Sunday, July 14, 2013

No justice: Florida isn't so very far from NYC

There will be a peaceful rallies at Union Square today at 2pm and again at 6pm in response to yesterday's verdict. 

I took the 2 train home last night after news broke that George Zimmerman was acquitted. The entire train was talking about the news, and snippets of different outraged conversations reverberated through the subway car. One woman's comment stuck with me. Responding to a friend's question about why she was so angry, she replied, "because this makes us suspects wherever we go," adding "it makes it ok to kill us."

There's so very much to be said about the acquittal of Zimmerman, the armed neighborhood watchman who left his car against the advice of a 911 dispatcher to confront and kill Trayvon Martin, and there are far more informed and eloquent people to say it than ILFA. I wanted to print the comment above, however, because it reminded me that, as Dr. King wrote, "injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere," and a verdict which legitimates Zimmerman's actions in Florida contributes to the cheapening of black lives everywhere. It will be easy, in the coming days, for NYC's liberal community to blast Florida as a backward state and Zimmerman as a deluded, unstable "wannabe cop." Both accusations have merit, but neither should be made without acknowledging that the underlying tragedies of Trayvon Martin's death (and his killer's trial) - virulent institutional and cultural racism that steals black youth from their families and communities, social inequality exacerbated by the privatization of public space, and a shoot-first, ask-questions-later approach to policing and security, to name just a few - are as present in New York as they are in Sanford, Florida.

Back in 2010, I sat on a jury that heard a homicide case regarding the death of a homeless man in the Albany Homes, a NYCHA development in Crown Heights about a mile east of Franklin Avenue. The facts of the case bear little relation to those of Trayvon Martin's death, but as I watched the Zimmerman trial unfold over the last several weeks, I found myself returning, grimly, to the larger lessons of my brief encounter with our very broken criminal justice system. The case revealed a litany of tragedies that ran from the immediate (shoddy investigative police work reliant on testimony coaxed out of witnesses by threats and intimidation) to the structural (homelessness, miseducation, poverty, drug abuse). By the time the decision was before us, as a jury it didn't feel to me as though we even had the opportunity to render justice, because through the lens afforded by the trial, the entire criminal justice system - and, for that matter, the larger society in which it operated - appeared so unjust. 

I don't mean to suggest that a guilty verdict for Zimmerman would have been meaningless, merely that the political, social, and cultural conditions that produce gated communities and armed neighborhood watchmen - and which make every young black man a suspect - would have persisted all over the nation, as they do today. Trayvon Martin's parents would still be without their son, as are Ramarley Graham's and Oscar Grant's. It would be far better, and far easier, if Sanford, Florida was a bizarre twilight zone and George Zimmerman was a lone lunatic. Sadly, as a stint on a Brooklyn jury taught me, and as the woman on the 2 train reminded me last night, the world that produced them is the world we live in. 


  1. While I agree that our criminal justice system is very poor at dispatching real "justice", and while I think a conversation about race is necessary - and specifically the profiling of young black men by the police, and society as a whole - I don't think I agree with you that the Zimmerman verdict was a miscarriage of justice. While we know that Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin, we don't know all of the facts of the case. There were two possible accounts of what happened; Trayvon Martin's and George Zimmerman's. Trayvon Martin is dead, and therefore the only account that we get is that of George Zimmerman. There was no one that could dispute what he said happened. And unfortunately the burden of proof is on the prosecution, not on Zimmerman to prove his innocence. Now, a legitimate question that could be asked is what if Trayvon had been followed by Zimmerman, felt threatened, started fighting with Zimmerman and somehow gotten a hold of his gun and killed Zimmerman. Would he have been acquitted? My guess is that he would be tried as a murderer and condemned by a broken raggedy justice system that creates an image of young black men as scary monsters.

  2. I wish it was just a broken raggedy justice system that created an image of young black men as scary monsters.

    ...That sounds like a problem with a clear villian (the justice system), and one that could be solved pretty quickly.

    Sadly, this problem is far more complex than that.

    A lot of things have to happen before young black men "are killed", "Serve time in prison" and have "Salaried positions" at a rate which more closely matches thier % of the population.