Friday, July 19, 2013

Left Side of the Aisle #117 - Part 1

On the George Zimmerman verdict

I have to talk about the trial of George Zimmerman. Of course I do. You knew I would. But I've been finding this hard to do, to organize what I want to say, because there is so much I want to say and I can't find a cohesive way to go from a to b to c and so on.

So instead of that, I'll start with my bottom-line assessment of the verdict: George Zimmerman got away with murder. Or, if you want to be legally technical, what I say he really got away with was manslaughter: the reckless, unnecessary, unjustifiable killing of a human being.

Unfortunately, it appears that in Florida you can do that. At least, if your victim is black and you can claim you were just so terrified, so threatened, by the overwhelming power of an unarmed black teenager that you had to kill him to save your own life.

That's true even if you are the one following him because you think they're "suspicious" and "on drugs or something." That's true even if you continue to follow him because "these assholes always get away" even after the police dispatcher tells you not to. That's true even if, according to your own statements, when confronted you don't identify yourself, you don't say anything about the Neighborhood Watch, you just demand "What are you doing?" Because if any kind of scuffle ensues, and if at any moment you think you are losing that fight, if you fear harm, you can just pull out your gun and blow him away.

In Florida, that, apparently, is legal, and several legal analysts have said the jury had "no choice" but to acquit given the sick nature of Florida's laws - especially after the judge refused to clarify her muddled explanation of manslaughter. As John Oliver said on the Daily Show, the real outrage here was not that the system was broken but that the system worked - that it intended for George Zimmerman to walk free.

And now, Justice Department officials say that Zimmerman is unlikely to face federal civil rights charges because it would be difficult to prove he acted out of racial bias, which would be necessary to get a conviction.

I don't know to talk about that. I also don't know how to talk about a system that never took the matter seriously until public outcry made them have to do something. Do not forget that initially, police took at face value Zimmerman's claim of self-defense. The cops drug-tested the dead victim but not the live shooter. They did a background check on the dead victim but not on the live shooter. Instead, they let the live shooter walk free without charge, without arrest.

How do you talk about that? How do you talk about a system so ethically corrupt, so astonishingly amoral, so rigged in favor of the killer over the killed?

But as is often true in cases such as this - and there have been so many others, from Oscar Grant in Oakland to Kimani Gray in Brooklyn to Wendell Allen in New Orleans to Terrance Franklin in Minneapolis, and countless others - what is often true is that the details of the particular case are less revealing than the reactions.

There were, for example, numerous attempts to smear Trayvon Martin as "a thug" - in fact one cop called him "a thug who deserved to die" - and a drug dealer with a history of violence, all based pretty much on vapor. There were menacing pictures of him, increasingly menacing pictures, some of them so menacing that they weren't even him. All of it intended to whitewash the crime, intended to make it okay for Trayvon Martin to be dead, intended to make it okay for George Zimmerman to have shot him - because in too many minds it couldn't have been wrong for him to have killed a black kid.

In the wake of the verdict, the right-wingers and other assorted bigots were alight with joy - except that, perversely (well, not actually), they seemed disturbed, even disappointed, that riots had not broken out in minority neighborhoods across the country. That reaction, too, is revealing, more revealing than the actual case.

So right now, I'm not talking about George Zimmerman, in fact at this point I don't even care about George Zimmerman. There are a lot of indications that George Zimmerman is a racist, including a long history of calling police to complain about "suspicious" African-Americans - but even if he's not, it doesn't matter. That broader reaction still matters and it still shows our society and it still shows it in a very unhappy light.

We are a society suffused with racism, infused with racism, infected with racism, a society in which a young black man - and yes, Zimmerman described Martin as black - is "suspicious" simply by virtue of being a young black man. More, not just "young" and not just "man." Black bodies - simply by virtue of being black - are associated with behavior and actions that are deemed threatening, regardless of what they actually do.

Consider the case of 14-year-old Tremaine McMillan, who on May 30 was slammed to the ground and choked by two Miami-Dade Police officers because they claim the teen gave them a “dehumanizing stare” and "clenched his fists," which they say created "an immediate threat" which they had to "neutralize." Two grown men, two armed cops, so threatened by a 14-year-old child giving them a dirty look that they had "no choice" but to slam him down and choke him until he urinated on himself.

Children, men, women, all regarded with suspicion and fear because of their color, their very bodies a mark against them.

You want an example? Last year, John Derbyshire, writing in the National Review, described "the talk" he would have with his children about dealing with black people. Among his bits of advice, beyond saying that the average black person is much less intelligent than the average white person, were these:

- Avoid concentrations of blacks not all known to you personally.
- Stay out of heavily black neighborhoods.
- Do not attend events likely to draw a lot of blacks.
- If you are a public event at which the number of blacks suddenly swells, leave as quickly as possible.
- Do not settle in a district or municipality run by black politicians.
- Do not act the Good Samaritan to blacks in apparent distress.
- If accosted by a strange black in the street, smile and say something polite but keep moving.

To be black is to be suspected, to be dangerous.

That's certainly the attitude in New York City, with its infamous "stop and frisk" policy. Under Mayor Mike "The billionaire" Bloomberg, there have been over 5 million stop-and-frisks, over 86 percent of them on black or Latino individuals. To stop a person lawfully, a cop must have reasonable suspicion that the person has committed, is committing or is about to commit a crime. Despite that, 88 percent of the stops did not result in an arrest or summons, and of course an even smaller proportion ever lead to a conviction. Which means that the cops, who are supposed to be suspecting a crime, were wrong over 90% of the time.

But none of that matters to Bloomberg or Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, who insist that "nobody racially profiles" and in fact, Blooming-idiot said, "I think we disproportionately stop whites too much and minorities too little."

Black and Latino males aged 14 to 24 made up less than 5% of New York's population in 2011, but made up nearly 42% of those stopped and frisked. But nobody racially profiles in New York. Of course.

Which moves me toward another point: Consider the case of Henry Louis Gates. You remember that one. Gates had to force his way into his house. The police got a call. A cop went to investigate. He confronted Gates. At some point Gates produced ID to show that he was in his own home. None of that was in dispute.

What also happened, though, was that there was some kind of argument between the two, as the result of which Gates was arrested on the classic bogus "disturbing the peace" charge, an arrest that happened because, as everyone seems to agree, Gates mouthed off to the cop, who took his cheap revenge.

And again, we have the revealing reaction: In a surprising number of comments on the matter, Gates was criticized as foolish or as blundering or making "a rookie mistake" by arguing with the cop. "Everybody knows you don't do that," we were told, it's "unwise," it "just gets you into trouble." it is "crazy" to defy a cop.

That is, black people are supposed to approach every encounter with police thinking that this person, this cop, is prepared to abuse their authority, to violate the law, to violate their rights, perhaps even to go off the deep end and turn violent - so they must maintain the right "attitude," they must be respectful, passive, obedient, subservient, they are supposed to act like serfs on the feudal estate, shuffling their feet, tugging at their forelocks, casting their eyes downward in the presence of the lord of the manor, even if they themselves are a highly-respected tenured professor in their own home.

Because to do otherwise, to act otherwise, is "crazy." And there are enough dead black people with police bullets in them to justify the claim. Because if you are black, you are a suspect, you are dangerous, you are a threat - and so in every encounter you must be more than innocent, more than harmless, you must instead be less of a person, you must shrink and become smaller, lesser, than you are. And you are simply supposed to accept that, to say that's the way it is, for your own safety - because, in fact, that's the way it is.

You want to know how it is? I'll show you how it is. Look at the graph. I have to explain this to you. Research was done to see if there was a measurable impact in court cases made by stand your ground laws. That's what the graph is about but it shows something else quite clearly. Understand: The standard used was the acquittal rate for self-defense claims in white-on-white violence, that is, cases where a white person was charged with killing another white person. These are in comparison to that.

So what does it say? First, if it's a case of a black person killing a black person, a self-defense claim is about 25% less likely to succeed than in a case of a white killing a white. If it's a black killing a white, a self-defense claim is about 75% less likely to succeed. But if it's a white person accused of killing a black person, a claim of self-defense is nearly two and a-half times more likely to succeed than if the victim was white - and if you invoke stand your ground, you are three and a-half times more likely to get off. Black lives matter less than white lives; black victims matter less than white victims.

As Paul Campos wrote at Salon,
Trayvon Martin was stalked by George Zimmerman because he was black. Trayvon Martin is dead because he was black. George Zimmerman was acquitted of killing Trayvon Martin because the boy Zimmerman killed was black.

If you deny these things, you are either a liar or an idiot, or possibly both.
When are we going to admit to ourselves that racism and bigotry, that rancid, putrid, vomit-inducing ignorance and paranoia is alive and thriving in our society and have been since the beginning? And yes, not only against blacks: Hispanics are just the latest target of our isolationist xenophobia. We can trace that back generation by generation, group by group, target by target. Asians, Poles, Italians, Irish, Jews, Catholics: Any wave of immigrants that was in any way "different" - to be blunt, that wasn't a WASP - any time there was a wave of "different" people, we heard the same things: It's going to destroy the country, undermine it, these foreigners, they're dirty, they're filthy, they're all the rest of this nonsense. We can trace this right back to Native Americans, who weren't even immigrants.

Our record on this is a shameful one. It may not be the worst, it may not even be all that bad compared to some other nations. That doesn't change the fact that it is shameful.

So I don't want to hear a single breath, a single hint, a single whisper, they we are are a "post-racial society." Anyone who says that to you is lying, either to you or to themselves, I don't know which. But the fact is that we are suffused with racism along with sexism and homophobia - we are steeped in our bigotry until it penetrates our souls.

Yes, it's getting better. Yes, it has been worse in the past. Yes, we can see an impact, we can see how bigotry now is usually expressed more with a wink and a nod, with dog whistles, not with overt filth of the old sort.

But if you as an adult sitting there reading this think, if you want to argue to me that racism has nothing to do with why Trayvon Martin is dead and George Zimmerman is still walking around free, then I want nothing to do with you nor should any decent person of decent conscience with two synapses to rub together.


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