The Zimmerman Verdict Is a Wakeup Call to Address the Deep and Structural Injustices in America

Human Rights

“They call it due process and some people are overdue… Somebody said ‘brother-man gonna break a window, gonna steal a hubcap, gonna smoke a joint, brother man gonna go to jail.’  The man who tried to steal America is not in jail… And America was ‘shocked.’  America leads the world in shocks.  Unfortunately, America does not lead the world in deciphering the cause of shock…” - We Beg Your Pardon (Pardon Our Analysis) by Gil Scott-Heron

No matter how many times I live through moments like these, it never gets any easier.  Trayvon Martin, Oscar GrantJohn T. WilliamsHenry GloverJuan HereraAmadou DialloIman Morales,Eleanor BumpersVincent ChinAddie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, Denise McNairEmmett Till… There are so many more names to recall.  There are so many names I don’t know.  And they number into the millions, over centuries as we are reminded over and over again that for people of color in this country, our lives are cheap. 

I think my friend Dennis said it best when he observed that Trayvon was convicted of his own murder. 

My heart goes out to Trayvon's family and all of us who are feeling the trauma and pain in this moment. It is wrong. It is an atrocity. There's no way this verdict would have gone down if Trayvon was white. The legal argument that led to this verdict, which is centuries old, could not exist without de facto acceptance of racism as legitimate motive and Blackness itself as life threatening.

With each of these cases, we find ourselves in a kind of shock.  As in how could the country that brought you slavery, the Alamo, small pox blankets and waterboarding do such a thing?  Again? Many of us believe there is a “real” America, which is noble and great and if only we could take her “back” and let her be as she was intended, everything would be alright. 

I’m betting that that’s going to work about as well as any other abusive relationship.  It’s time for a change.

The Zimmerman trial was essentially an opportunity to lay more legal groundwork to advance vigilantism. Let’s face it.   This is a standard ‘go to’ move in the white supremacy handbook because the vigilante state is particularly important when the “majority” becomes a “minority” as a way to hold power without the pretense of democracy. Unlike Malcolm X in his famous 1964 speech The Ballot or the Bullet, white supremacy works to hold down the ballot and the bullet. It is not an “either or” proposition.

What is most important, however, is the structural analysis and strategy that undergirds their work. Much of our work – in stark contrast – is focused at the level of individual casework.  And it’s just not enough.

We often labor under the mistaken assumption that law is created by case history and argued in courts.  As a result, the bulk of resources targeted for racial justice work are invested in groups engaged in legal defense strategies.  Yet, law is so much more than cases.  Law is a fluid amalgamation of principle – ideals like freedom, liberty, equality; public perception and meaning – how we come to understand what principles mean in our current context; code – the nitty gritty words and technicalities that make up how these principles are implemented to and for whom; andcoercion and intimidation – we follow laws that don’t work for us because we’d rather not deal with the consequences. 

The Right understands the importance of all these elements in the forging of law and social norms.  They push for cases that push us on all these fronts.  They work to control not only the public narrative but the institutions that shape meaning and teach us what to think about the world and each other.  And they defend vigilante and state violence that works to limit our freedom, our mobility and even our dreams of what’s possible for our children.   Trying to counter these efforts with law centered strategy is like expecting to beat a card shark at poker – using their marked deck. 

Yes, we should support efforts to bring Zimmerman up on civil rights charges and boycott the companies that fund groups like ALEC that are responsible for the law that made his acquittal possible.  We also need a DOJ investigation and suit to address the blatantly racist patterns in the application of stand your ground type laws and extrajudicial killings in general.  We must also be more adept at leveraging human rights tools at our disposal to take our efforts beyond the limited framework of the Constitution and reimagine remedies at a macro-systemic level including, yes, even reparations.

Ending this tragic history of murder and mayhem; ensuring that there are no more Trayvons or Oscars or Vincents or Addie Maes requires an upending of the deeply entrenched structures that led to their deaths in the first place.  Let’s hope that this latest wakeup call will inspire more of us to take on the deeper work of structural transformation to make tragedies like these a thing of the past.

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