A confusing event in Sanford, Florida is squarely in the faces of us who care about justice, human rights, individual liberties, discrimination and neighborhood security. And every factor pushing the killing of Trayvon Martin to the front of American consciousness is offensive. After George Zimmerman was finally charged, observers weighed in with a variety of comments about how well this has all turned out. Most expressed surprise that this privileged, self-appointed vigilante, is charged with 2nd degree murder instead of manslaughter, and many confessed being more comfortable with a lesser charge.
They must have spent all their outrage on the deplorable inaction of the police and the existence of Florida’s “stand your ground” law, the ground-breaking 2005 ordinance which blesses extreme violence by the armed and paranoid. Having learned to conserve my outrage against “justice in Florida,” I am still angry. Having seen discrimination by the face of law and order in Spokane affect my black children and grandchildren , I hope there are still urgent voices of dissent.
Florida, home for three years of my childhood, richly deserves rogue branding in matters of simple justice, but one must sympathize with those Floridians who struggle each day to improve the environment for minorities, the poor, and the underserved. My grudge with the Sunshine State is primarily fueled by capital punishment (I consider Juan Melendez and Sonny Jacobs, both unjustly condemned to death and incarcerated for years, to be friends of mine. And Sonny’s partner, Jesse Tafero and my first death-row friend, Willie Darden, were each tortured to death by Florida after sham convictions on false murder charges.), but Florida has no corner on un-charged murders of people of color, even in the 21st Century.
In March, an off-duty police detective in Chicago was charged with misdemeanor aggravated assault after shooting a black man in the hand. Asked why he shot, the cop, who may have been under the influence, told the victim he thought his cell phone was a gun. The bullet didn’t stop there, but went into the head of a young black woman. She’s dead, but the officer, described as “Latino but looks white” faces no charges in her death. Since then, Amy Goodman wrote of a black veteran in New York whose medic alert was accidentally set off, sending a police response crashing into his apartment. Police who tasered and shot him to death said they thought the 68-year-old had a weapon, but the video camera mounted on the taser says he was standing empty-handed in his boxer shorts. The camera also recorded the swearing and racial epithets of the ‘good guys’ with guns.
It is a positive thing that Trayvon’s parents are not calling for George Zimmerman’s head on a pike. It is good that the Sanford police chief resigned; that people with status stood with the victim’s family; that the special prosecutor, a black woman, acted decisively in charging Zimmerman with 2nd Degree Murder; that ‘stand your ground’ statutes all over the country are under a microscope; that Zimmerman has counsel who is widely trusted and respected. But, please don’t mistake any of this for justice.
Justice is more elusive. In Sanford or Spokane. In Washington, D.C., Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Colombia and Afghanistan. It’s widely abused, ignored or misidentified, even by those of us who wear its name. That’s why the Center for Justice cautiously hopes to provide “the experience of justice,” rather than claims to establish justice for all, like the hyperbolic Pledge of Allegiance. Justice will not be sought in the Martin case, because it’s too difficult and would not please anyone who has not been able to avoid taking sides. Justice demands too much of all of us in this case, and we have no practice in sorting out centuries of feelings about “the other,” whether it be one minority or another, a different socio-economic perspective, and what frightens us or makes us feel secure. The likelihood of capital charges in a Florida case like this, except that the shooter is black, can be justly invoked in a casual conversation, but it cannot be introduced in a fair trial. And this trial, no matter how fair, will not restore the Martin family. It will not reconcile the haves and have-nots, the black, Latino, and white Floridians, prosecutors and defenders, or the NRA and the anti-gun lobby.
Some people claim President Obama tainted the case by saying that if he had a son, he would look like Trayvon. That is not a perjorative statement, and it was made before charges were brought. In fact, I believe it is important because oppressed minorities in this country can finally hear such a thing from their president. It’s a new experience of justice.
I don’t like over-charging defendants. But unlike some media observers, I feel evidence supports the charge, although I would never seek an aggravated murder charge in an executing state. Apparently, the important thing to Trayvon’s family was to have an arrest. The important thing to me is to deprive armed xenophobes of immunity for violently acting upon fears and/or fantasies.
Cases like this will remind Spokane of Otto Zehm for a long time, but let us remember that toxic attitudes among police officers often originate with those whom they are supposed to serve, protect and defend. People like you are needed to bring a compassion for diversity and an appreciation of nonviolence into our communities. We have lots of work to do before we make a dent in America’s, or Spokane’s, fear of difference and love of violence.