Reality ‘Written in Lightening’: On ‘Fruitvale Station’

(Al Seib/Los Angeles Times)
by David J. Leonard
Originally published| NewBlackMan (in Exile)

Walking out of the theater in West Los Angeles, I felt a lot of emotions.  Even before Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station started, I felt the film at a visceral level: I was sad, anxious, angry, and disheartened as I sat down. Emotionality is central to the film.

As brilliant as the film is at tapping into the emotionality of Oscar Grant’s killing, it is not simply a film of anguish or one that builds upon the outrage and sadness compelled by murders #every28hours.  It is a work of art; a tapestry of images, narratives, and movements.  It is a story of depth about a layered life put together through sight and sound, image and voice.

There is a lot to be said about the film at an intellectual, artistic, and cinematic level.  For example, Coogler’s ability to “make Oakland a character” is crucial to the film; it is done with great precision and depth.  The shots of street signs, the Bay, BART, and several Oakland landmarks are critical to the film’s situating of Grant’s life and death within a physical landscape.  To understand Oscar Grant and to reflect on his death, requires an ability to see and hear, feel and understand, Oakland in post civil rights, post 9/11 America.  His life and death is a story of Oakland; it is also a story of neighborhoods and communities across the nation.

With its use of the camera, from the close-ups of Tatiana scrubbing crabs to the various moments that brought Grant’s humanity to life, Fruitvale Station forces viewers to not only confront Grant’s death and his killing in 2009, but his life: his relationship with his girlfriend, Sophina (Melonie Diaz); his adoration for his mother Wanda Johnson (Octavia Spencer) and sister; his beautiful interactions with his daughter; and the many obstacles he faced in an unforgiving America.  Wesley Morris offers an important assessment of the film when he writes:

Fruitvale Station speaks to that yawning discrepancy. What feels slight, shaggy, and ordinary about it is also rather remarkable. To present Grant this way — as a son who loves his mother, as a father who loves his daughter, as the sort of person who comforts a dying dog and pleads with a shop owner to permit a pregnant woman to use his restroom — is to remove the stigma. He’s a lower-middle-class kid who got mixed up with crime. But most of the narrative belongs to a charming, charismatic, devoted young man, someone striving to better himself. It’s not only that this Grant is a person. It’s that, to a fault, he’s made to be more than black male pathology.

Rahiel Tesfamariam similarly emphasizes the film’s cinematic and narrative success in humanizing Grant – in challenging the systemic flattening of black bodies.  Fruitvale Station gives voice to Grant and the injustice evident in his death and in doing so challenges America’s racial landscape.

We also see this vulnerability play out in his dealings with the matriarchs in his family… These women are his anchors in life. Sophina keeps him honest, holds him accountable and brings out his sensual side. Through their relationship, we see his desire to be a protector and provider. His mother Wanda grounds him in prayer and nurtures him through wise words and good food. Her “tough love” approach often haunts him in his actions and decision-making. Then, there’s Grandma Bonnie who keeps him connected to tradition and the family history that proceeds him.

This backdrop is so important to the film, and to a larger landscape of anti-black racism; yet as I watched and cried, I found myself asking myself: does the persistence of segregation in Hollywood constrain the impact of such an important film?  Does the nature of distribution limit the reach of films centering African American voices and experiences into “red state America”?

Given the ubiquity of the criminalized black body, and given the widespread practice of blaming Grant or Trayvon Martin for their own deaths, it is disheartening to know that those who continue to peddle and profit in/from anti-black racism will unlikely watch Fruitvale Station.

It is infuriating that those who blame inequality on “single mothers” and “children born out-of-wedlock” will never be forced to digest the beautiful relationship that Tatiana had with her father Oscar, who would be part of that 72% statistic cited without any thought over and over again.

The anger I felt is about the killing of Oscar Grant – and Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Ayana Jones-Stanley, Rekia Boyd, Amadou Diallo; yet it was about a theater with only a handful of people; it is about knowledge of multiplexes across the country screening zombie movies and another about a snail rather than films that have the potential to transform a generation.  It is about knowledge that Madea, the Help, or the Butler will more likely be screened than the stories of Oscar Grant or Ruby.

Frustration, sadness, and anger.

Almost 100 years after the release of D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, a film steeped in white supremacy and anti-black violence, Fruitvale Station brings a level of black humanity that has remain on the periphery of the Hollywood imagination for a century.  Almost 100 years after the release of a film that celebrated the rise of the Klan as the necessary force to thwart black savagery, Fruitvale Station stepped into a cinematic and larger racial landscape to offer a powerful counter narrative to the anchors of contemporary racism.  Yet, 100 years after Birth of a Nation was celebrated as “history written in lightening,” the prospect of Fruitvale Station receiving similar treatment feels to the right of impossible.

As with the struggle for justice itself, the actual hearing and seeing of Grant, Martin, Diallo, and so many others remains a distant possibility.  As with the activists who have used their cell phones to document the specter of police violence and anti-black/brown racism, Coogler uses his camera to further force a nation to confront these realities.  Fruitvale Station shines a spotlight on this empathy deficit and the denied humanity.  And like the killing of Grant, this is the source of my frustration, sadness, and anger.

But be clear, Fruitvale Station is reality written in lightening; a piercing ray of truth telling that is painful.  It is a disheartening, infuriating, and devastating reality; one that everyone should confront before another train arrives at Fruitvale Station.

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Profiling Trayvon…Again

“Angry Trayvon App”

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Profiling Trayvon…Again

Originally Published at NewBlackMan (in Exile)

Watching the George Zimmerman trial has been a daily reminder of the ways that race and the criminal (in)justice system collide. The trial has been a daily display of the different standards, scripts, and narratives afforded to both victims and the accused, and how race sits at the center of these “two Americas.”  Media coverage of the trial has presented judgments  on whose life matters, whose future matters, whose pain matters, whose suffering matters, whose experiences matter, and who deserves, is entitled to, and will receive sympathy, mourning, and justice.
Just as every person within America is profiled as guilty or innocent, as desirable or undesirable, violence is profiled as well.  Gun violence is profiled racially. Victims are profiled racially.  Perpetrators of violence are profiled; the families and friends are profiled as well; communities are not spared from this process. Ultimately, the narratives embraced are dissimilar across communities whereupon race creates a dividing line that marks them as separate and unequal.  This is racism at its core.
“Deep in the white American psyche” rests the controlling belief that sees “the impossibility of Black innocence” (Mann 2013).  Inside this same dominant worldview is that impossibility of white guilt.
The perpetual criminalization of Trayvon Martin is telling; the efforts to blame him for his own death; whether from the defense questioning of Sabrina Fulton or the mentions of trace amounts of THC in his system at the time of his death, are evident in the ubiquity of depicting Trayvon as a “thug,” a “suspect” and a “criminal” (a CNN “expert” even justified Zimmerman’s profanity-laced 911 call because he thought he was following a criminal).
All of this is operates from and perpetuates the presumed guilt of Trayvon Martin and black bodies in general.  Zimmerman, on the other hand, is presumed innocent and a good person who is now being victimized.
On Fox News recently, Greg Jarrett and Kimberly Guilfoyle lamented the costs and anguish experienced by Zimmerman, citing his weight gain as evidence of his victimization.  “You eat when you’re under stress and pressure and stuff like that,” Guilfoyle reminded the audience, “So, you know, he’s already been punished to some extent. We’ll wait and see whether a Jury punishes him further.” “This is an individual that was trying to do some civic duty by being on the community watch,” Jarrett noted, “that was the purpose of why he was there that night.” In other words, Zimmerman was a victim; victimized in the past, on this fateful night, and through the process.  Sympathizes should rest with him.
While the verdict has not been read, the trial itself, the media coverage of the trial,  the focus on the Newtown shootings as opposed to gun violence in Chicago, as well as the demands for background checks and not jobs, and the focus on mental health and not schools, are testaments to the ways race sits at the center of discourses of gun violence, and the criminal justice system.
Black death and white death are conceived as separate and unequal within the dominant white imagination; yet the stories about life and death in black and white are contingent upon one another. White life is privileged over anything else.
The scripts we see with regards to Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman, or  Newtown, and Chicago, are the stories of guilt and innocence; they are the stories of blacks and whites—evidence of the persistence of racism and the illusion of post-racial America. At the core of dominant discussions of guns and violence, like those of crime and punishment, is a presumption of black guilt and white innocence.  White America clings to the profiles of guilt and innocence as a religion.
To look at the stories told of Adam Lanza and James Holmes is to look at the difference in the profiling of and narratives associated with Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis, another unarmed black teen shot to death in Florida. W.E.B Dubois once asked when writing about America’s race question, “how does it feel to be a problem?” Contemporary discussions of gun violence, from inner-cities to the suburbs, highlight the continued relevance of his words within America.

While the judge limited the ability of the prosecution to bring race into focus and to talk about racial profiling, among other things, race remains at the center of the trial and the criminal justice system—at the heart of life and death. The demands for colorblindness amid the realities of a racist America means that this trial, like those before, are playing out according to the hegemonic script: black criminalization and white innocence.  It is my hope for a new ending where justice and mourning no longer remain a dream deferred.

It’s Gotta Be the Ink: Crime, Athletes and Tattoos

 
It’s Gotta Be the Ink:  Crime, Athletes and Tattoos
 
Sports media is often a place ripe with racial, class, and gendered meanings; it often is a site where stereotypes and profiling are articulated; where bodies, particularly bodies of color, are subject to scrutiny and examination, ridicule and demonization.  Sports media, especially when the coverage moves beyond the game, is often dominated by generalizations and grandiose arguments that spill over outside of the arena and playing field.  This has been evident with two recent columns about John Wall and Aaron Hernandez, both of which extrapolate meaning and pathology from tattoos – or better said the meaning in an inked body of color.
 
In a recent column, Jason Reid cautioned the Wizards (he provides clarification here) against signing a contract extension with Wall because of his decision to get and unveil his tattoos:
 
Posing shirtless recently for an Instagram photo, Wall revealed several tattoos. Wall’s interest in body art is surprising, considering he previously said he did not have tattoos because of concerns over his image for marketing reasons. Many NBA players do have tattoos, and Wall isn’t breaking new ground in sharing his ink with fans through social media.
 
But not every player flip-flops on a topic in such a public way. Factor in that Wall is expected to receive a huge payday from the Wizards next month, and the timing of his tattoo revelation raises questions about his decision making. For a franchise with a history of backing the wrong players, that’s food for thought. . .
Reid makes clear that Wall’s decision to get tattoos leads him to question his mindset, his character, and his priorities since he previously stated that he wasn’t getting any tattoos because of a potential reaction from fans and the organization.  Yet, now he has them, causing Reid to wonder about Wall’s focus on the game and the fans.  It’s gotta be the ink.
 
Reid’s effort to read meaning into Wall’s tattooed body is nothing compared to Jason Whitlock’s recent column, which is disturbing even by Whitlock’s standards.  Amid the many troubling points of “analysis” that nostalgically pine for popular culture and a sports world of yesteryear, Whitlock uses the arrest of Aaron Hernandez as an instance to pathologize and demonize today’s athletes, and accordingly goes in on tattoos:
Athlete covered in tattoos is linked to several violent acts, including “accidentally” shooting a man in the face. Modern athletes carry guns. They do drugs. They mimic rappers and gangster pop-culture icons.
 
Athletes want street cred, and they costume themselves in whatever is necessary to get it. Nike, Reebok, Adidas, etc., were the first to recognize the importance of authentic street cred when it came selling product to American youth.
Sadly Whitlock was not done:
When he stood in chains before a judge at his arraignment, in a white T-shirt and his arms decorated in ink, Hernandez did not look out of place. Guilty or innocent, he looked like someone who had prepared for this moment. He didn’t look like an athlete. He looked like an ex-con…
 
We can no longer distinguish bad from good. We no longer even aspire to be good; it has considerably less value. That’s what Aaron Hernandez represents, to me. Popular culture has so eroded the symbolic core principles at the root of America’s love affair with sports that many modern athletes believe their allegiance to gangster culture takes precedence over their allegiance to the sports culture that made them rich and famous.
There is so much wrong here that I am not sure where to start but let me unpack a few arguments.  (1) He seems to argue that America’s crime problem (despite declining crime rates) is the result of its faulty values. Popular culture is the teacher to blame. The celebration of Jay-Z and Tony Soprano (and I am not fooled by the inclusion of Tony Soprano to obfuscate from the racial arguments) has created a culture of criminality, as evidenced by Aaron Hernandez.
 
 
Whitlock writes that Hernandez, “stayed true to his boyz from the ‘hood. He mimicked the mindset of the pop-culture icons we celebrate today.” While acknowledging the costs and consequences of “a 40-year drug war, mass incarceration,” Hernandez is a product of “a steady stream of Mafia movies, three decades of gangster rap and two decades of reality TV have wrought: athletes who covet the rebellious and marketable gangster persona”—a  little nostalgia to go with Whitlock’s simplicity and reductionist linear narrative.
 
In amazing level of erasure of history, of violence, Whitlock, who clearly plays a sociologist, psychologist and media studies scholar on both TV and the Internet, pontificates how to thwart crime and violence: revamp the television guide and top-40.   Yes, it’s got to be the television.  Rather than address structural realities, it is time for politicians, activists, and communities to address the real menace: popular culture.  If only he was kidding.
 
(2) I wonder if he or others who like to blame rap and popular culture for everything invoke these arguments in other cases or just those involving people of color.  I must have missed an examination of the listening habits of Adam Lanza or James Holmes?  I wonder what sort of influence hip-hop and Allen Iverson had on the Boston bombers, Catholic priests, or Wall Street executives.  Clearly, it is time for Whitlock and others to listen to Michael Franti’s “It’s a crime to be broke in America.”
They say they blame it on a song
When someone kills a cop
What music did they listen to
When they bombed Iraq?
Give me one example so I can take a sample
No need to play it backwards
If you wanna hear the devil
Cause music’s not the problem
It didn’t cause the bombin’
But maybe they should listen
To the songs of people starving…
More than reminding me of the scapegoating of music which truly masks the criminalization and demonization of bodies of color (nobody has made issue of George Zimmerman’s tattoos), I recall a response to David Whitley’s piece about Colin Kaepernick because sadly I can just remix this “Dear Mr. Whitlock” because same message different day.
 

Still Hating Marshall Henderson

Still Hating Marshall Henderson

Original version published at NewBlackMan (in Exile)

Marshall Henderson has been busy since his Ole’ Miss squad lost in the 2nd round of the NCAA tournament.  Once his season ended, which included his giving fans the finger, and the media celebrated his contributions to the tournament, he moved onto more important activities: encounters with the police.  In fact since March he has several face-to-face visits with the police, including a May stop where after being pulled over for speeding, he was found to be in possession of both marijuana and cocaine.  Ultimately, he wouldn’t be charged with any drug crimes, but instead was citied for not having insurance.  Say, what?  Given his history, and the draconian nature of American drug policy, the lack of intervention from the criminal justice system should give pause.

Reports of this and other incidents only surfaced after his coach announced that he was suspended indefinitely (not kicked off the team; not removed from school) from the team for violating “team rules” (as opposed to state law or school policies).

The media response to the suspension and to the reported arrests has been muted to say the least.  Called a “knucklehead;” “someone who has been enjoying himself;” as someone who is “battling a beast” and a sickness; as someone who keeps messing up; as someone who needs to get his life together, who needs help.  Not a thug, not a menace, not a criminal; not someone who should be kicked off the team, kicked out of school or sent to jail.   Understanding and compassion at every level.

Chris Herren, a former basketball player whose battles with addiction have been well documented, furthered the poor Marshall narrative:You can never minimize the fact that you’re jeopardizing your future. It’s tragic for me to see his situation knowing what I know, what I went through, what I did.”  Herren, who like Marshall was afforded many 2nd chances, further noted, “Ultimately, he needs to get down to the reason why a substance is more important than yourself, your family and your future,” said Herren. “Whether it’s basketball, football, baseball or any sport at a high level, the price to pay is a lot of pressure. That’s why he needs to incorporate some balance in his life and surround himself with people who have the same dream he does.”

With these events, and his continued ability to cash in on his “whiteness,” to get a pass because he does not elicit racial fear and outrage, I continue to hate Marshall Henderson.   There I said it. I hate that every time I see his name I am reminded as to white supremacy, about racial standards, of the history of the 3/5 clause, and of dreams deferred.

I realized long ago that my disdain for all things Marshall runs deep, where I couldn’t help but sit in front of the television to watch Ole Miss-Florida in the SEC tournament finale.  I am more likely to watch the Real Housewives of Iowa than an SEC basketball game, yet it was must see-TV because of my disdain for Marshall Henderson.  From March until now, from his trash-talking to his arrests, from his 2nd and 10th chances, he is emblematic of the racial scripts that pervade American society.

But let me clear, I am not a hater.  I don’t have sour grapes; I got outrage to injustice and he is indicative of this entrenched injustice.  My feelings have little to do with Marshall Henderson.  I don’t know the man. Nor do I have an investment in his daily performance.

My thoughts about Henderson have as much to do with the myopic celebration of his accomplishments, “colorful” personality, and “swagger” given the sordid history of integration at Ole Miss.  Given the “ghosts of Mississippi,” and given the historic mistreatment directed at African American students at this “rebel campus,” it is telling that Henderson has elicited praise.  It is telling that he has been elevated at the expense of his teammates, erasing their contributions to the team.

My emotional reaction is not about Henderson himself but the narrative, the media coverage, and the double standards that he is embodies.  “Marshall Henderson is the Charlie Sheen of college basketball – an unapologetic poster-child of white privilege,” notes Charles Moriano. “Despite a litany of on and off-court behavior that normally send sports media pundits into “what about the kids” columns with African-American athletes, Henderson has been most often been described as ‘passionate’, ‘colorful’, and ‘entertaining’.” Greg Howard describes the double standards that anchor the media response.

He messes with any racially essentialist expectations of what a white basketball player is supposed to be. He’s an incessant shit-talker who tosses up 30-footers, rarely passes, and has a conspicuous lack of “hustle” stats. He tokes an invisible joint after made three-pointers…Marshall Henderson by all rights shouldn’t exist. And if he were a black athlete, he wouldn’t—not as far as big-time basketball is concerned.

My contempt is about the public persona that he has created along with a media that seems not only OK but rejoicing in behavior that has become the basis of the sports-punditry-hater-industry when it comes to today’s black athletes.

Matt Rybaltowski is illustrative of everything I loathe about the Marshall Henderson story: “In an age of political correctness and the contrived sound bite, Marshall Henderson is an anomaly, a free-spirit college basketball hasn’t seen since Jason Williams brought his killer crossover to Gainesville in the late 1990s. Dating back even further, it’s not a stretch to consider Henderson a Bill Walton in a shooter’s body.”

Sports pundits are incapable of offering comparisons that are not racially segregated.  Whereas Bill Walton loved the Grateful Dead, protested the Vietnam War (he was even arrested during his junior year), and joined Kareem Abdul Jabbar and others in support of the civil rights movement, Henderson loves playing quarters and his “hoes.” I guess we can say Henderson protested injustice, calling those coaches who didn’t vote him first team all-conference as losers.  Comparing Henderson to Walton is like comparing Justin Bieber to Eric Clapton; white and involved in same vocation.

Whereas black ballers are continuously criticized for selfishness – “there is no I in TEAM” – Henderson’s aspiration to “get his money” or his propensity to taunt fans is a sign of his being free spirit.  He is celebrated for saying what is on his mind even if his mind seems to begin and end with himself.   It is a striking moment of hypocrisy where not only does Henderson get a pass for his trash-talking, self-promotion, and his shot selection, but when he is imagined as exceptional.  In an age of media scrutiny, where (black) athletes are routinely criticized for deviating from the prescribed scripts, it is striking that he is celebrated by the same media that makes millions off telling today’s (black) student-athlete to shut up and play.

This past fall, Cardale Jones, a student-athlete at Ohio State University, had the audacity to tweet: “Why should we have to go to class if we came here to play FOOTBALL, we ain’t come to play SCHOOL classes are POINTLESS.” Not surprisingly, he was pillared, critiqued, and cited as evidence of what’s wrong with today’s student-athlete.  There were no headlines about his refreshing challenge to political correctness and no celebratory articles about his free-spirit and the passion Jones has for his sport.

Marshall Henderson has had more collegiate addresses than John McCain has homes.  He has taken his talents across the nation, playing in multiple time zones. He is the Bobby Petrino of collegiate basketball.  Over three years, he has attended the University of Utah, Texas Tech University, South Plains Community College, and Ole Miss.

Yet, the story told has not been one of a checkered past or an ability to commit, but instead one worthy of celebration.  He has travelled a difficult road in search of his dreams.  Despite a Kardashian-esque level of commitment, Henderson’s road to the NCAA tournament has come to signify his “rags-to-riches” story of redemption.  His past is evidence of the difficulty he has overcome and why ultimately we should love him.

He is praised for individuality and for his refusal to accommodate societal demands.  Henderson shares in this celebration, noting, “That’s just who I am, on and off the court, I like to wear my hat, my hoodie and some shades.” Yet, as Moriano notes, his ability to be himself, to express his own individuality is the essence of white privilege. “Young African-American men have no such luxury – on or off the court. At worst, wearing a hoodie can help get you killed like Trayvon Martin, and on just an average New York City day, it will get you ‘stopped and frisked’.”

Henderson is praised for the “joy” and “passion” he plays with, yet every athlete is not created or critiqued equally. Not every athlete is entitled to taunt Florida fans, to shoot with reckless abandonment.   Irrespective of fact that he shoots almost 15 shots a game, or fact that he shoots less than 40% from the field, he is depicted as scorer and an offensive talent.  He is the 14th leading scorer in Division 1, yet has the lowest shooting percentage of any player in the top 40.

The fact that he shoots and shoots and shoots is a sign of fearlessness and passion as opposed to arrogance and selfishness.  Henderson, despite embracing the aesthetics and practices long associated with hip-hop and blackness, is imagined as  “breath of fresh air for an American public “‘tired of trash-talking, spit-hurling, head-butting sports millionaires.’”  He is the walking embodiment of “everything but the burden.”  According to CL Cole and David Andrews, “African American professional basketball players… are routinely depicted in the popular media as selfish, insufferable, and morally reprehensible.”  Henderson is not burdened but instead celebrated for his “swagger” and “passion.”    Each and everyday he is able to cash in on his whiteness.

Yes, his whiteness.  While his father Native American, and while his twitter name, reps his indigenous identity, in the world of basketball, whereupon blackness is imagined as “normative,” as “non-black baller” he becomes white before our eyes.  He has a white pass, one he plays every time he sticks out his tongue or taunts an opponent.  And he seems quite aware of his white privilege.

“It’s a freaking game. It’s a basketball game. People take it so seriously that it’s funny for a little white guy like me to just come around, talk trash to people and the fans,” notes Henderson. “Like, what are you going to do in the stands? What am I going to do on the court to you in the stands? It’s funny just to mess with people.”

While Henderson imagines himself as a victim, who is criticized because he is “a little white boy” who “talk trash to people and the fans” in the end he is lovable villain, a person worthy of celebration.  He, unlike those other trash talkers, is a good kid and therefore should be judged unfairly because of them.

The privileges cashed in by Henderson are not limited to the basketball arena.  In 2009, according to a statement given to the secret service, Henderson, then a senior in high school, used “$800 of counterfeit money given to him by a friend to buy 59 grams of marijuana in two separate transactions.” With help from his coach and father, he was able to plea to a forgery charge, which led to a probation sentence.  While at Texas Tech, Henderson violated his probation by testing positive for alcohol, marijuana, and cocaine, serving 25 days in jail along with 7 weekends of work release.

Yet, he kept on playing basketball.

Compare his experience to two other African American student-athletes at Ole Miss.  Coach Andy Kennedy dismissed Dundrecous Nelson and Jamal Jones, following an arrest resulting from an officer discovering “eight roaches of marijuana made from cigarillos.”  While Jones was released, both were dismissed from the team.  As with Tyrann Mathieu, Nelson and Jones were held accountable in ways Henderson can only imagine.

Headline after headline, commentator after commentator depicts Henderson as hated, polarizing, and a villain.  Yet, this is our problem.  We are told over and over again that we are just haters; that we have problems with him because at worse he has a “chip on a shoulder” and at worse because he has swagger.  He is not a problem; it is us.  We just need to learn to love him.  No thank you.

I wonder when the level of understanding will be demanded for those “hated,” “polarizing” trash-talking ballers with a swagger, who are African American?  Maybe that is part of the post-racial fantasy we keep hearing about; until that is a reality, I will just keep hating Henderson, the sports, media, the NCAA, and those who chant “free Marshall.”  More than that I will find outrage about the stories we tell and sell about him.

In a week where the Trayvon Martin was put on trial in part because of marijuana use, where the ESPN Machine lamented over “yet another” drunk driving arrest in the NFL (yet again ignoring fact that NFL players are less likely to be pulled over for drunk driving than their peers outside the league) the differential reaction to Marshall Henderson’s arrests gives me pause.  The disregard for his history is the power of the whiteness.  The innocence seen is a sobering reminder of the separate and unequal nature of America’s criminal justice system, its media, and its other institutions.  So when I say I hate Marshall Henderson, what I mean is I hate injustice, I hate double standards, I hate hypocrisy, I hate white supremacy, and I hate that amid claims that race doesn’t matter reality shows how it matters in real and sometimes life altering ways.

Profiles in Black and White: Race and the Presumption of Innocence

A lot has been made of Rolling Stone’s cover feature Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, but not a lot has been said to explain and contextualize the “controversy.”  Rather we have gotten more “crossfire” type discourse that does little to advance these conversations. Polls and reducing everything to questions of free speech does little to push critical engagement.   Recognizing the raw wounds in Boston, it is an important moment to go beyond “should Rolling Stone have done this cover” as many issues are in play.

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is both white and a racial other; he is “us” and “them.” This in-between place – neither white nor a dark-skinned terrorist; neither white nor a black criminal – manifest itself with the reactions.  The yearning to deploy narratives reserved for white males and the discomfort when attached to his body reflects the racial ambiguity and the ways that innocence/criminality or innocent/terrorist binary operates through America’s racial schema.

At one level, the outrage over the “rock star cover” reflects a discomfort with the image not fitting expectations of what a terrorist looks like.  It defies dominant stereotypes of who a terrorist is, what a terrorist looks like, and where a terrorist lives.  It operates outside the racial schema of America’s terror discourse; it also defies the popular narrative, popularize by Bill Maher, that terrorism is an outgrowth of sexual frustration of males.  The image works in contrast here.

In this sense, the outrage stems from the belief that a terrorist doesn’t look like the boy next-store; a monster doesn’t mirror a rock star.  The image demonstrates that in fact a terrorist does look like a heartthrob rock star that should be heading to prom not prisons. And that is disconcerting; that causes anxiety.

In “The Inconvenient Image of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev,” Ian Crouch questions the controversy surrounding the image, arguing instead that the outrage is not so much at the image but at the disruption of the stereotypical (and racist/xenophobic) construction of the terrorist body. “Many commenters on Facebook have complained that the image gives Tsarnaev the “rock star” treatment—that his scruffy facial hair; long, curly hair; T-shirt; and soft-eyed glance straight at the camera all make him look like just another Rolling Stone cover boy, whether Jim Morrison or any of the many longhairs who appeared in the magazine’s nineteen-seventies heyday.”  While I don’t necessarily think this is the case, given how his identity is overdetermined by his bodily meaning within the national landscape, Crouch raises an important point as to why the image elicited such a reaction: it wasn’t because the photo makes Tsarnaev into a national hero but the thought and realization that Tsarnaev looked like a rock star disrupts our flattened construction of who is a terrorist.

The reaction, and the race-colored vision of a terrorist helps us understand why the images of the Columbine shooters, or the stories of Adam Lanza or alleged Aurora, Colo. shooter James Holmes don’t elicit outrage in terms of ‘glorification’ and turning ‘killers into celebrities.’  The fact that the images of these young white males (notwithstanding that white males account for over 70% of mass shootings in the U.S., a number that represents twice population size) did not prompt outrage reflects a willingness to see a level of innocence and how race, class, and religion all plays out here. This shows how many readers don’t see Tsarnaev as white or even as Matthew Frye Jacobson describes as “whiteness of a different color”; he is different in their imagination from Lanza, Holmes, Kleebold and others.  He thus should be seen; he should not be heard; he should not be humanized.  In this context, the cover does all the wrong things for the wrong person. Such covers are for white males only.  Crouch makes this clear:

What perhaps we longed to see in our grief, or anger, or confusion, were any familiar images of the Islamic terrorist. The stories didn’t match the crime, either: the pot-smoking kid, the skateboarder, the student at the diverse Cambridge high school, the anonymous undergrad at the state college. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s older brother, Tamerlan, fit our expectations much better.

Yet, I also think the controversy focuses on the wrong issue.  The question should be why is there an effort to explain how a “promising student was failed by his family, fell into radical Islam and became a monster” and not a similar desire to hear, see, and learn about Middle- African American or Latino gang members, Middle-Eastern “terrorists” – in actuality these efforts are dismissed as “excuse making.”   As I wrote in January, in “The Unbearable Invisibility of White Masculinity: Innocence In the Age of White Male Mass Shootings”:

The consequences are clear in Newtown and Aurora, yet these are not the only victims. The killers themselves are reconstituted as victims. …Yet, we look elsewhere. We look for excuses and make moves to reposition whiteness as victim needing protection. We use moments of tragedy to reassert the value in whiteness and the importance in protecting white bodies. We work to ‘blame’ something or someone other than Mr. Holmes, Mr. Lanza, Mr. Klebold, and countless others? With a narrative about” good kids” in hand and an insatiable need to ask, “Why?” and “How could he have done such a thing?” we continually imagine violence, barbarism, and terror elsewhere.…In reality, this kind of violence is in many ways a part of our violent history and culture. We have to accept that there is a “typical” face of mass murder in the United States – it is not the black kid killing people in gang shootings, the Mexican cartel member, or the “Muslim terrorist.” It can be, often is, will probably remain the innocent, white, suburban boy next door.

The image and the article itself fall into this trap, providing explanation as to how Dzhokhar Tsarnaev became a terrorist; he this good kid who looked a model could become a monster.  Rolling Stone does not turn him into a rock star but instead turns him into a good boy who because of his family and society became a monster.

The question and outrage should not be at a picture but why we seek to reimagine white male killers, white male terrorists, and white male criminals through such narratives.  Why do we seek a story, evidence, and a reason for how a suburban white teenage boy (whether from the Caucus region, Connecticut or San Diego) turned evil? Where is this yearning in other contexts? The picture and the headline operates through this vision that he was good, he was the boy next door, and that something changed him. It turns him into a victim. Despite the important critique from The New Yorker, Crouch falls into this mindset:

Instead, the Rolling Stone article is about the still largely mysterious backstory of a young man who transformed, in what appears to be a short amount of time, from a seemingly normal college student into an alleged terrorist. The facts of his life are important, the larger social implications of his biography are important—and so this story has the potential to be a valuable contribution to the public record and to the general understanding of one of the most serious incidents of domestic terrorism in American history.

The story and the image should give pause as it reveals how society works to understand him (and not others); we seek to humanize him and learn how he became a terrorist; whereas the stories of why kids join gang in Chicago are rarely told; the backstory of the Mother’s Day Shooters in NOLA is neither sought nor delivered.  “The white supremacist narrative will have it no other way: Its goal has always been to control the tale,” writes Kimberly George. “But the truth is there are new and more powerful narratives to write—and creating a world in which Trayvon would still be alive depends on it.” The photo and the outrage reflects this white supremacist desire to “control the tale” and to produce narratives based on an order and a racial schema that points to white male innocence and the civility of whiteness.

In a week where some whites across the country celebrated the acquittal of George Zimmerman, where the picture of a lifeless Trayvon was posted across social media, and where kids engaged in the practice of Trayvoning, it is hard not to think about double standards when it comes to life and death; black and white; criminal and innocence.  In a week where conservatives seemed to find pleasure in Black Death, where the trauma and pain felt by African Americans across the country has dismissed as “race baiting,” I am left to wonder if the controversy is little more than the “possessive investment in whiteness.”  Edward Wycoff Williams describes this moment as such:

MSNBC’s Joy Reid put it best when she compared the celebratory reactions to disturbing photos of Jim Crow South lynching parties.…”Think about what they’re rejoicing about. They’re rejoicing about the fact that somebody got acquitted for shooting and killing a teenager.”… It is a modern-day lynching party. And conservatives are smiling.

In a week, month, and year where Trayvon Martin was blamed for his own death, turned from a 17-year old boy into a criminal, it is hard not to be critical of Rolling Stone and society as a whole for yet again asking “why” as part of a insatiable yearning to tell the story of white male suburban youth … monsters. Amid a media environment that has done little to tell humanize Trayvon Martin, to tell his story or that of Darius Simmons or Marissa Alexander, much less than those who have lost or taken lives in Chicago, it is hard not think critically about how these “why” and “how” stories are for “whites only.” Amid an environment where Black Death and trauma is disregarded, it is hard not to question the demands to be more sensitive for Boston because Chicago, New Orleans, the Martin-Fulton Family deserve that as well.  Amid a media that routinely plasters mug shots of black and brown bodies, it is hard not to think about the selective outrage of this Rolling Stone cover.

The polar realities of two Americas can be seen in these differential narratives; the profiling of innocent and guilty is on full display.  “Racial profiling is nothing more than a delusion, born of our belief that we can profile danger. We want to believe we can predict who will do the next terrible thing,” writes Roxanne Gay. “We want to believe we can keep ourselves safe. It’s good that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is on the cover of Rolling Stone, tousled hair and all. We need a reminder that we must stop projecting our fears onto profiles built from stereotypes. We need a reminder that we will never truly know whom we need to fear.”  We also need this reminder as it relates to Black and Brown bodies because otherwise the cover is more of the same when it comes to all things racial or better said all things in America.

 

 

Aint a dang thing changed: From the Till Generation to the Trayvon Generation

Rage . . . anger . . . sadness;

Angry at the prosecution & police; the jurors and the Zimmerman supporters; angry at CNN (the defense) and so much more;

Angry at a system that at its core has no concern for black life;

Furious that we are not shocked – the depths of white supremacy run deep;

Full of rage at the silence from white America; at the unwillingness to account for racism, white supremacy and white privilege

Sick and tired of excuses, denials, distractions, and dismissals;

Outraged by the celebration – Fox News, the right wing, and the Zimmerman GANG;

Outraged by their smiles and laughs, their arrogance and entitlement;

Outraged by their lack of concern for Trayvon Martin, his friends and family, and the many people who are hurting, who are outraged, who are angry;

Enraged that those who care for life, who fight for justice, are filled with so much pain;

Sad, enraged, and devastated that almost 60 years later, from Till to Trayvon, aint much changed;

These memories of Till’s murder and the sham of a trial are a haunting reminder that aint a dang thing changed:

I was a senior at Los Angeles High School in California. It had a profound affect on me because I understood that it could have happened to any of us. It shook my confidence. It was as though terrorists had struck — but it was terrorists from our own country. It made me want to do everything I could to make sure this event would not happen ever again – Johnnie L. Cochran, Jr.

My memories are exact — and parallel those of many others my age — I felt vulnerable for the first time in my life — Till was a year younger — and recall believing that this could easily happen to me — for no reason at all. I lived in Pennsylvania at the time – Julian Bond

Emmett Till and I were about the same age. A week after he was murdered… I stood on the corner with a gang of boys, looking at pictures of him in the black newspapers and magazines. In one, he was laughing and happy. In the other, his head was swollen and bashed in, his eyes bulging out of their sockets and his mouth twisted and broken. His mother had done a bold thing. She refused to let him be buried until hundreds of thousands marched past his open casket in Chicago and looked down at his mutilated body. [I] felt a deep kinship to him when I learned he was born the same year and day I was. My father talked about it at night and dramatized the crime. I couldn’t get Emmett out of my mind… – Muhammed Ali

I was fifteen years old when I began to hate people. I hated the white men who murdered Emmett Till and I hated all the other whites who were responsible for the countless murders… But I also hated Negroes. I hated them for not standing up and doing something about the murders – Ann Moody

Almost 60 years later, this is America

When Zimmerman was acquitted today, it wasn’t because he’s a so-called white Hispanic. He’s not. It’s because he abides by the logic of white supremacy, and was supported by a defense team—and a swath of society—that supports the lingering idea that some black men must occasionally be killed with impunity in order to keep society-at-large safe – Aura Borgado

You see, tonight Trayvon Martin’s unremorseful killer was acquitted. Tonight, I fell silent with a dear friend when we heard the news.  Our eyes closed.  Our heads fell into our hands. There were no words. Tonight, I heard my mother’s voice crack and tremble under the weight of her grief as she expressed her shock and sadness at seeing an unapologetic black-child-stalker-and-killer walk free. And tonight I realized, more than ever, that as much as I love your potential, as much as I love the good that I know is in your heart, as much as I appreciate and see the beauty of your highest calling, the truth is that I feel like this relationship — our relationship — is becoming abusive and toxic on a level that nearly boggles the mind – Crystal Fleming

Zimmerman’s not guilty verdict will be contested for years to come. But he passed judgement on Trayvon that night summarily. Fucking punks,” Zimmerman told the police dispatcher that night. “These assholes. They always get away.” So true it’s painful. And so predictable it hurts – Gary Younge

I wish I had answers to soothe my worries, optimism to soothe my rage. I do know a change had better come. Because as James Baldwin said in the epigraph to one of my favorite collections of his essays, “God gave Noah the rainbow sign. No more water. The fire next time – Brittney Cooper

Perhaps history does not repeat itself exactly, but it is certainly prone to extended paraphrases. Long before the jury announced its decision, many people had seen what the outcome would be, had known that it would be a strange echo of the words Zimmerman uttered that rainy night in central Florida: they always get away – Jelani Cobb

#JusticeforTrayvon (My closing statement)

Ladies of the Jury

Imagine for a moment that you, your son or daughter, sister or brother, granddaughter or grandson, ventured to the corner store for some candy and something to drink but never returned?   Can you imagine if you left the house and didn’t return to watch the second half of the NBA All-Star game?  Can you imagine if you, your child, your loved one, your flesh and blood were presumed to be guilty as he walked home?  Thought to be a suspect, a punk, a fucking asshole? Can you imagine if you, your child, your loved one, your flesh and blood was thought to be a criminal, thought to be on drugs, thought to be up to no good just because of how she looked, what clothes she was wearing, and because of the color of her skin?  Can you imagine if your child was gunned down right around the corner from your house and the police didn’t notify you right away?

Can you even imagine the police letting the perpetrator go or the news media remaining silent?  What would it mean to you if the media sat idly by, that the police show limited concern, and the nation seem unaware or not concerned about the fate of your child?  Can you imagine the pain and the hurt not just of losing a child but watching a media, a justice system, and a nation fail to act?

Can you even fathom listening to people put your child, who no longer walks the earth, on trial? Drug tests? Fights? Pictures of his muscles, all to paint him as a “thug” or a “gangsta?”  Can you imagine the news media demonizing your child, blaming your child for his own death?  Can you imagine the focus turning to your parental choices, your child’s friends, your background?

What if a defense attorney asked you to think about your child being responsible for their own death even though someone else shot them? How would that make you feel?  Can you even comprehend someone saying that to you?

Maybe you cannot imagine these things; maybe your whiteness, your privileges, your experiences make this difficult for you to fathom.  That is no reason to deny his family justice.

The defendant assumed Trayvon didn’t belong in neighborhood; he assumed Trayvon was up to no good; he assumed Trayvon was a criminal.  And ‪race matters in every regard.  The question before you is will race matter in our pursuit of justice?  Will it matter as you think about Trayvon’s life; his lost future; his parent’s anguish?  Look at them, they are in the courtroom; can you imagine?

He had the right to walk to the store; he had a right to walk home; he had the right to defend himself; he had the right to LIFE and the pursuit of happiness; he had the right to go on to college, to live his life, to fulfill his dreams.

His parents should not be here right now; they shouldn’t have shed so many tears, lost so many nights of sleep because another man assumed their son to be a criminal.  His parents should have seen their child graduate last year; they should have been able to spend dinners talking; they should be hugging their child right now.  George Zimmerman took that all away.  Give them solace; give them justice; give us all hope and belief in “equal justice under the law,” because sadly, we cannot give them Trayvon back.  We can, however, give them justice.  We must demand justice, because every life is worth protecting; every life is worth mourning.

Yes, I want you to think about the evidence, but more I want you feel; I want you to think the pain, feel the injustice, feel the anguish.  Yes, the law matters, but decisions must be guided my morality and justice; it must account for the lost life; the pain and suffering.  Justice is about the law, right and wrong, our moral sense and values.  Henry David Thoreau reminds if this when he said, “Justice is sweet and musical; but injustice is harsh and discordant.”

I have a dream that one day youth of color can walk to store without being profiled. I have a dream that one youth of color will not seen as suspect, not seen as criminal, not confronted, and not shot dead just feet from their parents home.  I have a dream that justice will be equal; I hope that you will make the right decision and at least fulfill the promise of justice in this case.  One step forward; toward moving beyond dreams, hopes, and possibilities, to see justice secured and achieved. #JusticeforTrayvon #Justice

Broken Promises: Prisoners on strike (again)

This week at least 30,000 incarcerated men and women restarted their hunger strike to protest the inhumane conditions of California’s prison system.  Inside 2/3s of its 33 prisons (yes there are 33), along with all of its out-of-state facilities, prisoners have resumed their hunger strike that began some 2 years ago.

According to Abby Ohlheiser, “While the California prison system has a less than stellar reputation on a handful of issues — many of which trace back to its astonishing overcrowding — the striking prisoners are focusing their message on improving conditions for those locked in solitary confinement.”

This decision is especially powerful because it speaks to their collective concern (a sense of community and demand for justice for those within the community) for the horrific conditions within solidarity confinement.  Horrific might be an understatement. Shane Bauer, who spent 7 months in an Iranian prison, documented the unfathomable conditions of California prisons in his recent piece, “Solitary in Iran Nearly Broke Me. Then I Went Inside America’s Prisons.”  Writing about his own experience in Iran, he concludes that Iran has nothing on California when it comes to abuse, violence, and dehumanizing conditions:

IT’S BEEN SEVEN MONTHS since I’ve been inside a prison cell. Now I’m back, sort of. The experience is eerily like my dreams, where I am a prisoner in another man’s cell. Like the cell I go back to in my sleep, this one is built for solitary confinement. I’m taking intermittent, heaving breaths, like I can’t get enough air. This still happens to me from time to time, especially in tight spaces. At a little over 11 by 7 feet, this cell is smaller than any I’ve ever inhabited. You can’t pace in it.… What I want to tell Acosta is that no part of my experience—not the uncertainty of when I would be free again, not the tortured screams of other prisoners—was worse than the four months I spent in solitary confinement. What would he say if I told him I needed human contact so badly that I woke every morning hoping to be interrogated? Would he believe that I once yearned to be sat down in a padded, soundproof room, blindfolded, and questioned, just so I could talk to somebody?

His experiences are that of all too many in California prisons and elsewhere; in his estimation Pelican Bay and other prisons are worse.  It is no wonder that 30,000 people are refusing to eat.

Their demands (see below; they remain virtually the same) are for basic human rights. Yet, two years after this strike began, little has changed.  As a result the intransigence of the California Department of Corrections and the societal acceptance of abuse and torture directed at prisoners, the conditions remain abysmal. Broken promises; national acceptance of abuse and torture.  So the strike continues.

In a week where Yasiin Bey made visible the horrific practice of forced feeding prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, where it was announced that “Force Feeding At Gitmo Will ‘Synchronize’ With Ramadan,” the ongoing protest in California (ground zero of America’s prison nation) is a sobering reminder of the injustices within and beyond our borders.

What appears below is from a piece in 2011, which sadly demonstrates that in almost two years, despite promises, the conditions facing California prisoners and those in Guantanamo Bay remain just as horrific and just as inhumane.

On July 1, 2011, hundreds of prisoners initiated a hunger strike in California. While the strike began inside of the Special Housing Unit at Pelican Bay State Prison, where human beings are locked away inside of soundproof cells for 22 1/2 hours each and every day, the strike has spread to prisons throughout the state, reaching as many as 6,600 prisoners in 13 locations. Their protest sought to “draw attention to, and to peacefully protest, twenty-five years of torture via [California Department of Correction and Rehabilitation]‘s arbitrary, illegal, and progressively more punitive policies and practices.” More specifically, the strike began as an effort to change the inhumane treatment facing prisoners in California (and elsewhere). Colorlines Magazine succinctly summarizes the demands as follows (the demands remain the same):

  •  “End Group Punishment & Administrative Abuse” would end group punishment as a means to address an individual inmates rule violations.
  • “Abolish the Debriefing Policy, and Modify Active/Inactive Gang Status Criteria” The practice of “debriefing,” or offering up information about fellow prisoners particularly regarding gang status, is often demanded in return for better food or release from the SHU. Prisoners demand the end to debriefing because it puts the safety of prisoners and their families at risk, because they are then viewed as “snitches.”
  • Comply with the US Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons 2006 Recommendations Regarding an End to Long-Term Solitary Confinement” Prisoners demand a more productive form of confinement in the areas of allowing inmates in SHU and Ad-Seg [Administrative Segregation] the opportunity to engage in meaningful self-help treatment, work, education, religious, and other productive activities. This demand includes access to adequate natural sunlight and health care treatment.
  • “Provide Adequate and Nutritious Food” Prisoners’ demands include the end to the practice of denying adequate food as a means of punishment, asking for wholesome nutritional meals
  • “Expand and Provide Constructive Programming and Privileges for Indefinite SHU Status Inmates” demands include a weekly phone call, permission to keep wall calendars and craft items – art paper, colored pens, small pieces of colored pencils, watercolors, chalk, etc.

The courageous stance of these incarcerated individuals, and the widespread support from those outside the prison walls did not lead to fruitful negotiations, with 400 individuals surpassing 20 days without food. According to reports in The Los Angeles Times, 49 people lost more than 10 pounds with one individual having lost almost 30 pounds during the 2011 hunger strike. Dorsey Nunn, an activist who co-founded All of us or None of us, described the situation as dire:

Prisoners in Pelican Bay have not eaten in 18 days. I have been told that the prison hospital is full with prisoners who are being hydrated intravenously because some have started to refuse water. Others are having a problem just keeping their water down at this point. Members of the prisoner negotiation team have lost between 20 and 35 pounds. It is truly a matter of luck and or untiring spirit that nobody has died so far.

The dire circumstances facing these hungers strikers symbolizes the daily mistreatment endured by prisoners throughout the United States. From neglect, abuse and sexual violence, to abysmal living conditions and unimaginable health “care,” prisons are spaces of obscene denied humanity. In California, at Kern Valley State prison, prisoners have long been forced to drink water contaminated with arsenic. In Georgia, prisoners “report . . . harsh conditions and inadequate nutrition and health care. Prisoners were constantly hit with fines ranging from $5 to $20 . . . sometimes for even just ‘looking at a guard.’” In Arizona, those in incarcerated in Sherriff Joe Arpaio’s jails have routinely been served rotten food and denied basic health care. In Louisiana, at Angola State Prison, America’s largest prison, reports have documented abuse, violence, politically motivated punishments, and a culture of accepted torture.

On May 23, 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court, in Brown v. Plata, affirmed “the constitutional right of prisoners to be free of cruel and unusual conditions of confinement and the government’s responsibility to provide a remedy for violations of that right.” In this case, the Court upheld a three-judge panel ruling that California’s mental health care and medical care fell beneath the constitutional standard required under the law. Yet, the conditions of abuse and cruel and unusual punishment continue to this day. One has to wonder if the legal decision coupled with the moral spotlight shining from hundreds of prisoners will lead to humane treatment of America’s prisoners.

The conditions that have led to hunger strike are commonplace throughout the United States and the acceptance of these human rights violence illustrates the power of race and class in America. Do we really think that abuse, sexual violence, rotten food, denied health care and a culture of torture would be acceptable if directed at the sons and daughters of white suburban America? The reaction to the Pelican Bay Hunger strike provides us with the sad answer [The reaction to the Hunger Strike in 2013, from California to Guantanamo Bay provides us with yet another sad answer].

Vigorous Defense or Racial Appeal? But what about justice for Trayvon?

Yesterday I wrote a piece reflecting on the ways that both the defense and the media had put Trayvon Martin on trial.  During subsequent conversations, I further lamented the defense strategies and how a common response has been, “but the defense is suppose to put on a rigorous defense.”  I don’t question the right to put on a defense (although most people who face the criminal justice never put on a defense – we are a plea bargain nation – and most certainly don’t have access to experts and America’s best lawyers) but rather that the Zimmerman defense has not only put on Martin on trial but has done so through explicitly racial means.  The efforts to paint Trayvon as a violent “thug,” as someone with “violent tendencies,” as a marijuana smoking, gun toting, menace to society moves beyond a rigorous defense.  The “Menace to Society” or “Young Black and Don’t give a Fuck” stategy is antithetical to justice.  Jelani Cobb describes the tactics as akin to the defense strategy seen within rape trials:

The contours of the defense, like a great deal of the discussion of this case, are shot through with an antiquated brand of rape-think. What was he wearing? Was he high or drunk? Why was he out at night? Beneath these questions is a calcified skepticism toward Martin’s innocence that all but blurts out ‘He was asking for it.

Just as rape culture has allowed for the criminalization and victim blaming in rape trials, white supremacy facilitates this type of defense; it encourages and allows for the prosecution of black victims.

Trayvon Martin is the victim and highlighting the purported victim’s past, playing upon racist stereotypes, and otherwise turning the trial into one about the character of Trayvon Martin moves beyond vigorous defense.  His life matters and to make the case into one where he deserve to die because he may have smoked marijuana or gotten into a fight is counter to justice.

The efforts to criminalize Trayvon Martin, to blame the victim, must be understood within the larger context whereupon Trayvon Martin’s right to defend himself has been denied. As Jelani Cobb argues, the mere fact that Trayvon Martin has been consistently represented as someone undeserving of his right to stand his ground or defend himself against in the face of an armed man following him allows for victim blaming:

Amid their frustratingly uneven presentation, Assistant State Attorney Bernie de la Rionda and the rest of the prosecution have pegged their second-degree murder charges largely on the idea that Martin was losing the fight on February 26th of last year, that he shouted for help, and that Zimmerman, a vigilante would-be cop, shot and killed him anyway. In plotting their route to conviction, they necessarily bypass another set of questions. What if he wasn’t losing the fight? What if Zimmerman is the one who called for help? What if Martin did swing first? And, most crucially, is an unarmed black teenager ever entitled to stand his ground? . . . . But whatever its legal merits, the prosecution’s approach has left intact the suspicion that Florida’s proactive self-defense laws are color-coded, intended for people in fearsome encounters with blacks, not blacks in fearsome encounters.

This is of course not a statement about the defense but the criminalization of Martin and the seeming impossibility of his right to defend himself, which gives me pause.

Still, others continue to cite the fundamental principal of a vigorous defense as justification for any defense strategy.   The question here is justice; the question is fairness; the question is facts versus stereotypes; relevance versus racial appeals.  The defense’s deployment of the race card toward the criminalization of the victim warrants challenging inside the courtroom.  That hasn’t happened; the challenges outside the courtroom are imperative.

“The problem, to me, is the broader framework of white supremacy that allows certain anti-Trayvon questions/narratives to be viewed as compelling and persuasive to jurors,” notes Marc Lamont Hill.  “In other words, I don’t have an issue with questioning Trayvon’s character as such. I have an issue with his race, age, or fashion choice being seen as evidence of criminality. That, however, isn’t a criminal justice problem.”

I do have a problem with it because given the juries are told to just listen to the evidence; given that the Judge disallowed references to racial profiling; given that colorblindness is promoted as the solution to injustice; given that a court of law exists in the broader context, this vigorous defense is not only prejudicial but reliant on stereotypes, bias, and a system of injustice.  While Judge Nelson has limited what is admissible (vigorous defense has constraints and rules) the damage has been done in court of public opinion.

Within the court and beyond, the criminalization of Trayvon Martin is not just about Martin but also about blackness.  The strategy isn’t simply about Trayvon Martin but putting blackness on trial.  It not only shares the same logic and ideology that leads to stop and frisk but furthers the stereotypes of the “criminalblackman.”  So efforts to compare this to another defense whereupon a white victim was put on trial doesn’t account for this fundamental issue.  Whether the defense in the Jodi Arias trial, O.J. Simpson trial, or countless others employed tactics that questioned the character of victim is irrelevant.  These are fundamentally different because in these instances, stereotypes about whiteness were not part of the defense; white masculinity or whiteness was not put on trial. Here lies the core issue: the justice system, as an American institution, is fundamentally antithetical to justice and fairness when it comes to black life.  This trial is yet another reminder of this fact, although this won’t be admitted into evidence.

Is a picture worth a 1000 words? Race and the politics of mourning

Hank Willis Thomas

***

June 26, 2013

By

A couple weeks back, Melissa Harris Perry and her guests discussed the power of images, focusing on the debate as to whether or not the public should see images of Newtown violence.  While recognizing the pain and difficulty for the Newtown parents, each seemed to conclude the stakes were too high and that the public needed to see the images.

Michael Skolnick called upon Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy to release the pictures. The past reveals that the sight of images has the potential to change the course of history.  Amid the gun debate, the sight of young (middle-class white) children brutalized may galvanize change.  Skolnick, who later noted, “Newtown changed the conversation because they were white,” highlights the power of the photographs of whiteness.

I think that for Americans, we have to see these images. This is not about politics. This is about lifting the consciousness of our nation. We have to know, yes, these were angels that went to heaven, but this was a brutal, brutal attack on children whose hands were blown off, whose faces were blown off and torsos were blown off. This is not just about glamorizing or sensationalizing what happed in Newtown. This was horror.

Yet, so much of the conversation was about the universal power of seeing evil; that viewing the horrors of gun violence, brutality, or abuse compels outrage and action.  In fact, Melissa Harris-Perry started the show by highlighting the power of images to sway public opinion; pictures shape the debate, elicit emotion, and inspire action:

So it’s a tough choice. And when it comes to choosing to show the image, the slain child, it’s a decision no parent should be faced with having to make. But it is a decision that Mamie Till-Mobley did make in the case when her son Emmett Till was killed in 1955. Instead of having a reserved, low-key, private family funeral, Mamie decided to open the casket. To make the funeral a public experience. To show how killers, lynchers, J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant brutalized and tortured her 14-year-old son to death. Her decision to show the world the battered body and unrecognizable face of her son Emmett served as a spark for the civil rights movement. Till’s example might lead all of us to ask Newtown parents to release those pictures. Be as brave as Mamie Till was.

To illustrate the power of image, Harris Perry and others noted how the sight of Emmett Till, beaten beyond recognition, compelled national attention and outrage, spurring the civil rights movement. In reality, it galvanized and inspired action, among African Americans.  However, the sight of Till’s disfigured body didn’t produce systemic change; it didn’t lead to legislation from congress nor did it compel federal intervention.  It didn’t lead to white America to look in the mirror or confront racism because it had seen its brutality.  Even the acquittal of two men didn’t propel a national movement across communities demanding justice and change.  Till’s death and his life, his humanity, wasn’t, to borrow from Mark Anthony Neal, “legible.” Black suffering was and continues to be “illegible” to much of white America.

Instead, Till’s death and the horrifying images impacted Black America.  Much of white America continued to accept Southern apartheid.  All images are not created equally; the white supremacist gaze clouded the moral, political, and cultural responses. 

It is no wonder that as we look at the Till generation, as we look into the historic archives to bear witness to the impact of the lynching of Till had, we see examples of how the lynching of Till galvanized activism from within the black community. Muhammad Ali and Diane Nash, Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks, Audre Lorde and James Baldwin, Anne Moody and members Black Panther Party all spoke of the transformative impact of Till. Harvey Young describes the importance in “A New Fear Known to Me”:Emmett Till’s Influence and the Black Panther Party”

While spectacular murders of black people, both male and female, by white individuals and mobs had occurred for centuries within (and across) the United States, the Till case proved extraordinary thanks to Bradley’s concerted efforts not only to openly display her son’s bloated and misshapen corpse but also her maternal grief for the world to see. Although not recognizable as a person – much less a teenager, the face of Till, captured by a photographer and circulated via print media, promptly became a representation of the severity of racial hatred, prejudice, and violence that continued to exist in the nation. … It asserts that the killing not only encouraged a newfound self-­awareness among black youth as “black” and, therefore, as being susceptible to violence, but also provided additional motivation toward the formation of political organizations like the Black Panther Party, which advocated a more aggressive pursuit of social reform than the NAACP and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Till’s influence on “the Party” appears not only in the recollections of members, who were nearly the same age as Till when he was murdered, but also in the Party’s skillful use of images of injustice to raise civic awareness and mobilize a new movement for social reform, efforts to monitor the police, and establishment of community-based, social service programs which sought to create a hopeful future for new generations of black youth.

Death and its meanings is clouded and constrained by race, class, and nation; bloodshed and violence is narrated through America’s white racial frame.

The differential levels of mourning and outrage afforded to different bodies are visible throughout history.  In fact, the civil rights movement used white supremacy and codified white privilege as part of its struggle to bring down the walls of Jim Crow segregation.  The Freedom Rides and Freedom Summer relied on violence against white civil rights workers to compel national attention, governmental intervention, and widespread outrage.   One organizer noted that, “the death of a white college student would bring on more attention to what was going on than a black college student getting it.”  In other words, the reports of the beating, bombing, brutalization, or murder of African Americans didn’t elicit sufficient outrage and action; images of maimed black men and women, and those who lost their lives to white supremacist hands, did not compel mourning or calls to action.  The sight of maimed white bodies, of whiteness, marked as innocence, as civility, as citizen, and as the future, provoked a differential emotional, political, and media reaction than did violence directed at black bodies.   Writing about a SNCC Poster entitled “For Food . . . For Freedom,” which featured a blond haired white child, Leigh Raiford reflects on the powerful ways that SNCC used the accepted humanity of white bodies in their fight for justice:

The “for food . . . for freedom” poster also suggests SNCC’s increased awareness of the value assigned white bodies over black bodies in the estimation of U.S. liberals, a cognizance that prompted the recruitment of more than eight hundred predominantly white, predominantly northern college students for the massive voter registration efforts of Freedom Summer. James Forman and Bob Moses rightly anticipated the media attention and general sympathy that would come to bear as young white men and women experienced, if only for a few months of 1964, the same vulnerability that beleaguered African Americans in the face of white supremacist violence. The poster speaks to the precarious situation of whites dehumanized by the matrices of race and poverty.

Pictures exist in a social context; the sight of violence and death is always read through socially-produced scripts and gaze.   Gun violence is profiled racially. Victims are profiled racially. Perpetrators of violence are profiled racially; communities are profiled racially.  The visibility and invisibility of death perpetuates this profiling schema; it reflects the logics of racial profiling as well.

The notion that visibility of violence or death compels national outrage erases the real world context of Trayvon Martin, who has been turned into the perpetrator rather than the victim within some parts of white America (see Fox news).  Look at Jordan Davis, Hadiya Pendleton, Chicago and New Orleans.  What about Oscar Grant, and so many others who have died at the hands of “law enforcement” #every28hours?

When talking about photographs, we must recognize that every life is not treated equally; every person’s humanity is not seen so much so that every image will elicit action and change. As Rebecca Wanzo argues in The Suffering Will Not Be Televised: African American Women and Sentimental Political Storytelling, shaming or “sentimentality” is an “insufficient means of political change.”  Substantive change, especially when we are talking about the suffering and bodies that aren’t “legible” to white America, requires more than exposure.  A photograph that potentially forces white American into a moral crossroad does not guarantee reaction and action toward transformation.   Consciousness isn’t a natural outcome of knowledge; it’s not all about the photo.  Change results from organizing and agitation.  That is the true lesson from history.

Post script

After watching the George Zimmerman trial all week, and listening to a defense team along with the media portray Zimmerman as sympathetic terms; after watching the trial and listening to the demonization of Martin, and the deafening silence as it relates to the case from much of white America, it is clear to be that a picture is sadly not always worth 1000 words.  A picture’s worth is very much wrapped up in the scripts of race, gender, class, innocence, criminality,