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.

NewBlackMan: The “Reasonable Fear” of a Black Male: The Trayvon Martin Tragedy

The “Reasonable Fear” of a Black Male:

The Trayvon Martin Tragedy

by David J. Leonard | NewBlackMan

In 2008, 20/20 conducted an experiment to examine how people would respond to criminal activity. Inside a New Jersey park, three white youths gleefully vandalized a car. Without concern for the people walking throughout the park, they destroy the car with a bat and spray paint. In the course of the experiment, only a few individuals call the police or even challenge the kids, with some even joking around with them. When 20/20 swapped out the three white youth for three black youth, the public response was drastically changed, with many more calls to the police. Highlighting the ways race and criminality interact through stereotypes and daily behavior, the most telling aspect of the experiment resulted from an unplanned development. As the white youths wreaked havoc on the car, three black youth waited in another car. These boys, relatives of one of the black actors who were taking part in the experiment, were asleep. In the first instance, the caller suggests that the boys looked like they were going to rob someone. In a case of ‘sleeping while black’ there were two 911 calls (compared to one 911 call about the white youth).

Given persistent stereotypes, news media and popular culture, and a culture of dehumanization, it is no wonder that the 20/20 experiment found that irrespective of behavior black youth convey fear and animosity driven by their presumed criminality, an experience dramatically different from that of white youth. Writing about research on imagery and criminalization, Joe Feagin, in The White Racial Frame, highlights the profound issues at work here. “These researchers conclude that the visual and verbal dehumanization of black Americans as apelike assist in the process by which some groups become targets of societal ‘cruelty, social degradation, and state-sanctioned violence” (p. 105). From a history of slavery and lynching, up through the persistent realities of racial profiling, mass incarceration, and daily instances of violence, the connection between dehumanization and criminalization has been central to white supremacy.

I thought about this experiment when I first heard about the murder of Trayvon Martin. The connection became especially powerful after continually hearing references to “reasonable fear,” the fact that George Zimmerman called 911 because he saw a suspicious person in his gated community, and the purported “perceived threat”; all of this led me back to this study and the countless amount of research that illustrates the power and saturation of the “criminalblackman.” As evident here, it is hard, if not disingenuous, not connect this case and the ideas of fear, suspicion, and threat (and whiteness as innocence), to dominant ideologies of race.

On March 12, 2012, Stanford Police Chief, Bill Lee announced that Zimmerman’s claim of self-defense fit with the evidence of their investigation. During a press conference, he made this clear over and over again: “We don’t have anything to dispute his claim of self defense at this point with the evidence.” He additionally defended the decision not to issue an arrest warrant because of a lack of probable cause: “Until we can establish probable cause to dispute that, we don’t have the grounds to arrest him.” Given recent reports about the investigation, one has to wonder if this even possible.

Similarly, the news media has emphasized that Zimmerman had a bloody nose, that the back of his t-shirt was wet, and that reports indicate an argument all as potential explanation for what happen. We can see an emerging narrative that explains (rationalizes/justifies) the situation as if an argument or even a “fight” justifies the use of a gun on an unarmed teenager.

At the same time, likely responding to this growing anger about this injustice, the media coverage has increasingly emphasized the legal context. In Florida, because of the “stand your ground law,” which Jeb Bush signed into law in 2005, individuals who believe they are under attack can use deadly force. If a person feels in danger and if a person has “reasonable fear” they are legally allowed to use deadly force. According Joëlle Anne Moreno, “under the new law, if you are not engaged in an illegal activity, you can stand your ground by ‘meeting force with force, including deadly force’ if you ‘reasonably believe it is necessary’ to prevent death, great bodily harm, or the commission of a forcible felony.” In other words, if you reasonably believe you or others are in danger you are entitled and empowered to use force irrespective of the actual threat. It is about belief and perception.

Continue reading @ NewBlackMan: The “Reasonable Fear” of a Black Male: The Trayvon Martin Tragedy.

NewBlackMan: Two Visions of ‘Black’ Evil, One White Gaze: Reading Kony 2012 and the Murder of Trayvon Martin

Two Visions of ‘Black’ Evil, One White Gaze: Reading Kony 2012 and the Murder of Trayvon Martin

by David C. Leonard | NewBlackMan

In the wake of 9/11 and the ongoing war on terror, the United States has increasingly relied on national narratives that offer certainty, comfort, and security. In catchphrases and sound bites, pundits and politicians remind Americans of the importance of protecting the homeland, the role of all Americans in safeguarding national space and American democratic values, the need to guard against the enemies of freedom and civilization, and the promise of spreading democracy throughout the world. As countless bodies fell, injured and dying, shattering families and communities over here and over there, multinational corporations have profited on an increased militarism, diminishing natural resources, and public panics. Within this climate, many in the United States have sought refuge in comforting narratives of good versus evil, civilization versus savagery. The power and cultural importance of these narratives has been evident with the murder of Trayvon Martin and in the spectacle of Kony 2012.

Prior to the start of the 2012 All Star game (I previously wrote that it was at halftime but based on timeline that appears to be incorrect), Trayvon Martin, a 17-year African American, decided to walk to the local store to get some candy and drinks. Tragically, it appears that he died because he was walking while black in a gated predominantly white community in Florida. Shortly after calling 911 to report a “suspicious” person within his community, George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch captain, confronted Martin, who was armed with skittles and an Arizona Ice Tea. What happened next is unclear, yet what is without much doubt is that Zimmerman shot Martin dead with a Kel Tek 9mm semi-automatic gun. Identified as a “threat” Martin fell victim at the hands of a gun.

In a world where African Americans, particularly black male youth, are consistently represented as threats, to the security, peace, culture, calm, and order, how can “threat” be seen outside of the context of race? In a world where racial profiling is routine and where explicit and implicit bias has created the criminalblackman, is it even possible to think about the confrontation and ultimate death of Martin outside of the paradigm of a criminalized of black body? The 911 call, the confrontation, and the ultimate death fits a larger pattern whereupon blackness is consistently imagined as threat, as danger, and as EVIL; as a cultural and social pariah blackness needs to be controlled, discipline, and ultimately punished. According to Michelle Alexander, “Just as African Americans in the North were stigmatized by the Jim Crow system even if they were not subject to its formal control. Black men today are stigmatized by mass incarceration and the social construction of the ‘criminalblackman’ whether they have ever been to prison or not” (p. 194). In a review of Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, Max Kanter describes the specter of criminalization as follows:

This is evidenced in part by dominant media and cultural narratives, institutionalized (and legalized) racial profiling, and police efforts to build mass databases of “suspected criminals” which contain information almost exclusively on racial minorities who have often done nothing criminal at all aside from having been born to black and brown parents. In addition to the numerous studies showing that most white Americans see crime in racial (nonwhite) terms, studies conducted by Princeton University also reveal that white felons fresh out of prison are more likely to get hired for jobs than equally qualified black men with no criminal record. African American men without criminal records are more ostracized and widely perceived as being more criminal than white men who have actually been convicted of felony crimes. That is how deeply black people have been stigmatized as criminals and social pariahs in our society.

This is the context that we need to understand what happened to Trayvon Martin not only on the fateful evening, but also in terms of police response and that of the media and general public.

The death of a child under suspicious circumstances would have thought to have led to Zimmerman’s arrest, yet no charges have levied against him to date. It represents another reminder of whose life really matters. Tracy Martin, Trayvon’s father, told the Huffington Post that the police basically saw Zimmerman as a good guy giving them reason not to arrest him at this point:

They respected [Zimmerman’s] background, that he studied criminal justice for four years and that he was squeaky clean.” He continued: “My question to them was, did they run my child’s background check? They said yes. I asked them what they came up with, and they said nothing. So I asked if Zimmerman had a clean record, did that give him the right to shoot and kill an unarmed kid?”

While Trayvon Martin is not trending on twitter nor eliciting 500,000 views on YouTube, much less 70 million, Kony 2012 has captured the national (global) imagination. With millions of views on YouTube and Vimeo, with ample donations directed toward the film’s producer – Invisible Children – and a national conversation about Joseph Kony and his crimes against humanity, Kony 2012 has elicited an outpouring from all corners of society.

Continue reading @ NewBlackMan: Two Visions of ‘Black’ Evil, One White Gaze: Reading Kony 2012 and the Murder of Trayvon Martin.