Chris Walsh discusses the unfair prejudice experienced by young African Americans in light of the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Florida.
Over the past four weeks this case has taken a number of dramatic twists and turns. A tape of Zimmerman’s 911 call during the incident has emerged in which the operator explicitly orders Zimmerman to stop pursuing Martin as the police are on their way. Zimmerman refused and continued after the young man, who looked 'suspicious'. Martin’s girlfriend, who was on the phone to him as he was being pursued, has also made a statement speaking of the boy’s fear as he was stalked by Zimmerman.
Everything points to the neighborhood watch captain as the aggressor. When Trayvon Martin was murdered, he was returning home from a shop after buying juice and sweets. He had done no wrong. His actions were not 'suspicious'. This 17 year old was slain for his appearance; he was a young, black man wearing a hooded top, the object of suspicion for much of white America.
Typically, Zimmerman’s defence have gone to great lengths to play down the racial aspect of the crime; making much of the fact that his mother is Hispanic and that he has 'black friends'. The U.S population is not convinced. Huge numbers of, mainly, African Americans have protested across the USA and the world demanding Zimmerman’s arrest. Familiar faces from the civil rights movement like the Rev. Al Sharpton and the Rev. Jesse Jackson have taken a lead in the protests. Barack Obama finally saw fit to intervene on the issue last week, offering condolences to Trayvon’s parents and saying that 'If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon Martin', but lacking the political courage to demand an arrest.
Regardless of the wishes of Zimmerman’s defense team, this case is now all about race. Yesterday (Saturday 24th March) the New Black Panther Party issued a $10,000 bounty on Zimmerman, much to the alarm of middle America. The irony of this is that the US state’s promotion of convenient vigilantism has given birth to an altogether less convenient and more threatening counter-vigilantism. The state takes a huge risk by pimping out its core functions to civil society organizations, especially when civil society is as rotten as that of the U.S. As long as the legislature protects trigger-happy zealots from pathetic, self-aggrandizing civil organizations like neighborhood watch groups from justice, rival groupings from civil society will see fit to take the law into their own hands. Max Weber’s definition of the state as ‘the monopoly of legal violence’ does not apply to 21st century America.
We can take some pleasure from the fact that Zimmerman is reported to be in fear for his life after the bounty issued by the Panthers, but it is a damning reflection upon U.S society when a murderer feels safe from repercussion from the state a month after his crime.
An interesting case for comparison is the trial of 17 year old Shawn Tyson, accused of shooting and killing two white British tourists in Florida last April, when the defendant was just 16. Tyson and his family have always maintained his innocence and there are a number of anomalies within the case for the prosecution. A number of key witnesses have changed their stories throughout the trial, reportedly having been offered deals or threatened by the authorities. If convicted, Tyson faces life in jail without parole, only his age saving him from the death penalty. It is highly unlikely that Tyson will receive a fair trial, even though there are no witnesses willing to testify that they saw Tyson carry out the attack. Tyson is a poor, black man accused of murdering two white British tourists; the U.S justice system needs little more in the way of evidence.
The most interesting voice throughout the Trayvon Martin saga so far has been that of Jesse Jackson. Jackson has stated that no one should be surprised by the inaction of the Florida authorities, that this is just another incident in a long history of institutional racism in the United States. He said that 'Blacks are under attack', referring to the increasing poverty of America’s black population as a result of the economic crisis; the racist backlash to the election of the first black president to office and the vigor with which America prosecutes and incarcerates black men. Jackson stated that 'Targeting, arresting, convicting blacks and ultimately killing us is big business'.
Jackson has attempted to shift the debate away from the specifics of Trayvon Martin’s murder to the general persecution of America’s black population which is systemic. He said that the failure of U.S authorities to convict George Zimmerman strips America of its 'moral authority' to intervene in political debates abroad. Strong words from a religious leader just returned from talks in Geneva on how to resolve the ongoing humanitarian disaster in Syria, and he couldn’t be more right. The U.S authorities execute hundreds of people every single year, a huge number of which are black. Considering that African Americans only make up 12% of the population, 41% of those sentenced to death are black. The death penalty is also far more likely to be applied if the victim of the crime is white: statistics show that in Louisiana, the odds of the death sentence are 97% higher for a crime in which the victim was white than that of a black victim.
Jackson hopes that this will be a 'transformative moment' in American society, a mass awakening to the fact that the oppression and persecution of blacks is not simply a depressing chapter in the history of the USA, but an ongoing nightmare for much of Black America. The best outcome that we can hope for from the continuing protests is that they force the U.S authorities into arresting and prosecuting Zimmerman. The failure of the authorities to do so thus far has invited incalculable levels of unrest to their doorstep.
If there are race riots in Florida or Georgia, or anywhere else in the U.S, targeting the police in retaliation for their criminal inaction we should welcome them. A violent popular uprising will do more for the collective confidence America’s black population and the demand for Zimmerman’s prosecution, than any amount of words from Jackson, Sharpton or even Obama. If America’s internal stability is shaken to its core by a militant movement demanding justice for Trayvon Martin and the whole black population, it will not be unwarranted. It will have reaped the seeds of its own undoing. America’s chickens will, once again, have come home to roost.
From International Socialist Group site.
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