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Trayvon Martin and America's Long, Horrific History of Vigilante Justice

The line between law enforcement and lawlessness has been blurred in the streets of our towns and cities.
 
 
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 At the  Million Hoodie March, the name of Trayvon Martin was the first name on everyone's lips. But as the behoodied masses of mourners spilled into the streets of lower Manhattan, I heard other names, too, which joined Martin's in a litany of murdered children. As the names were spoken, sung, chanted, and echoed through the city streets, the assembled remembered a history that was supposed to have been long forgotten.

Among the marchers, an elder woman could be heard crying, over and over, to any who would listen: "I'm tired! I'm tired! I'm just so tired!" For this woman and others I spoke to, the story of Trayvon Martin's murder remained freighted, not only with the weight of the Martins' unspeakable loss, but with the weight of a history too often left unspoken: above all, the long history of legalized murder extending from  Judge Lynch all the way to  George Zimmerman.

Extrajudicial "justice" came into its own in this country with the posse comitatus, the slave patrol, and the Fugitive Slave Laws of the 19th century. It continued into the 20th with the lynch mob, the Vigilance Committee, the Citizens' Council and the Klan. And it lives on today in the  citizens' patrol, the  Minuteman militia, the  Patriot movement — and your local precinct. For white-on-black violence has historically found willing perpetrators in police departments like  Sanford, Florida's, as much as in private " neighborhood watches" like Zimmerman's.

This is a  history of violence we have yet to truly reckon with. It is a history that teaches us, not only that violence begets violence, but that legalized violence on the part of the state begets extralegal violence on the part of private citizens — violence, above all, against those marked by race, religion, or presumed place of origin as illegal, criminal, or "out of place."

Immigrants, too, have been targeted for extrajudicial execution, from the murder of 9-year old  Brisenia Flores at her home in Arizona in 2009 to the fatal beating of  Shaima Alawadi, an Iraqi-American mother of five, in a suburb of San Diego just last month. Since 9/11, waves of anti-immigrant violence have coincided with waves of raids and round-ups by federal, state, and local agencies. Such hate crimes have been concentrated in counties (like  Suffolk, NY and Maricopa, AZ) where law enforcement has been known to engage in rampant racial profiling.

Every surge in white-on-black and white-on-brown violence has followed a series of signs and signals, of winks and nods from lawmakers, law enforcement, and legal practitioners. The most obvious are the " Castle Laws" and " Stand Your Ground" statutes, which legalize the use of lethal force by private citizens. Less obvious, but equally insidious, is the  reign of impunity for police officers who shoot to kill. And those who seek some measure of justice find the police as unwilling to investigate white vigilantes as they are to hold their own officers to account.

The line between law enforcement and lawlessness has been blurred in the streets of our towns and cities. Take the case of 18-year old  Ramarley Graham, who was executed, unarmed and in his own home, by members of the NYPD's Street Narcotics Enforcement Unit in the Bronx on February 2, 2012. Or take the case of 22-year old  Rekia Boyd, who was shot dead in Chicago on March 22 by an off-duty police officer who claimed to be "standing his ground," like Zimmerman. Neither Graham's killer nor Boyd's has been charged with any crime at this time. Compare this treatment to that meted out to Black police officer  Howard Morgan, facing up to 80 years in prison after being shot 28 times by fellow officers and living to tell the tale.

 
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