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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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,
In 1852, Frederick Douglass offered the following with the “”The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro”
What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are, to Him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.
Reading these words today, I am struck by the unfulfilled promises of America’s creed. The sham of a celebration of freedom and liberty in clear as we remember Oscar Grant, Dante Price, Amadou Diallo, Kimani Gray, Rekia Boyd, Travis Henderson, Sean Bell, Kendrac McDade, Ramarley Graham and so many others. The sham has been clear over the last week with the Zimmerman trial and the gutting of the VRA. Knowing that an African American man or woman will likely be shot by the police (#every28hours) during the course of this day, I cannot but think of the ongoing history of injustice and cruelty. Amid the celebrations of freedom is the silence and lack of mourning over lost lives from Chicago to New Orleans. As he speaks of “the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim,” I wonder how 2013 fits given rampant unemployment among communities and the systemic destruction of America’s educational system. I see a militarized border and a state that will allow voter suppression, the denial of a woman’s right to choose and global violence without any regard for the humanity and rights of all people. 4th of July is drones and racial profiling; 4th of July is subprime mortgages and the PIC; 4th of July is race to the bottom and poverty. Douglas reminds us clearly, “There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.” In the 161 years since he spoke these words, they remain all too true and all too powerful
Fellow Citizens, I am not wanting in respect for the fathers of this republic. The signers of the Declaration of Independence were brave men. They were great men, too Ñ great enough to give frame to a great age. It does not often happen to a nation to raise, at one time, such a number of truly great men. The point from which I am compelled to view them is not, certainly, the most favorable; and yet I cannot contemplate their great deeds with less than admiration. They were statesmen, patriots and heroes, and for the good they did, and the principles they contended for, I will unite with you to honor their memory….
…Fellow-citizens, pardon me, allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here to-day? What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us? and am I, therefore, called upon to bring our humble offering to the national altar, and to confess the benefits and express devout gratitude for the blessings resulting from your independence to us?
Would to God, both for your sakes and ours, that an affirmative answer could be truthfully returned to these questions! Then would my task be light, and my burden easy and delightful. For who is there so cold, that a nation’s sympathy could not warm him? Who so obdurate and dead to the claims of gratitude, that would not thankfully acknowledge such priceless benefits? Who so stolid and selfish, that would not give his voice to swell the hallelujahs of a nation’s jubilee, when the chains of servitude had been torn from his limbs? I am not that man. In a case like that, the dumb might eloquently speak, and the “lame man leap as an hart.”
But such is not the state of the case. I say it with a sad sense of the disparity between us. I am not included within the pale of glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common.ÑThe rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought light and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony. Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak to-day? If so, there is a parallel to your conduct. And let me warn you that it is dangerous to copy the example of a nation whose crimes, towering up to heaven, were thrown down by the breath of the Almighty, burying that nation in irrevocable ruin! I can to-day take up the plaintive lament of a peeled and woe-smitten people!
“By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down. Yea! we wept when we remembered Zion. We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof. For there, they that carried us away captive, required of us a song; and they who wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion. How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? If I forget thee, 0 Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth.”
Fellow-citizens, above your national, tumultuous joy, I hear the mournful wail of millions! whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday, are, to-day, rendered more intolerable by the jubilee shouts that reach them. If I do forget, if I do not faithfully remember those bleeding children of sorrow this day, “may my right hand forget her cunning, and may my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth!” To forget them, to pass lightly over their wrongs, and to chime in with the popular theme, would be treason most scandalous and shocking, and would make me a reproach before God and the world. My subject, then, fellow-citizens, is American slavery. I shall see this day and its popular characteristics from the slave’s point of view. Standing there identified with the American bondman, making his wrongs mine, I do not hesitate to declare, with all my soul, that the character and conduct of this nation never looked blacker to me than on this 4th of July! Whether we turn to the declarations of the past, or to the professions of the present, the conduct of the nation seems equally hideous and revolting. America.is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future. Standing with God and the crushed and bleeding slave on this occasion, I will, in the name of humanity which is outraged, in the name of liberty which is fettered, in the name of the constitution and the Bible which are disregarded and trampled upon, dare to call in question and to denounce, with all the emphasis I can command, everything that serves to perpetuate slavery Ñ the great sin and shame of America! “I will not equivocate; I will not excuse”; I will use the severest language I can command; and yet not one word shall escape me that any man, whose judgment is not blinded by prejudice, or who is not at heart a slaveholder, shall not confess to be right and just.
But I fancy I hear some one of my audience say, “It is just in this circumstance that you and your brother abolitionists fail to make a favorable impression on the public mind. Would you argue more, an denounce less; would you persuade more, and rebuke less; your cause would be much more likely to succeed.” But, I submit, where all is plain there is nothing to be argued. What point in the anti-slavery creed would you have me argue? On what branch of the subject do the people of this country need light? Must I undertake to prove that the slave is a man? That point is conceded already. Nobody doubts it. The slaveholders themselves acknowledge it in the enactment of laws for their government. They acknowledge it when they punish disobedience on the part of the slave. There are seventy-two crimes in the State of Virginia which, if committed by a black man (no matter how ignorant he be), subject him to the punishment of death; while only two of the same crimes will subject a white man to the like punishment. What is this but the acknowledgment that the slave is a moral, intellectual, and responsible being? The manhood of the slave is conceded. It is admitted in the fact that Southern statute books are covered with enactments forbidding, under severe fines and penalties, the teaching of the slave to read or to write. When you can point to any such laws in reference to the beasts of the field, then I may consent to argue the manhood of the slave. When the dogs in your streets, when the fowls of the air, when the cattle on your hills, when the fish of the sea, and the reptiles that crawl, shall be unable to distinguish the slave from a brute, then will I argue with you that the slave is a man!
For the present, it is enough to affirm the equal manhood of the Negro race. Is it not astonishing that, while we are ploughing, planting, and reaping, using all kinds of mechanical tools, erecting houses, constructing bridges, building ships, working in metals of brass, iron, copper, silver and gold; that, while we are reading, writing and ciphering, acting as clerks, merchants and secretaries, having among us lawyers, doctors, ministers, poets, authors, editors, orators and teachers; that, while we are engaged in all manner of enterprises common to other men, digging gold in California, capturing the whale in the Pacific, feeding sheep and cattle on the hill-side, living, moving, acting, thinking, planning, living in families as husbands, wives and children, and, above all, confessing and worshipping the Christian’s God, and looking hopefully for life and immortality beyond the grave, we are called upon to prove that we are men!
Would you have me argue that man is entitled to liberty? that he is the rightful owner of his own body? You have already declared it. Must I argue the wrongfulness of slavery? Is that a question for Republicans? Is it to be settled by the rules of logic and argumentation, as a matter beset with great difficulty, involving a doubtful application of the principle of justice, hard to be understood? How should I look to-day, in the presence of Amercans, dividing, and subdividing a discourse, to show that men have a natural right to freedom? speaking of it relatively and positively, negatively and affirmatively. To do so, would be to make myself ridiculous, and to offer an insult to your understanding. There is not a man beneath the canopy of heaven that does not know that slavery is wrong for him.
What, am I to argue that it is wrong to make men brutes, to rob them of their liberty, to work them without wages, to keep them ignorant of their relations to their fellow men, to beat them with sticks, to flay their flesh with the lash, to load their limbs with irons, to hunt them with dogs, to sell them at auction, to sunder their families, to knock out their teeth, to burn their flesh, to starve them into obedience and submission to their mastcrs? Must I argue that a system thus marked with blood, and stained with pollution, is wrong? No! I will not. I have better employment for my time and strength than such arguments would imply.
What, then, remains to be argued? Is it that slavery is not divine; that God did not establish it; that our doctors of divinity are mistaken? There is blasphemy in the thought. That which is inhuman, cannot be divine! Who can reason on such a proposition? They that can, may; I cannot. The time for such argument is passed.
At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed. O! had I the ability, and could reach the nation’s ear, I would, to-day, pour out a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke. For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake. The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced.
What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are, to Him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages.There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.
Go where you may, search where you will, roam through all the monarchies and despotisms of the Old World, travel through South America, search out every abuse, and when you have found the last, lay your facts by the side of the everyday practices of this nation, and you will say with me, that, for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival….
…Allow me to say, in conclusion, notwithstanding the dark picture I have this day presented, of the state of the nation, I do not despair of this country. There are forces in operation which must inevitably work the downfall of slavery. “The arm of the Lord is not shortened,” and the doom of slavery is certain. I, therefore, leave off where I began, with hope. While drawing encouragement from “the Declaration of Independence,” the great principles it contains, and the genius of American Institutions, my spirit is also cheered by the obvious tendencies of the age. Nations do not now stand in the same relation to each other that they did ages ago. No nation can now shut itself up from the surrounding world and trot round in the same old path of its fathers without interference. The time was when such could be done. Long established customs of hurtful character could formerly fence themselves in, and do their evil work with social impunity. Knowledge was then confined and enjoyed by the privileged few, and the multitude walked on in mental darkness. But a change has now come over the affairs of mankind. Walled cities and empires have become unfashionable. The arm of commerce has borne away the gates of the strong city. Intelligence is penetrating the darkest corners of the globe. It makes its pathway over and under the sea, as well as on the earth. Wind, steam, and lightning are its chartered agents. Oceans no longer divide, but link nations together. From Boston to London is now a holiday excursion. Space is comparatively annihilated. — Thoughts expressed on one side of the Atlantic are distinctly heard on the other.
The far off and almost fabulous Pacific rolls in grandeur at our feet. The Celestial Empire, the mystery of ages, is being solved. The fiat of the Almighty, “Let there be Light,” has not yet spent its force. No abuse, no outrage whether in taste, sport or avarice, can now hide itself from the all-pervading light. The iron shoe, and crippled foot of China must be seen in contrast with nature. Africa must rise and put on her yet unwoven garment. ‘Ethiopia, shall, stretch. out her hand unto Ood.” In the fervent aspirations of William Lloyd Garrison, I say, and let every heart join in saying it:
God speed the year of jubilee
The wide world o’er!
When from their galling chains set free,
Th’ oppress’d shall vilely bend the knee,
And wear the yoke of tyranny
Like brutes no more.
That year will come, and freedom’s reign,
To man his plundered rights again
God speed the day when human blood
Shall cease to flow!
In every clime be understood,
The claims of human brotherhood,
And each return for evil, good,
Not blow for blow;
That day will come all feuds to end,
And change into a faithful friend
God speed the hour, the glorious hour,
When none on earth
Shall exercise a lordly power,
Nor in a tyrant’s presence cower;
But to all manhood’s stature tower,
By equal birth!
That hour will come, to each, to all,
And from his Prison-house, to thrall
Until that year, day, hour, arrive,
With head, and heart, and hand I’ll strive,
To break the rod, and rend the gyve,
The spoiler of his prey deprive —
So witness Heaven!
And never from my chosen post,
Whate’er the peril or the cost,