No Justice for Black Men

It is beyond the pale of understanding, what happens sometimes in the name of justice.

We are all still reeling from the Trayvon Martin case. Had it not been for the pushing of Sybrina Fulton that her son’s death be investigated and that there be a trial, young Martin would have just been another black kid who bit the dust, who had been shot by a vigilante, for sure, but who had probably deserved his own death. If I am not mistaken, I think something to that effect was suggested in the trial of George Zimmerman by Zimmerman’s defense team – that Martin was responsible for his own death.

Martin’s death and the subsequent trial, with the nearly all-white jury acquitting Zimmerman, was hard to swallow.  It was another instance of justice denied…but Martin’s situation was in no way an isolated event.

Most recently, there was a 43-year-old black man, Jack Lamar Roberson, who was shot and killed in his home in Waycross, Georgia, as he walked out of his kitchen with, apparently, two butter knives. An emergency squad was called by Roberson’s fiancée after Roberson took too much of his medication for his diabetes and was acting strange.  The news report said, however, that police responded to her call. When they came into the Roberson home, they saw him coming out of the kitchen “with weapons in his hands.” Police said he “raised his hand in a threatening manner,” (another report said he lunged at them) and they shot and killed him.

Diane Roberson, Roberson’s mother, said the police are lying, a charge that is not hard to believe. Police have far too often shot and either wounded or killed black men and have gotten off with the story that they felt threatened. America accepts their explanations far too often, and the cost, of course, is black lives snuffed out with hardly a word about it.

Black people have been criminalized, there is no doubt. It is a process that began after Reconstruction, when white people in the South, angry that they had lost good and free labor when slavery was abolished, came up with a system of enslaving blacks in another way. The Convict Lease system was carefully built and supported by charging black men for minor offenses and jailing them when they could not pay fees (which were purposely set too high for them to afford). They were leased out to farmers and businesses, where they worked for little to nothing, and could be re-sentenced if, at the end of one sentence, they couldn’t pay the fees to become totally free. Little by little, white America began to see that black people were always in jail, with the claim that black people were not suited to be free. The image and the message circulated was that black people were bad, were criminals …and that began to breed a fear of black people that has only grown.

The fact that Mark O’Mara, George Zimmerman’s attorney, could and would suggest that Trayvon Martin caused his own death still infuriates me. The fact that law enforcement was not going to investigate Martin’s death but was going to just take Zimmerman’s word, is infuriating.  In Waycross, Georgia, there is the case of young Kendrick Johnson, whose death law enforcement ruled an “accident.” He was found in a wrestling mat, and the story was that he died reaching for a shoe. Justice? Really? His parents said the story reeked and asked for his body to be exhumed and a second autopsy be done, and that autopsy revealed that Johnson died of blunt force trauma to the neck.

There are so many cases of black men being killed by law enforcement or by vigilantes and nobody says anything …or, if they do, their voices are snuffed out. Black mothers, if they are smart, are still telling their sons to be careful, and are still telling them how to engage with police officers.  Police officers are supposed to be the protectors of the innocent, but in the case of black men, they are very often the aggressors whose actions are accepted and sanctioned.

Ruby Sales, a veteran civil rights worker and the founder and co-director of the Spirit House Project, has begun in earnest to look into these murders. Michelle Alexander, the author of The New Jim Crow, has broken open the disparities inherent in the incarceration of black people in this nation. Iva Carruthers, general secretary of the Samuel Dewitt Conference, Inc., has held hearings all over the country, getting testimony from people from whom justice has been withheld.

Slowly, but surely, these cases are coming to light. There is no need in saying that America is a democracy when in fact the justice system is not interested in “liberty and justice for all.” Too many black men are dying under suspicious circumstances …and “we the people” need to know it and work to end it.

A candid observation …

 

The President, Racism, and Trayvon Martin

Official photographic portrait of US President...
Official photographic portrait of US President Barack Obama (born 4 August 1961; assumed office 20 January 2009) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The president finally said something about the outcome of the George Zimmerman second-degree murder trial.

He spoke honestly about what it is to be African-American, specifically an African-American male, in this country.  He said that, 35 years ago, he could have been Trayvon Martin. And he was and is right.

Many whites really do not understand, nor do they believe, that African-Americans have the struggles we have had since …forever. Whites complain about us complaining; they say we “whine,” and perhaps some of us do; perhaps all of us do at certain times.

But we also live lives on the edge.  I as a mother had “the conversation” with my son about how to act if stopped by police. I worried about him when he got to be a teen, more so than any parent of a teen worries. I had to warn him to be careful. I had “the conversation” about how it isn’t all that safe to be black in America, in spite of his protestations that perhaps I was being too dramatic. Times have changed, Ma, he said.

Well, maybe not so much. Or at least not enough. George Zimmerman remarked that Trayvon moved, walked, too slowly. A few years ago, a black youth, tabbed by police as “suspicious,” ran, was shot, and was killed.  The criticism levied was that he had brought his death on himself; he shouldn’t have run.

So, Sybrina Fulton’s observation, her question and the questions of many African-American mothers, was spot on. What do we tell our sons? Should we tell them to run? Walk quickly? Stop? Walk slowly? What?

President Obama’s question, “If Trayvon Martin had had a gun, would he have been able to stand his ground?” struck an immediate note of painful doubt, borne by experience where black youth have been arrested for things that white youth have gotten away with. Surely he would not have been able to “stand his ground,” shoot and kill George Zimmerman, and gone home.  He would have been accused and probably convicted of murder.  Mark O’Mara‘s comment that if Zimmerman had been black, he wouldn’t have been arrested, was pure poppycock.

The comments heard this week after the Zimmerman verdict show how deep the divide is between black and white people in this country. Juror B-37 was completely infuriating as she talked about how “they” live and talk as she referred to Rachel Jeantel. There was absolutely no awareness of cultural differences and how they are different. In her comments could be heard patronization, scorn, and worse.

All of those comments, and more, have been the polarizing statements, not what the president said. They have been polarizing and maddening, and yet, in spite of the preparation for “riots,” there has been quiet grace, people practicing “hush-mouth grace,” trying to get over yet another wound caused by America‘s disease called racism.

Perhaps some people are calling the president’s words polarizing because they will not believe that what he said he has experienced as a black man is true. Americans live in denial when it comes to racism…When someone says something about which we are in denial, on whatever subject that may be, we instinctively get angry and defensive.  Our denial is the only way we can survive in too many cases.

So I understand why people are angry, but isn’t it time that America get out of denial and start the work of healing? President Obama put the ugliness of what it means to be black in America on Front Street. He aired the ugly truth, out loud.  People don’t want to hear that stuff.

But that stuff is our stuff, America’s stuff. The sooner we move it from the “stuff” bin in the back of our cultural and historical closets, the sooner we can clean that closet out, air out our differences …and be the nation we are supposed to be.

A candid observation …

The Zimmerman Verdict and Black Anger

The much-anticipated and long awaited for verdict is in: George Zimmerman, who shot and killed Trayvon Martin, is not guilty.

Zimmerman’s attorney, Mark O’Mara, said that the case should never have gone to trial; Don West, also on the defense team, said that the verdict assured that the tragedy (of Zimmerman being charged with a crime)  didn’t become a travesty.  Noticeably, there was very little, if any, compassion on the part of the defense team for the Martin family. Trayvon was again blamed for his own death, and O’Mara said, when answering a question on the case, that if Zimmerman had been black and  Martin, white, that Zimmerman would never have been arrested.

While law officials were preparing for riots as we all waited for the verdict, many, especially African-Americans, were hoping for justice, and were fighting the fear that, once again, the life of an African-American would not be deemed worthless.

There seem to be two sets of beliefs surrounding the case: on one side, there are the people who believe that Trayvon Martin was the one acting in self-defense, a frightened, unarmed teen who knew someone was following him. Then there is the other side that believes that it was Zimmerman who acted in self-defense after Trayvon attacked him.

On the one side, people think it is perfectly understandable, if Trayvon attacked Zimmerman, because Zimmerman was following this young man, even though police told him not to do it, and was out of his car. Did Trayvon attack him while he was in his car, forcing him out to defend himself, or did Trayvon attack him once he was out of his car, because he felt threatened by Zimmerman? On the other side, the only thing that seemed to matter is that Trayvon attacked Zimmerman, banging his head against the concrete. That made Zimmerman’s actions justifiable. The jury has said it. It is so.

But it isn’t. There is something terribly wrong with the fact that there is this breach between the capacity of  still too many whites to understand the rage that so many African-Americans feel in general, a rage that is massaged from its ever dormant state to active state when something like this happens. The all-too-familiar pain of having justice denied, historically, on the basis of skin color comes roaring back to the surface of the souls of people who have been beating the rage back for literally decades.

In 2012, the same year Zimmerman shot and killed Martin, a young African-American woman, Marissa Alexander was sentenced to 20 years in prison for shooting warning shots into the air to ward off her alleged abusive husband.  A Jacksonville, Florida resident, Alexander cited the “Stand Your Ground” law because, she said, she was in fear for her life. (http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-201_162-57433184/fla-mom-gets-20-years-for-firing-warning-shots/) As Zimmerman was citing self-defense and that same law as the reason he shot Martin, Alexander’s plea for lenience on the basis of that same law was ignored.

It seemed inconsistent, unfair …wrong. If self-defense is the basis for using violence, and Alexander was defending herself against a person who was threatening to hurt her, then why is she in prison …and why is Zimmerman free? In other words, why does justice seem to apply more to white people than to African-Americans?  And why don’t people understand that as that has been the case for African-Americans in this country historically that African-Americans have a yearning for justice that has consistently eluded them?

That cities were preparing for violence in the aftermath of the verdict shows that everyone knows that there is anger amongst African-Americans. A friend of mine tweeted last night that police helicopters were hovering all over Baltimore last night following the verdict. White people are aware that there is rage, but do they understand the reason for the rage, and if they do, do they care? Does O’Mara understand how absolutely horrid it was to hear him essentially blame Trayvon for his own death? Does he realize how insulting it was to hear him ask Sybrina Fulton, Trayvon’s mother, if it was possible that her son caused his own death? Zimmerman’s defense team all seemed to be blaming Trayvon for his own death.

Does the initial fear of Trayvon matter to them?

Apparently it does not and did not…and Trayvon’s life didn’t mean much, either. In the end, this kid was painted as some kind of trouble-maker, who should have just gone on home in spite of being followed. The fact that he was frightened because he was being followed didn’t matter! The fact that Zimmerman pegged him as a would-be criminal when he first saw him, based on, what …Trayvon’s appearance, or the fact that Trayvon’s appearance fed into Zimmerman’s biases – didn’t matter.

What it feels like is that it is still open season on black men in America. Zimmerman, acquitted, got the gun back that he used to kill Martin, and went home. Martin’s parents are left to deal with their pain at the apparent unfairness of the American judicial system.

And yes, that is a seedbed that produces anger, resentment, and a sense of hopelessness. Too often in our history,  all-white juries have decided against freedom and justice for African-Americans. That is a fact.

And it is a painful,candid observation …

Zimmerman’s Attorney has Offensive Strategy

 There are several things which are troubling about the George Zimmerman trial, but the most recent include blaming Trayvon Martin for his own death,  and making the case that because a toxicology report showed that he had marijuana in his system that he might have been behaving in such a way that may have forced Zimmerman to act in self-defense.

When Mark  O’Mara, Zimmerman’s attorney, said to Sybrina Fulton, Trayvon’s mother, that Trayvon may have caused his own death, it reminded me of countless trials where women, raped, were blamed in court, for their assault.  Because of what a woman wore, or how she carried herself, or her sexual history, defenders of rapists were quick to suggest – and, apparently, juries were just as quick to agree – that the woman brought about her attack. It has always been offensive to hear that in rape trials; it is equally as offensive to hear in this second-degree murder trial. Because Martin may have defended himself against a man whom he did not know who was following him, O’Mara is suggesting that Martin was the aggressor. His death, if the reasoning is followed, was his own fault.

It is a totally offensive premise and suggestion.

The second issue is the suggestion that the presence of marijuana in Martin’s blood somehow contributed to behavior which was suspicious. It is a ludicrous argument. If the presence of marijuana in one’s bloodstream made people act “suspicious” to the degree that he or she had to be followed and observed for possible criminal behavior, there would be few students in high schools or college. O’Mara is a brilliant attorney and is doing a good job for his client, but at what cost?

In an article that appeared on U.S. News on NBCNews.com in March, 2012, it was stated that an empty baggie that contained residue of marijuana was found in Martin’s locker at his high school. (http://usnews.nbcnews.com/_news/2012/03/26/10872124-trayvon-martin-was-suspended-three-times-from-school?lite)  In that article, a family spokesman said that there was no substance found. Toxicology reports, however,  have apparently showed that the teen had marijuana in his system the day he was killed by Zimmerman.

In spite of research that shows that marijuana use does not make one aggressive – or indeed, has little effect on behavior at all, it is clear that O’Mara is going to make the case that young Martin was a “drug user,” lumping him in with those who use drugs that do in fact cause violent and aggressive behavior. It is no secret that young black youth are searched and punished for severely for marijuana possession, but that fact will be glossed over. It is also a fact that many teens use marijuana on a fairly regular basis.  In an article which came out in December, 2012, it was stated that :Marijuana use is holding steady among eighth, 10th- and 12th-graders in the United States.”  ( http://thechart.blogs.cnn.com/2012/12/19/marijuana-use-holds-steady-among-u-s-teens/) .It’s not just teens, the article stated; it’s kids as young as 8th grade! The article said that statistics proving marijuana use increase was gotten from studying 45,000 8th, 9th and 10th graders. In other words, a whole lot of kids smoke marijuana.

But O’Mara’s job is to get his client off, and it feels like there will be no justice for Martin. The young man will be made out to be a “druggie” who was probably, as Zimmerman said, “acting suspicious.”  Martin’s mother said in a TIME article in 2012, “They’ve killed my son. Now they’re trying to kill his reputation.” ( http://healthland.time.com/2012/03/27/did-marijuana-use-sentence-trayvon-martin-to-death/)

What O’Mara is doing is good defense attorney stuff – but it is offensive, as offensive as it is when defense attorneys defend rapists and suggest that the accusing woman brought about her own rape. If anything, it seems like George Zimmerman brought about this entire tragedy by following Trayvon when he was asked not to, but that point is not being argued very effectively by the prosecution.

As a mother, my heart aches for Sybrina Fulton, whose son is dead, and for Gladys Zimmerman, whose son is on trial, but my aching for Fulton is accompanied by anger and a sense of insult that Mark O’Mara has put in the minds of the jurors that all of this was Martin’s fault.

Just like women who have been raped have been reluctant to come forward for fear of a lack of justice, so have been black people been reluctant. Over the years, all-white juries have ignored evidence and convicted black people at will. The killers of Emmet Till got off when it was clear they had killed the young black boy. Mamie Till, Emmet’s mother, had the strength to stand in and through the cloud of injustice that served as the “trial” for her son’s killer’s…in spite of not receiving justice.  Emmet Till was thought to have caused his own death as well, by whistling at a white woman.

The verdict has yet to be announced. It may be that Zimmerman is convicted of something, if not second degree murder, then something, which will make it seem like justice has been done. That is the hope, but it is a dim hope as the defense works to Trayvon seem like a young black thug who brought about his own demise.

It is insulting.

A candid observation …