The Trayvon Martin verdict is viewed in the context of U.S. racialized capitalism. The article focuses on the structures of race/class oppression in Florida, both in the past and today, and the oppositional movements that these structures have engendered – Editors
Image: Protest July 15, 2013 in Austin, Texas against the acquittal of George Zimmerman for murdering Trayvon Martin and against the exoneration of Austin police for the killing of Byron Carter in 2011. Ann Harkness, Creative Commons.
Some one hundred rallies and vigils were reported in the week of July 12 after George Zimmerman was acquitted by a Florida jury of murdering 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. Untold meetings like this one continue to take place around the country. Protests had been responsible for bringing Zimmerman to trial, once the nation learned of the shooting in the small city of Sanford, Florida a year and a half earlier, on February 26, 2012. We saw solidarity protests by Occupy and lemonade stands to raise money to repeal Stand Your Ground laws. The incident and trial has reminded the country that racism remains persistent and modernizes with each new economic crisis. The verdict was not a miscarriage of justice. It was American justice. The system did not fail. The trial was gamed to produce no other verdict. The system worked as expected. This is why we say that racism is the Achilles heel of American civilization.
After the murder of Trayvon Martin became known, recognizable faces entered the stage. Jesse Jackson argued that the event and reactions to it show that America remains indifferent, at best, to the plight of Black men and women, and the election of Obama has reinforced that delusion. He stated that the reality is that African Americans are facing record home foreclosures and unemployment. Their children are burdened with student loan debt. States, particularly conservative ones, are passing voter laws that leaders know will disenfranchise Blacks and other minorities. Meanwhile the nation’s prisons are brimming with Black faces, he said, and their numbers suggest that the legal system is quicker to send Blacks to prison than whites (“Trayvon Martin case: ‘Blacks are under attack,’ says Jesse Jackson,” Los Angeles Times, 3.23.2012). Jackson isn’t the only one saying this. But the Rainbow Coalition’s program of economic empowerment, translated as entrepreneurship and corporate investment, was the formula of a strand of the Civil Rights Movement after 1968 and remains irrelevant to the realities of the poor.
Black conservatives were not silent either. Shelby Steele chose to attack Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece, he railed against “historical victimization,” concluding — not without a lot of irony — that “The tragedy surrounding Trayvon’s death is not in the possibility that it might have something to do with white racism; the tragedy is in the lustfulness with which so many Black leaders, in conjunction with the media, have leapt to exploit his demise for their own power” (“The Exploitation of Trayvon Martin,” Wall Street Journal, 4.6.12). Conveniently left undisturbed in this critique are exactly the institutionalized centers of racism which have been exposed by the protests and meetings of the past year and a half, protests which Steele had nothing to do with.
In our own publication, The International Marxist-Humanist, Dale Parsons observed that it’s no accident that “George Zimmerman’s acquittal occurred on the heels of the Supreme Court’s attack on Affirmative Action and the gutting of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 with its removal of Section Four of that act; not to mention the degenerate stage of capitalism we are currently living in (“The Unconscionable Acquittal of George Zimmerman, http://www.internationalmarxisthumanist.com, 7.17.2013). As we will see, in practice the Voting Rights Act was already abrogated before this year.
And there’s the GenderJUST statement on the Trayvon Martin verdict (http://www.genderjust.org/trayvon-martin). It refocused on the issues at hand: How did structural forms of policing and criminalization allow George Zimmerman to murder Trayvon Martin and then be legally defined as not guilty? It cautioned against using stereotypes — like donning hoodies — in the same protests that condemned the racist verdict. It also urged a departure from the established solutions, which, as given, lead back to structures of oppression.
After touching on some attitudes to the murder of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of George Zimmerman, let’s explore why Trayvon’s murder and the acquittal really should have been no surprise. First some background on the Stand Your Ground law in Florida will show that laws are applied in a racist manner but race alone cannot explain why they are in place. Related to this, some history of central Florida and the rest of the state will illuminate why this tragedy was state-inspired.
The Florida legislature passed that state’s “Stand Your Ground” (SYG) law in 2005. Self-defense has been a legal right since English common law. This right has always included retreat as a condition. Gov. Jeb Bush changed that understanding when he signed into law Florida Statute 776.013. It holds that a person “‘has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground’ if he or she thinks deadly force is necessary to prevent death, great bodily harm or commission of a forcible felony like robbery” (“Florida’s Stand Your Ground Laws,” The Tampa Bay Times, June 12, 2012).
Florida was the first state to pass a SYG law. The ultra right-wing American Legislative Executive Council (ALEC) saw a good thing and encouraged minions in state houses across the country to pass their own shoot first laws. Some two dozen states have these laws. ALEC usually serves as the source of boilerplate language for reactionary bills like “Truth in Sentencing” and “Three Strikes” laws as well as legislation creating for-profit prisons. The last effort rewards donors like prison businesses Corrections Corporation of America and The GEO Group. In the case of Florida, it’s important that we see the intent of right-wing legislators was not to be covert. Rather these laws actualize years of arming the population. Indeed, concealed weapons permits tripled in number in the eight years since the law was passed in Florida, to the point where 1.1 million Floridians have concealed weapons. We would probably find the same trend in Illinois where a conservative legislature passed this state’s concealed gun law this year.
For tactical reasons, Zimmerman’s defense attorneys did not seek immunity for him under the provisions of this law. However it was available, and for good reason Trayvon Martin’s parents say they are dedicated to its repeal and are at the center of a movement to make it happen. After the murder of Martin, staff reporters at The Tampa Bay Times made a study of some 200 cases in Florida where Stand Your Ground was invoked by or on behalf of defendants. Their report showed that “defendants claiming ‘stand your ground’ are more likely to prevail if the victim is Black. Seventy-three percent of those who killed a Black person faced no penalty compared to 59 percent of those who killed a white.” This was punctuated in the comparison of two instances of women killing men who were attacking them. Laurie Lynn Barlett, who was assaulted by a white man, was sent to prison for ten years. In a similar case, Ernestine Broxie, whose assailant was Black, went free.
To be sure, statistics alone from the Tampa Bay Times study are not decisive on race:
- Whites who invoked the law were charged at the same rate as Blacks.
- Whites who went to trial were convicted at the same rate as Blacks.
- In mixed-race cases involving fatalities, the outcomes were similar. Four of the five Blacks who killed a white went free; five of the six whites who killed a Black went free.
- Overall, 66 percent of Black defendants went free compared to 61 percent of white defendants.
Of course, these are morbid statistics generated by antisocial legislation. The fact is that the right wing is ginning up violence, some of it at the hands of police and encoded in Stop and Frisk policies, some if it among the people in sanctioned homicide. Dumping weapons into the population was accomplished by far-right legislation, much of it fueled by money from the manufacturers and their lobbyist, the NRA. The next step has been to authorize the unholstering and use of those weapons by Stand Your Ground laws. As with the justice system and the Prison Industrial Complex, the enactments of these laws will have the worst effect on Blacks in America although no ethnic or gender demographic will be untouched. But being poor does tend to be the common element.
To understand this trend and what happened in central Florida a year and a half ago, a little history may help. During the Great Depression, Zora Neale Hurston wrote about the Florida town of Goldsboro. After the Civil War, freed Blacks managed to incorporate and self-govern towns like the one Hurston grew up in nearby Eatonville. Goldsboro was another of these areas, but unlike Eatonville, it came to an end in 1911 when a nearby, white town engineered its de-incorporation and annexation into itself. That white town was Sanford. (Hurston thought that Goldsboro was not taken over because it was “colored,” but rather because the economic interests of the white Sanford were able to dominate.) (Go gator and muddy the water: writings by Zora Neale Hurston from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1999: pp. 125-126)
In the post-war period, as in other parts of the country, segregation and injustice were challenged in Florida. In 1951 the NAACP supported projects in the state to defend two Blacks accused of raping a white woman, to attain pay equity for Black public school teachers, and to register voters. It is a measure of the success of the organizing by the field director assigned to these projects, Harry Moore, that he and his wife Harriette Moore were murdered in their Florida home when it was firebombed. They were located in Mimms, Brevard County, next to Seminole County whose county seat is Sanford. The killers were never caught.
At the start of a new century, in the U.S. Presidential election of 2000, while Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade County elections boards recounted ballots, investigations into chicanery in other parts of the state were struggling to get off the ground. In Leon County where the state capital, Tallahassee, is located, Black voters reported to any who would listen that Highway Patrolmen had set up roadblocks on their paths to polling places. At the polls in Seminole County, Black voters unexpectedly were asked for three forms of identification, resulting in many not being able to vote. The restrictions harken back to the days of poll taxes and literacy tests, which barred voter registration to Blacks in the South until the 1965 Voter Rights Act was passed and enforced. Added up, without these instances of state-inspired election fraud Al Gore would have won.
The efforts to specifically disenfranchise Black voters by road block in Leon County and obstructions in Seminole County fit into a pattern of fraud engineered by Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris in the 2000 presidential election. By sleight of hand her office made thousands of African Americans ineligible to vote in the state. Harris employed a ruse to pull off this purge, by kicking incarcerated or formerly incarcerated people out of the database — and while they were at it, thousands of other Black registered voters. (Florida, of course, is a partner in the national policy to incarcerate poor and working class young people who are greatly disproportionately Black and Latino. This is a de facto disenfranchisement of minority voters as well.)
To Black communities in the state, it was one battle in a protracted war. For the entire year, resistance had been ongoing to a law by fiat whereby Governor Jeb Bush removed affirmative action in college admissions and state contracts for women and minorities. His executive order was titled “One Florida.” A demonstration of 10,000, one of the largest in state history, took place in May 2000 in the capital, Tallahassee, to protest “One Florida.” What hearings there were around the state on ending affirmative action turned into forums packed with angry African Americans, especially in Miami. A result of this new movement was a campaign that saw 100,000 new Black voters registered since the previous presidential election year in 1996. (“Report on Voting Irregularities in Florida During the 2000 Presidential Election,” U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, June 2001, http://www.usccr.gov/pubs/vote2000/main.htm; “The Path to Florida,” Vanity Fair, Oct. 2004). Activists grasped the role they could play in the overthrow of the Bush rule at the state and national level.
This whole stratum of energetic and committed activists was ready to challenge the Republican, state-sponsored election fraud in 2000. The specter of this, however, was too much for Al Gore and the Democratic Leadership Council which had worked so hard to ensure there would never be another year like 1984 when “Run, Jesse, Run” fired up Black communities. They never called on a big, grassroots mobilization to fight the Republicans and theft of the election. In fact, they feared it. You know the rest: the Rehnquist Supreme Court ordered the recount stopped and Bush was declared winner.
A reporter observed that George Zimmerman “developed a twisted sense of entitlement, one that gave him a false sense of authority to enforce the rule of law in his tiny gated community.” (“Shooter of Trayvon Martin a habitual caller to cops,” Miami Herald, 3.21.12) The short history provided here shows a protracted war on Black communities in Florida, especially in the region where Sanford is located. It also shows the state’s leading role in that war and how local acts of discrimination are encouraged by it. Zimmerman’s sense of entitlement did not come out of thin air. So the distribution of weapons and the green light to use them arise in that context and the outcomes for African Americans are predictably bad.
I also don’t want to draw a picture merely of one-sided, single-party-state, racist rule in the state of Florida. Black and poor Floridians have been in constant revolt. This state also has incubated the Miami uprisings of the early 1980s and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers movement of the 1990s. The fact is that held in tension with institutionalized racism and repression of the poor are at times progressive mass attitudes and at other times mass protest. The element of revolt is missing in so much of the left analyses of the murder of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of George Zimmerman. Incorporating it would mean letting revolt drive the theories about where to go next instead of fitting them into pre-formed agendas. In their desire to harness the outcomes of protest, from what I have seen, the progressives do not differ fundamentally from liberal misleaders and conservatives who both seek to keep this movement in check.
What does this revolt look like today in Chicago? It looks like:
- queer thinkers thinking beyond the campaign to institutionalize gay marriage,
- the Occupy movement which redirected the discourse on the economic crisis from austerity to class issues,
- historic, massive immigrant May Day marches fueled by labor,
- opposition, led by teachers, to the mayor’s writing off a generation of youth and paying off a trough of labor exploiters,
Each of these is multiplied in the national context.
When Yasmine Nair says that “we need to refuse the narratives of abjection that are routinely forced upon us,” I see the most important ways to do that as (1) present the reality of oppression as laden with revolt and (2) agitate or elevate that tension by posing the possibility of transcending it, which is a philosophic project.
J. Turk made these remarks at an International Marxist-Humanist Organization meeting at the Chicago Freedom School