights, a predominantly Dominican neighborhood of New York City, there was an organized protest. From San Francisco to Washington and from Los Angeles to Atlanta, the people came out to demonstrate while the conservatives used the media to pour invective on blacks. In every media, whether print, TV, social media or blogs there is an unprecedented outpouring of opinions.
Robin D. G. Kelley in an excellent article, “The U.S. v. Trayvon Martin,” summed up the views on many progressives when he wrote,
“The point is that justice was always going to elude Trayvon Martin, not because the system failed, but because it worked. Martin died and Zimmerman walked because our entire political and legal foundations were built on an ideology of settler colonialism—an ideology in which the protection of white property rights was always sacrosanct; predators and threats to those privileges were almost always black, brown, and red; and where the very purpose of police power was to discipline, monitor, and contain populations rendered a threat to white property and privilege. This has been the legal standard for African Americans and other racial groups in the U.S. long before ALEC or the NRA came into being.”
The killing of Trayvon Martin, the acquittal of the killer Zimmermann, and the vigorous defense of the verdict by sections of the US society who claim that “the jury has spoken” and that “the due process of the law/justice” was applied, underscore the fact that this case was not about Florida or Zimmerman. It was about the US justice system and the societal ideation system of liberalism built on the duality and contradictions of “human vs. sub-human,” “white supremacy vs. black/brown inferiority,” “full rights of citizenship vs. selective rights.”
Globally, people are asking what’s next. Some are pointing to legal avenues, calling on the Attorney General of the United States to take action. As of Wednesday July 17, one million people have signed an NAACP petition asking the Department of Justice to pursue federal and civil rights charges against George Zimmerman. The strategy of the NAACP is to pressure the Attorney General to investigate whether Zimmerman’s actions constitute a hate crime under federal law. The Justice Department had closely monitored the case since March, and only put their investigation on hold to respect the state’s trial. Since the verdict and the overwhelming response, Attorney General Eric Holder has agreed to re-open his investigation. However, it would be a major error to focus on legal actions only.
A system change is what will be required to undo this contradiction of the dehumanization of black people inside this social system. Progressive forces and decent human beings must make this the focus of the next phase of the historical struggle to be human in America.
Horace Campbell is Professor of African American Studies and Political Science, Syracuse University. He is the author of Global NATO and the Catastrophic Failure in Libya, Monthly Review Press, 2013.