Prison for George Zimmerman is Not Justice for Trayvon Martin
Trayvon Martin is the most recent victim in a long line of black men targeted for execution and erasure by institutional and interpersonal violence in the United States, beginning in the time of slavery. Lynchings by white supremacist terrorists in postbellum United States, Jim Crow segregation, the U.S. government’s COINTELPRO war against the black power movement, the rise of the War on Drugs, staggering trends of racial profiling and police brutality, and the emergence of the prison-industrial complex (PIC) all are rooted in a logic of slavery, which continues to disproportionately incarcerate, disenfranchise, silence and murder black men and all people of color today.
Trayvon Martin’s murder at the hands of George Zimmerman, a Latino man who clearly internalized the racist systemic attitudes that have enacted these gross historic harms, represents only a continuation of these trends. It is upsetting yet predictable that the justice movement which has arisen to respond to Trayvon’s death, spearheaded by the social justice community, civil rights groups like the NAACP, the Occupy movement, and Trayvon’s parents, is demanding first and foremost the arrest and prosecution—and by extension, the incarceration—of George Zimmerman. This movement relies predominantly on state apparatuses including the police and the judicial system, which have historically enacted the same forms of violence, overtly and covertly, that took Trayvon’s life.
There are many problems with the movement’s focus on criminal “justice” solutions to Trayvon’s murder. First, it runs the risk of turning what is a clearly systemic problem of internal, institutional and interpersonal racism into a “bad apple” case. Second, it silently reinforces and legitimates the police, courts and prisons as spaces where real justice can occur, despite a growing body of anti-racist literature indicating these apparatus’ deal only in the business of oppression. Third, a decontextualized and dehistoricized look at rectifying only the legal failures which killed Trayvon would necessarily demand legislative action through grassroots pressure. This means that once violent laws—such as Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law—are reformed (a process which can take many years), and Zimmerman is behind bars, the movement can claim victory, and the organized resistance on the ground will slowly dissipate until the next Trayvon Martin comes along (which, in this culture of racialized violence, won’t be long).
The United States has a racism problem: it always has, it clearly still does, and it is everywhere. The question those of us on the ground must ask ourselves is how much longer will we allow racist oppression to continue. When will we connect the dots between all the sociopolitical institutions complicit in racism and oppression today? From gated communities (like the one in which Trayvon was killed), to drug free school zones, bank’s red-lining impoverished communities, immigration enforcement officers profiling Latin@s, polluting industries poisoning low-income neighborhoods, failing public schools, police surveillance of Arab communities and Muslim organizations, and a War on Drugs that, by definition, can never end, racism rears its ugly head in every nook of society. From the slavery upon which this country was built, to today’s modern slavery, called “prison,” black and brown people in this country have always disproportionately been on the receiving end of systemic violence.
If George Zimmerman vigilante cop wannabe—who fashioned his response off of the police’s habit for profiling, and excessive use of force—had not killed Trayvon Martin, a cop would. Or another young, hoodie-wearing person of color assumed to be up to no good would have fallen in Trayvon’s place. To harp on George Zimmerman is a distraction. To demand his prosecution is a band aid to a gaping wound. Instead, we need to look to the social forces which created George Zimmerman, and others like him who have (not yet) taken life. What forms of covert racism were taught to Zimmerman and internalized by him in our school system? What are the effects of drug(war)-related stigma—as Zimmerman commented to police that Trayvon looked “drugged out”—on patterns of violence against youth of color? What is the impact of current gun legislation and the deepset value of capitalistic, rugged “American” individualism at the root of our gun culture? What history of violence or abuse, often associated with patterns of domestic violence, exist in Zimmerman’s past, which cause him to replicate cycles of violence as an adult? Perhaps, in the case of George Zimmerman, none of these are relevant. But violence always has a reason, a trigger, or a history; it never happens in a vacuum, removed of its context. It is the root cause of this violence which must be the focus of any holistic response to the Trayvon Martin tragedy. And one thing of which we can be certain is that, after Zimmerman survives the violence inherent to incarceration and is released, he will be prone to continued violence outside the prison once more.
It is time for us to deeply reimagine responses to violence which do not involve the criminal penal system or the police and to respond to cases like Trayvon’s with a systemic critique and holistic vision. Such a vision necessarily includes supporting both Trayvon’s family, and George Zimmerman himself, through the process of healing, towards a future where neither are touched by violence ever again. The police, courts and prisons exist only to maintain the status quo of power and oppression and should be abolished, or in the least disarmed, demilitarized, defunded and reimagined. Community-based justice programs must take the place of cops and police wannabes, to engage those impacted by horrific violence in the process of healing and reparation. Luckily, models for community-based parole boards, community courts and restorative justice programs—all of which represent a tangible alternative to the criminal penal system—exist. Now all we need is a robust, grassroots campaign to turn them into a reality, which is no easy task and cannot be won with a protest or the writing of a letter. I propose we begin this arduous but essential campaign right here in college, cultivating a campus culture of accountability which does not utilize PSafe, the SJB, or the MPD. In the aftermath of the brutal murder of Sean Bell by NYPD officers in 2006, and the subsequent acquittal of the officers on all charges in 2008, Wesleyan students, furious with the culture of racist police brutality, blockaded the stairs in Usdan to express their dissent and imagine a different world without racist institutions (Argus Article: http://wesleyanargus.com/2008/05/06/protesting-profiling-ny-shooting-prompts-marketplace-barricade/).
The relative silence on campus regarding the murder of Trayvon Martin, or the recent police murders of Anna Martin, Kenneth Chamberlain, Sr., Nery Romero, Yvonne McNeal, Ramarley Graham, Charles Hill, and Oscar Grant beg the question: where has the organized resistance to institutional racism at Wesleyan gone? Wesleyan, let’s get moving. Our hands are not cleansed of the blood of racial oppression across this country. “Diversity University” is poised to end our need-blind admissions policy within the next decade, which will further self-select students from marginalized communities and low-income backgrounds away from Wesleyan. The campus-wide engagement on this imminent policy change (which one would assume would be organized by our administration, who are supposedly respectful of student concerns, to garner student feedback), is markedly, yet unsurprisingly, absent. Furthermore, stories of racial profiling by PSafe, the Ride, fellow students and even faculty have surfaced over recent years, a stark reminder that racism is alive and well at Wesleyan. Our administration has consistently failed to adequately address the needs of our janitorial staff, who are grossly underpaid and suffer from a lack of access to information pertinent to their lives, and in their native langu ages. The state of Connecticut spends more money on prisons and the larger criminal penal system than it does on education. These trends must end, and in the memory of those who struggled before us, it must continue with us. Let us never forget Trayvon Martin, and let us be true to the memory of all those whose lives have been stolen in our culture of violence. Another world is possible, another justice system is necessary, and another culture could be happening, if we come together and dream it.