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Another Trayvon Martin Is Killed Every 28 Hours in This Country

A racist mindset infects our criminal justice system, our schools, and our politics in ways that have had disastrous consequences.
 
 
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The following is a transcript of Democracy Now! 

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to Columbus, Ohio, where we’re joined by Michelle Alexander, civil rights advocate, attorney, author of the best-selling book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Michelle Alexander recently wrote, "It is the Zimmerman mindset that must be found guilty—far more than the man himself. It is a mindset that views black men and boys as nothing but a threat, good for nothing, up to no good no matter who they are or what they are doing. It is the Zimmerman mindset that has birthed a penal system unprecedented in world history, and relegated millions to a permanent undercaste."

Michelle Alexander, welcome back to Democracy Now! Let’s look at the big picture here.

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Well, I think it’s clear that George Zimmerman not only killed an innocent man, but that Trayvon Martin would be alive today if he had been born white. If Trayvon had been white, it is beyond any reasonable doubt that he would not have been stalked by Zimmerman, and he would not have found himself in a fight with George Zimmerman. There would have been no fight, no trial, no verdict, no dead boy.

And as we reflect on what this moment means for our democracy and our racial present, I think it’s critically important that we not allow ourselves to get bogged down in the details of who said what when, but rather step back and consider what this Zimmerman mindset, a mindset that views a boy walking in his neighborhood carrying nothing but Skittles and iced tea as a threat, this mindset that views black men and boys as a perpetual problem to be dealt with. This mindset has infected our criminal justice system, has infected our schools, has infected our politics, in ways that have had disastrous consequences, birthing a prison system unprecedented in world history and stripping millions of basic civil, human—millions of people of basic civil and human rights once they’ve been branded criminals and felons. It’s this mindset that some of us, defined largely by race and class, are unworthy of our basic care and concern, and can be dealt with harshly, written off with impunity, that has led to the birth of the prison-industrial complex and, I think, a great deal of indifference to the plight of those who are locked up in cages in prisons, but also locked out of jobs and opportunity, and find themselves trapped in ghettoized communities.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Michelle Alexander, you’ve also suggested that if Zimmerman were actually a police officer, we would not be having this conversation. Could you explain what you mean by that and what the implications of it are?

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Absolutely. You know, there has been an outpouring of anger and concern because of the actions of George Zimmerman, a private citizen who profiled a young boy and pursued him and tried to confront him, perhaps. But what George Zimmerman did is no different than what police officers do every day as a matter of standard operating procedure. We have tolerated this kind of police profiling and the stopping and frisking of young black and brown men. We have tolerated this kind of conduct for years and years, recognizing that it violates basic civil rights but allowing it to go on.

You know, the reality is, is that it is a crime for a private person to go up to another private person, armed with, you know, a loaded weapon, and confront them, stalk them, perhaps search all over their body to see what they may have on them. That is a crime. It’s an assault with a deadly weapon, aggravated battery or aggravated assault. But when a police officer does precisely the same thing, it’s called "stop and frisk."

And, as we know, stop-and-frisk policies are routine nationwide. In New York City alone, more than 600,000 people are stopped and frisked every year, overwhelmingly black and brown men, and nearly all are found to be innocent of any crime or infraction, and are harassed simply because they seem out of place, seem like they’re up to no good. The same kinds of stereotypes and hunches that George Zimmerman used when deciding that, you know, Trayvon Martin seemed like a threat in his neighborhood, law enforcement officers employ all the time.

I believe that Trayvon Martin’s life might well have been spared if many of us who care about racial justice had raised our voices much, much sooner and much, much more loudly about the routine stereotyping and profiling of young black men and boys. It is because we have tolerated these practices for so long that George Zimmerman felt emboldened, I believe, to act on a discriminatory mindset that night.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you about this case of Marissa Alexander. She’s the 31-year-old African-American mother of three who was sentenced to 20 years in prison for firing what she maintains was a warning shot at her abusive husband. She has insisted she was defending herself when she fired the gun into a wall near her husband. Alexander had turned down a plea bargain that would have seen her jailed for something like three years. She attempted to use Florida’s Stand Your Ground law in her defense, but in March 2012 the jury convicted her, after only 12 minutes of deliberation, and she was sentenced to 20 years behind bars under a Florida law known as "10-20-Life" that carries a mandatory minimum for certain gun crimes regardless of the circumstance. This was an Angela Corey prosecution, the special prosecutor in the Trayvon Martin case who ultimately brought the charge of second-degree murder against George Zimmerman. Michelle Alexander, can you talk about this Florida law and the issue of mandatory minimums, in general?

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Absolutely. You know, the case you just described is, you know, a stark example of the discriminatory application of the Stand Your Ground law itself. You know, here is a woman firing shots in the air to protect herself from what she believed is an abusive spouse, and she winds up getting 20 years, while George Zimmerman, you know, is released scot-free after pursuing someone based on racial stereotypes and assumptions of criminality. She received a 20-year sentence because of harsh mandatory minimum sentences, sentences that exist in Florida and in states nationwide.

Mandatory minimum sentences give no discretion to judges about the amount of time that the person should receive once a guilty verdict is rendered. Harsh mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses were passed by Congress in the 1980s as part of the war on drugs and the "get tough" movement, sentences that have helped to fuel our nation’s prison boom and have also greatly aggravated racial disparities, particularly in the application of mandatory minimum sentences for crack cocaine.

It is the Zimmerman mindset, the mindset that some people, viewed largely by race and class, are a problem that must be dealt with harshly and just locked up and, you know, the key thrown away, that has helped to drive the adoption of many of these mandatory minimum sentence laws. And if we are serious about ending the Zimmerman mindset, we must be committed to much more than ending vigilante justice. We must be committed to repealing all of the mandatory minimum sentence laws that reflect that kind of Zimmerman mindset, the mentality that some people can simply be disposed of, are a problem—not people who have problems, but who are the embodiment of problem—that can be treated like mere throwaways.

AMY GOODMAN: And I just wanted to correct: Her name is Marissa Alexander, the woman who was sentenced to 20 years in jail for shooting a gun. Nermeen?

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Michelle Alexander, you heard the comments of Attorney General Eric Holder. What do you think the Justice Department should be doing in response to this and in response to some of the trends that you’ve spoken of in the criminal justice system?

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Well, with respect to the George Zimmerman case, I think they are right to continue their investigation into whether federal civil rights charges can be brought against George Zimmerman. I think it’s highly unlikely that the Justice Department will actually file suit against George Zimmerman, but I am encouraged that they’re actually continuing the investigation.

But simply investigating this one case does not even begin to scratch the surface of what must be done. Although Attorney General Eric Holder does not have the authority to repeal mandatory minimum sentences and undo the legislation that has, you know, helped to create the prison-industrial complex, what he can do is insist that we have a national debate and dialogue. He can say that the passage of these mandatory minimum sentences was wrong and that it was done with a discriminatory mindset, that it was done with an attitude of overwhelming punitiveness towards poor people, in general, and poor people of color, in particular, that it has had disastrous consequences for poor communities of color, and that we must undo the harm that has been done and repeal these laws so that a more restorative and rehabilitative approach to criminal justice might be possible. He can do this. You know, this is a conversation that I think he is well positioned to lead and to begin. But as we’ve seen with President Obama’s administration, although both the president and Attorney General Holder often say they want to encourage frank dialogues about race, we’ve seen relatively little in terms of, you know, actual initiative and leadership shown around issues of racial justice. And I would hope that, you know, in the months that follow the Trayvon Martin tragedy, that we will see much more courage and bold leadership coming from the Justice Department.

AMY GOODMAN: Michelle Alexander, I want to ask you to stay with us.... We’re going to come back to talk about a new study of African Americans killed by police or security guards just in the last year. Stay with us.

According to a recent study, the shooting death of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of his killer is not unique. [Read Adam Hudson's article for AlterNet on the report] In "Operation Ghetto Storm," the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement (MXGM) found at least 136 unarmed African Americans were killed by police, security guards and self-appointed vigilantes in 2012. Overall, one black person was killed in an extrajudicial shooting every 28 hours. We speak with Kali Akuno, a longtime MXGM organizer and author of "Let Your Motto Be Resistance: A Handbook on Organizing New Afrikan and Oppressed Communities." "This speaks to the mindset of criminalizing blackness," Akuno says. "We see it systematically throughout this country and really we have to get at the heart of it and have a much deeper conversation. I think the mass movement which is taking place in response [to the Trayvon Martin case] is an opening shot to have that conversation."

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We turn now to a report that examines how what happened to Trayvon Martin, and the lack of punishment faced by his killer, is not unique. In a survey conducted in 2012, the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement found at least 136 unarmed African Americans were killed by police, security guards and self-appointed vigilantes over the course of a single year. When African Americans who were armed are included in the survey, the overall number killed in extrajudicial shootings was 313—one black person killed every 28 hours.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we’re joined by Kali Akuno, a longtime organizer with the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, author of Let Your Motto Be Resistance: A Handbook on Organizing New Afrikan and Oppressed Communities. His organization’s report is called "Operation Ghetto Storm," documenting the extrajudicial killing of 313 black people in 2012. Michelle Alexander is still with us, author of The New Jim Crow.

It’s great to have you both with us. Kali Akuno, very quickly, just go through what you found.

KALI AKUNO: What we found is that this practice of extrajudicial killings is very systematic throughout the country. We found that police officers rarely—or the security guards or those who are deputized, such as George Zimmerman—are rarely, if ever, persecuted for the crimes that they commit, for the killings that they commit. And we found that overwhelmingly—as you mentioned some of the figures, overwhelmingly, most of the folks who were killed do not have any weapons. And the main reason—even 47 percent of those who were killed, the reasoning that was offered by the police is that they felt threatened—and so, a very similar argument that you hear in the Zimmerman case. And this was very systematic.

And we also found that—313 is what we could definitely verify, but we believe that this is an undercount. And this is primarily because the police, how they document these killings, oftentimes in many states there is no race designated. But what you can do is look at the geographic area and kind of make some summaries. But the federal government really is not compiling this information, and not many people are trying to compile this information, so there is a pretty significant gap in terms of, you know, the cold reality, if we want to look at and desegregate it by race, of what’s actually taking place in our communities.

AMY GOODMAN: Kali, I want to ask you about a particular case. A trial began this week in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, for a case that’s been compared to the Trayvon Martin shooting. An elderly white man, John Henry Spooner, is facing first-degree intentional murder charges for the fatal shooting of his unarmed [neighbor], a 13-year-old African-American boy named Darius Simmons, in May 2012. According to the criminal complaint, Spooner confronted Darius Simmons of stealing from his home. When Simmons denied it, Spooner shot him. The boy’s mother witnessed her son’s murder. Darius Simmons’ aunt, Betty McCuiston, spoke at the vigil after the shooting.

BETTY McCUISTON: And his mom want everyone to know that he had his hands up, standing in front of him, when he shot him. And then he turned to run, and he shot him again in his back.

AMY GOODMAN: After witnessing her son’s murder, Darius Simmons’ mother, Patricia Larry, was reportedly forced to remain in a police car for more than an hour instead of being allowed to be with her son’s body. Police searched her home for the firearms Spooner had accused the boy of stealing but found nothing. He was her—his neighbor. They also arrested another of her sons on a year-old truancy violation. On Monday, at least one potential juror for the Spooner case was not chosen after he expressed anger over the Zimmerman verdict. Of the 14 jurors selected Monday, only one is African American. If you could tell us more about this, Kali Akuno?

KALI AKUNO: Well, I mean, just briefly, we see, again, the same pattern, particularly in the jury selection. We see the same pattern of how the police were derelict in their duties to gather the information, how they treated the mother and the rest of her family as if they were guilty. We see the same kind of pattern. It speaks to the mindset of criminalizing blackness, of criminalizing black people, that Michelle Alexander was breaking down to you, that we see as systematic throughout the country and that really we have to get at the heart of and have a much deeper conversation. And I think the mass movement which is taking place in response is an opening shot to have that conversation, to really talk about race in a more substantive way and to basically, I think, deal with the policies that we need to transform, you know, the stop and frisk, the war on drugs, because that’s ultimately what we’re talking about and what has to take place in this country, and to change this narrative.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Michelle Alexander, very quickly—Michelle Alexander, very quickly, before we conclude, your final comment?

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: Well, just that I think it’s critically important that we think beyond traditional forms of politics. If we are serious about building a movement that will end the Zimmerman mindset, that will end mass incarceration and break our nation’s habit of treating black and brown men as disposable, it is going to take organizing, it’s going to take civil disobedience, it’s going to take a commitment to movement building far beyond the forms of traditional advocacy that have been so prevalent in recent decades.

 

 

 
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