Founded and preserved by acts of aggression, characterized by a continuing tradition of self-righteous violence against suspected subversion and by a vigorous sense of personal freedom, usually involving the widespread possession of firearms, the United States has evidenced a unique tolerance for homicide.
-David Brion Davis
Homicide in American Fiction 1798-1860
The Trayvon Martin story is not going to go away. It was a narrative event waiting to happen, and the story only gets richer with meaning as time goes on. There are the obvious racial aspects, but the most important elements are about police power versus citizen power — and who can get away with shooting whom.
Since the police and the various paralegal and wannabe versions of police are the first-line of contact between individuals and The State the incident’s outcome is important in the struggle between citizens’ rights and state power.
So far, the police and a flawed criminal justice system are winning most of the battles.
The Supreme Court just ruled five to four that police departments and jail officials have the right to strip search anyone once the person is ensconced in their clutches. These five male robed eminences agreed it was just fine for a police officer to make you stand in a room buck-naked, lift your nut sack, bend over and spread your cheeks. The officer doesn’t need a reason, other than having you in his control. It’s an elitist ruling ripe for abuse.
Then there’s the realm of cameras versus guns and handcuffs. The other day Boston cops arrested a TV news crew for filming outside a hospital, something TV crews do all the time when a news story ends in an emergency room. The cop told the photographers he had the power to overrule their First Amendment rights. While the cop had the muscle power, he did not have the legal power. Still, fact on the ground, the TV crew was removed.
In another case, two kids are videotaping in the parking lot of a Houston Walmart and a cop tells them to stop because he thinks he was in the shot. He was. The kid with the camera correctly tells the cop that he has the right to videotape police officers. The cop becomes hysterical and threatens to taser him if he doesn’t stop. (See below.) The photographer wisely backs down.
I worked for years as a professional photographer, so I’m sensitive to this. I read about cops stopping photographers all the time. The fact that all police departments know very well that the law says a citizen has the right to photograph a cop doing his or her public job doesn’t seem to matter. Why? Because muscle seems to trump brains when it comes to bad police behavior.
An amazing incident occurred last November in a public housing unit in White Plains, NY. A 68-year-old Vietnam veteran’s medical alert device goes off by mistake while he’s sleeping and police respond to his home. OK so far. But when he tells them it was a mistake and his heart’s fine and that they should leave so he can go back to bed, their crime-buster imaginations and adrenaline glands go to work overtime and they bash down his door and ultimately shoot him dead standing in his boxer shorts. Next, the encounter comes out in the press as a story of cops forced to shoot a knife-wielding maniac. The man’s son tells Amy Goodman there is no evidence of his father wielding a knife. Police refuse to identify the officers involved.
The case has belatedly gotten national legs due to the Trayvon Martin incident and the fact the medical alert company’s audio recording device recorded the whole incident, including an officer hollering, “I don’t give a fuck, nigger, open the door!” This, of course, may suggest why some officers are so sensitive to being recorded. It’s called accountability.
What’s going on here? And why do so many police officers seem reluctant to question and re-evaluate their initial hyperventilated and paranoid assessments of a situation?
Of course, it needs to be said here that most cops are good people working a hard and often thankless job. We need good cops. The problem is a powerful handful whose bad behavior is too often condoned or overlooked. As our courts drift to the right, they unfortunately tend to empower the bad apples, as in the go-ahead to strip search, a power begging to be abused as a tool of humiliation.
What if Trayvon Had Been Armed?
There appears only two ways that young Trayvon Martin could have behaved to effect a different outcome than the one where he ended up shot dead by a nine-millimeter pistol.
One, he could have passively complied with everything in wannabe cop George Zimmerman’s fertile, paranoid imagination. He could have been circumspect and understood Zimmerman’s fears and dropped to the ground in a spread eagle pose to reassure Zimmerman he wasn’t a danger.
Or, two, he could have been armed himself or been able to wrestle Zimmerman’s weapon from him. But then if Martin had shot Zimmerman dead would the teenage Martin have been covered by the Stand Your Ground law that is protecting Zimmerman? Would Martin have been handled so cordially by the Sanford police? Or would he have been characterized as a gang banger? All serious questions. What’s indisputable is that it was Trayvon who had the more legitimate fear of bodily harm or death.
Many African Americans aware of Jim Crow history in America might characterize the first scenario as the “good nigger” response, as in, “Sorry I scared you, boss. Please don’t shoot me!” The latter, accordingly, might be called the “bad nigger” response.
MSNBC has reported that professional analysis of the 9/11 tapes reveals George Zimmerman muttering under his breath the words “fuckin’ coon” as he is following Martin. Those analyzing the “Help!” cry heard on the tape during the tussle just before the gunshot are reportedly “99 percent certain” the voice was Trayvon Martin’s and not Zimmerman’s. The fact Zimmerman and his father, a magistrate judge, claimed it was Zimmerman’s voice suggests desperation and fabrication.
The fact Zimmerman was not jailed and no forensic murder investigation was undertaken is damning for the Sanford criminal justice system. It seems to find nothing wrong with an armed 28-year-old man stalking a 17-year-old kid to the point of killing the child. The final insult is an NRA-sponsored law that says the 28-year-old can declare self-defense because the 17-year-old kid had the audacity to fight back.
It seems incredible this can happen in 2012.
It’s more frightening when you consider the historical parallels with the rise of post Civil War Jim Crow laws, which spread like wildfire. Once one state enacted such a law, other states were encouraged to enact their own, even harsher, versions. Soon enough, criminal justice systems in much of the land had effectively turned their backs on African Americans. The law became the enemy. And as author Davis points out in the epigram above, it was a history with “a unique tolerance for homicide.”
Michelle Alexander writes about this kind of parallel eloquently in her book The New Jim Crow.
“In an era of colorblindness, it is no longer socially permissible to use race, explicitly, as a justification for discrimination, exclusion and social contempt,” she writes. “So we don’t. Rather than rely on race, we use our criminal justice system to label people of color ‘criminals’ and then engage in all the practices we supposedly left behind.”
I work in the Philadelphia prison teaching writing, and from what I see it’s hard to dispute the existential fact of what Alexander argues. Meanwhile, people like George Zimmerman are extended the benefit of the doubt; we’re asked to understand the stresses they live with, how hard it is to be a cop or a wannabe cop — all important elements of “justice,” but not evenly distributed.
Alexander’s “new Jim Crow” is the first cousin of the great American institution of selective enforcement noted for the incredible amount of laws on the books and uneven enforcement. Some citizens find themselves caught in a demographic that is liberally arrested and charged to the max, where the operable word is not mitigation but demonization based on societal fears and the deep-seated (possibly unrecognized) racial prejudices of a ruling majority. Cops seem to be especially susceptible to this kind of thing.
Guns and Politics
I own an H&K nine-millimeter automatic pistol, a gun I bought and practice with largely out of principle. My principle is a bit different than the usual Second Amendment NRA nutcase. As a vocal, left-leaning writer/activist, I decided to buy a gun because it seemed important to me that the political right not have a monopoly on gun ownership. In the epic battle of the amendments, being a leftist I feel the First trumps the Second. The right I fear tends to see it the other way: The Second trumps the First.
So I’m more afraid of reactionary, lunatic rightists than I am of African American kids walking in my neighborhood. I would not articulate this fear, except that the Trayvon Martin story is heartbreaking and really disturbs me. I’m a 64-year-old white man who has had interracial relationships, and I know interracial kids who look like Trayvon. So I’m serious when I say, echoing President Obama, Trayvon could be my son.
It needs to be asked, exactly who are these right-wing, NRA-spawned Stand Your Ground laws meant to protect and who are they meant to control? Who is it the forces of rightist reaction fear? And how much of it is a factor of race and class?
The Black Panthers were famous for appearing with guns in a sixties version of Stand Your Ground. Why, in this case, is it so different when blacks arm themselves? The same goes for marginalized leftists? What difference should politics make when it comes to standing one’s ground or defending one’s life? Well, we all know the answer: Government and the Justice System favor certain political persuasions.
We’re told by the responsible, smart people in our culture — rightfully so — that our politics have become too polarized. We need to listen to others better. As a leftist, I’ll concede that the left does have things to answer for in this regard.
But there’s one major difference, a real imbalance that is rarely discussed. And that is that the right is willfully armed to the teeth and now pushing laws about liberalizing the use of their beloved weaponry — as the peace-loving left tends to advocate non-violence. The fact the criminal justice system from the Supreme Court down to the cops in community squad cars seem to instinctually lean to the right only makes the matter more frightening for someone on the left.
As a photographer, when I see video of a cop threatening to taser a kid for videotaping him, a chill runs up my spine I know must be a familiar sensation in police states throughout history and across the world. In my view, the five robed eminences in the Supreme Court who think a scenario of being strip searched for, say, photographing a cop is just fine are no different than the robed Ayatollahs in Iran who make the same kind of on-high rulings in that culture.
Which leads to the obvious final question: At what point does standing your ground in a mode of self-defense against elements of the criminal justice system become morally acceptable? That is, are police officers (or their wannabe cousins) so completely above the law that fighting back is never an acceptable response to a violation of a citizen’s rights or dignity?
Interestingly, in Indiana, the state supreme court, the legislature and the governor recently debated the question in the open. The case involves a marital argument that took place on a front lawn; when the police arrived the husband refused them entry into his house. They forced their way in and he fought them. The Indiana Supreme Court rejected his argument that he had the right to fight them because they were entering his house illegally, since they had no search warrant.
Under assault from libertarians like Bob Barr, the legislature came up with a new law that Republican Governor Mitch Daniel recently signed. Police supporters are up in arms and claim the law declares open season on cops.
Time will tell what the Indiana law really means. The important point is, political forces in Indiana are questioning the absolute power of police. And that’s progress.