The Politics of Black Masculinity: The Op-Ed columnist Charles M. Blow on the difficulty of explaining the Zimmerman verdict to his sons.
New York Times
Charles M. Blow
In a way, the not-guilty verdict in the trial of George Zimmerman for his killing of Trayvon Martin was more powerful than a guilty verdict could ever have been. It was the perfect wrenching coda to a story that illustrates just how utterly and completely our system of justice — both moral and legal — failed Martin and his family.
This is not to dispute the jury’s finding — one can intellectually rationalize the decision — as much as it is to howl at the moon, to yearn for a brighter reality for the politics around dark bodies, to raise a voice and say, this case is a rallying call, not a death dirge.
The system began to fail Martin long before that night.
The system failed him when Florida’s self-defense laws were written, allowing an aggressor to claim self-defense in the middle of an altercation — and to use deadly force in that defense — with no culpability for his role in the events that led to that point.
The system failed him because of the disproportionate force that he and the neighborhood watchman could legally bring to the altercation — Zimmerman could legally carry a concealed firearm, while Martin, who was only 17, could not.
The system failed him when the neighborhood watchman grafted on stereotypes the moment he saw him, ascribing motive and behavior and intent and criminal history to a boy who was just walking home.
The system failed him when the bullet ripped through his chest, and the man who shot him said he mounted him and stretched his arms out wide, preventing him from even clutching the spot that hurt.
The system failed him in those moments just after he was shot when he was surely aware that he was about to die, but before life’s light fully passed from his body — and no one came to comfort him or try to save him.
The system failed him when the slapdash Sanford police did a horrible job of collecting and preserving evidence.
The system failed him when those officers apparently didn’t even value his dead body enough to adequately canvass the complex to make sure that no one was missing a teen.
The system failed him when he was labeled a John Doe and his lifeless body spent the night alone and unclaimed.
The system failed him when the man who the police found standing over the body of a dead teenager, a man who admitted to shooting him and still had the weapon, was taken in for questioning and then allowed to walk out of the precinct without an arrest or even a charge, to go home after taking a life and take to his bed.
The system failed him when it took more than 40 days and an outpouring of national outrage to get an arrest.
The system failed him when a strangely homogenous jury — who may well have been Zimmerman’s peers but were certainly not the peers of the teenager, who was in effect being tried in absentia — was seated.
The system failed him when the prosecution put on a case for the Martin family that many court-watchers found wanting.
The system failed him when the discussion about bias became so reductive as to be either-or rather than about situational fluidity and the possibility of varying responses to varying levels of perceived threat.
The system failed him when everyone in the courtroom raised racial bias in roundabout ways, but almost never directly — for example, when the defense held up a picture of a shirtless Martin and told the jurors that this was the person Zimmerman encountered the night he shot him. But in fact it was not the way Zimmerman had seen Martin. Consciously or subconsciously, the defense played on an old racial trope: asking the all-female jury — mostly white — to fear the image of the glistening black buck, as Zimmerman had.
This case is not about an extraordinary death of an extraordinary person. Unfortunately, in America, people are lost to gun violence every day. Many of them look like Martin and have parents who presumably grieve for them. This case is about extraordinary inequality in the presumption of innocence and the application of justice: why was Martin deemed suspicious and why was his killer allowed to go home?
Sometimes people just need a focal point. Sometimes that focal point becomes a breaking point.
The idea of universal suspicion without individual evidence is what Americans find abhorrent and what black men in America must constantly fight. It is pervasive in policing policies — like stop-and-frisk, and in this case neighborhood watch — regardless of the collateral damage done to the majority of innocents. It’s like burning down a house to rid it of mice.
As a parent, particularly a parent of black teenage boys, I am left with the question, “Now, what do I tell my boys?”
We used to say not to run in public because that might be seen as suspicious, like they’d stolen something. But according to Zimmerman, Martin drew his suspicion at least in part because he was walking too slowly.
So what do I tell my boys now? At what precise pace should a black man walk to avoid suspicion?
And can they ever stop walking away, or running away, and simply stand their ground? Can they become righteously indignant without being fatally wounded?
Is there anyplace safe enough, or any cargo innocent enough, for a black man in this country? Martin was where he was supposed to be — in a gated community — carrying candy and a canned drink.
The whole system failed Martin. What prevents it from failing my children, or yours?
I feel that I must tell my boys that, but I can’t. It’s stuck in my throat. It’s an impossibly heartbreaking conversation to have. So, I sit and watch in silence, and occasionally mouth the word, “breathe,” because I keep forgetting to.
Michelle Alexander: "Zimmerman Mindset" Endangers Young Black Lives with Poverty, Prison and Murder
Thursday, 18 July 2013
By Amy Goodman and Nermeen Shaikh, Democracy Now! Video
"Justice for Trayvon" protests are planned in more than 100 cities this weekend as activists seek federal charges against George Zimmerman and the repeal of "Stand Your Ground" laws in Florida and dozens of other states. We speak with Michelle Alexander, a law professor at Ohio State University and author of the best-selling book, "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness." Alexander says the biases that led to Martin's death and let his killer go free are deeply embedded in U.S. society and in the criminal justice system itself: "The [Zimmerman mindset] that views black men and boys as a perpetual problem to be dealt with has infected our criminal justice system, infected our schools, has infected our politics in ways that have had disastrous consequences, birthing a prison system unprecedented in world history, and stripping millions of people of basic civil and human rights once they have been branded criminals and felons. It's this mindset that some of us, defined largely by race and class, are unworthy of our basic care and concern and can be dealt with harshly, written off with impunity."
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
Nermeen Shaikh: Pressure is mounting on the Justice Department to bring civil rights charges against George Zimmerman, after he was acquitted of second-degree murder in the shooting death of unarmed African-American teenager Trayvon Martin. During a news conference Tuesday, Reverend Al Sharpton and other civil rights leaders called for rallies in a hundred cities this weekend to demand "Justice for Trayvon. Sharpton also denounced Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law, which has since spread to about 30 other states and allows people fearing for their lives to use deadly force without retreating from a confrontation.
Rev. Al Sharpton: Let us be clear: It is now, because of these laws, and upheld by a jury in this trial, where anyone walking—committing no crime—can be followed or approached by another civilian, and they can use deadly force and say it was self-defense. That is something that is frightening and cannot be allowed to sustain itself in our society.
Nermeen Shaikh: While Zimmerman's attorneys did not directly use Florida's Strand Your Ground defense, the law impacted the instructions to the jury, who were told he, quote, "had no duty to retreat and had the right to stand his ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he reasonably believed that it was necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony." On Tuesday, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder condemned Stand Your Ground laws during his address to the annual convention of the NAACP.
Attorney General Eric Holder: Separate and apart from the case that has drawn the nation's attention, it's time to question laws that senselessly expand the concept of self-defense and sow dangerous conflict in our neighborhoods. These laws try to fix something that was never broken. There has always been a legal defense for using deadly force if—and the "if" is important—if no safe retreat is available. But we must examine laws that take this further by eliminating the commonsense and age-old requirement that people who feel threatened have a duty to retreat, outside their home, if they can do so safely. By allowing, and perhaps encouraging, violent situations to escalate in public, such laws undermine public safety. The list of resulting tragedies is long and, unfortunately, has victimized too many who are innocent. It is our collective obligation: We must stand our ground to ensure—we must stand our ground to ensure that our laws reduce violence and take a hard look at laws that contribute to more violence than they prevent.
Nermeen Shaikh: That was U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder addressing the annual convention of theNAACP in Orlando, Florida, not far from where Trayvon Martin was killed. Meanwhile, on Tuesday protesters began a sit-in at Florida Governor Rick Scott's office to demand "Justice for Trayvon." The group known as the Dream Defenders is calling for a special legislative session to address Florida's Stand Your Ground law. They have vowed not to vacate the governor's office until their concerns are addressed. The musician Stevie Wonder has also come out against the law by saying he will not perform in Florida or any other state with the law on its books.
Amy Goodman: Well, for more, we're going to Columbus, Ohio, where we're joined by Michelle Alexander, civil rights advocate, attorney, author of the best-selling book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Michelle Alexander recently wrote, "It is the Zimmerman mindset that must be found guilty—far more than the man himself. It is a mindset that views black men and boys as nothing but a threat, good for nothing, up to no good no matter who they are or what they are doing. It is the Zimmerman mindset that has birthed a penal system unprecedented in world history, and relegated millions to a permanent undercaste."
Michelle Alexander, welcome back to Democracy Now! Let's look at the big picture here.
Michelle Alexander: Well, I think it's clear that George Zimmerman not only killed an innocent man, but that Trayvon Martin would be alive today if he had been born white. If Trayvon had been white, it is beyond any reasonable doubt that he would not have been stalked by Zimmerman, and he would not have found himself in a fight with George Zimmerman. There would have been no fight, no trial, no verdict, no dead boy.
And as we reflect on what this moment means for our democracy and our racial present, I think it's critically important that we not allow ourselves to get bogged down in the details of who said what when, but rather step back and consider what this Zimmerman mindset, a mindset that views a boy walking in his neighborhood carrying nothing but Skittles and iced tea as a threat, this mindset that views black men and boys as a perpetual problem to be dealt with. This mindset has infected our criminal justice system, has infected our schools, has infected our politics, in ways that have had disastrous consequences, birthing a prison system unprecedented in world history and stripping millions of basic civil, human—millions of people of basic civil and human rights once they've been branded criminals and felons. It's this mindset that some of us, defined largely by race and class, are unworthy of our basic care and concern, and can be dealt with harshly, written off with impunity, that has led to the birth of the prison-industrial complex and, I think, a great deal of indifference to the plight of those who are locked up in cages in prisons, but also locked out of jobs and opportunity, and find themselves trapped in ghettoized communities.
Nermeen Shaikh: Michelle Alexander, you've also suggested that if Zimmerman were actually a police officer, we would not be having this conversation. Could you explain what you mean by that and what the implications of it are?
Michelle Alexander: Absolutely. You know, there has been an outpouring of anger and concern because of the actions of George Zimmerman, a private citizen who profiled a young boy and pursued him and tried to confront him, perhaps. But what George Zimmerman did is no different than what police officers do every day as a matter of standard operating procedure. We have tolerated this kind of police profiling and the stopping and frisking of young black and brown men. We have tolerated this kind of conduct for years and years, recognizing that it violates basic civil rights but allowing it to go on.
You know, the reality is, is that it is a crime for a private person to go up to another private person, armed with, you know, a loaded weapon, and confront them, stalk them, perhaps search all over their body to see what they may have on them. That is a crime. It's an assault with a deadly weapon, aggravated battery or aggravated assault. But when a police officer does precisely the same thing, it's called "stop and frisk."
And, as we know, stop-and-frisk policies are routine nationwide. In New York City alone, more than 600,000 people are stopped and frisked every year, overwhelmingly black and brown men, and nearly all are found to be innocent of any crime or infraction, and are harassed simply because they seem out of place, seem like they're up to no good. The same kinds of stereotypes and hunches that George Zimmerman used when deciding that, you know, Trayvon Martin seemed like a threat in his neighborhood, law enforcement officers employ all the time.
I believe that Trayvon Martin's life might well have been spared if many of us who care about racial justice had raised our voices much, much sooner and much, much more loudly about the routine stereotyping and profiling of young black men and boys. It is because we have tolerated these practices for so long that George Zimmerman felt emboldened, I believe, to act on a discriminatory mindset that night.
Amy Goodman: I wanted to ask you about this case of Marissa Alexander. She's the 31-year-old African-American mother of three who was sentenced to 20 years in prison for firing what she maintains was a warning shot at her abusive husband. She has insisted she was defending herself when she fired the gun into a wall near her husband. Alexander had turned down a plea bargain that would have seen her jailed for something like three years. She attempted to use Florida's Stand Your Ground law in her defense, but in March 2012 the jury convicted her, after only 12 minutes of deliberation, and she was sentenced to 20 years behind bars under a Florida law known as "10-20-Life" that carries a mandatory minimum for certain gun crimes regardless of the circumstance. This was an Angela Corey prosecution, the special prosecutor in the Trayvon Martin case who ultimately brought the charge of second-degree murder against George Zimmerman. Michelle Alexander, can you talk about this Florida law and the issue of mandatory minimums, in general?
Michelle Alexander: Absolutely. You know, the case you just described is, you know, a stark example of the discriminatory application of the Stand Your Ground law itself. You know, here is a woman firing shots in the air to protect herself from what she believed is an abusive spouse, and she winds up getting 20 years, while George Zimmerman, you know, is released scot-free after pursuing someone based on racial stereotypes and assumptions of criminality. She received a 20-year sentence because of harsh mandatory minimum sentences, sentences that exist in Florida and in states nationwide.
Mandatory minimum sentences give no discretion to judges about the amount of time that the person should receive once a guilty verdict is rendered. Harsh mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses were passed by Congress in the 1980s as part of the war on drugs and the "get tough" movement, sentences that have helped to fuel our nation's prison boom and have also greatly aggravated racial disparities, particularly in the application of mandatory minimum sentences for crack cocaine.
It is the Zimmerman mindset, the mindset that some people, viewed largely by race and class, are a problem that must be dealt with harshly and just locked up and, you know, the key thrown away, that has helped to drive the adoption of many of these mandatory minimum sentence laws. And if we are serious about ending the Zimmerman mindset, we must be committed to much more than ending vigilante justice. We must be committed to repealing all of the mandatory minimum sentence laws that reflect that kind of Zimmerman mindset, the mentality that some people can simply be disposed of, are a problem—not people who have problems, but who are the embodiment of problem—that can be treated like mere throwaways.
Amy Goodman: And I just wanted to correct: Her name is Marissa Alexander, the woman who was sentenced to 20 years in jail for shooting a gun. Nermeen?
Nermeen Shaikh: Michelle Alexander, you heard the comments of Attorney General Eric Holder. What do you think the Justice Department should be doing in response to this and in response to some of the trends that you've spoken of in the criminal justice system?
Michelle Alexander: Well, with respect to the George Zimmerman case, I think they are right to continue their investigation into whether federal civil rights charges can be brought against George Zimmerman. I think it's highly unlikely that the Justice Department will actually file suit against George Zimmerman, but I am encouraged that they're actually continuing the investigation.
But simply investigating this one case does not even begin to scratch the surface of what must be done. Although Attorney General Eric Holder does not have the authority to repeal mandatory minimum sentences and undo the legislation that has, you know, helped to create the prison-industrial complex, what he can do is insist that we have a national debate and dialogue. He can say that the passage of these mandatory minimum sentences was wrong and that it was done with a discriminatory mindset, that it was done with an attitude of overwhelming punitiveness towards poor people, in general, and poor people of color, in particular, that it has had disastrous consequences for poor communities of color, and that we must undo the harm that has been done and repeal these laws so that a more restorative and rehabilitative approach to criminal justice might be possible. He can do this. You know, this is a conversation that I think he is well positioned to lead and to begin. But as we've seen with President Obama's administration, although both the president and Attorney General Holder often say they want to encourage frank dialogues about race, we've seen relatively little in terms of, you know, actual initiative and leadership shown around issues of racial justice. And I would hope that, you know, in the months that follow the Trayvon Martin tragedy, that we will see much more courage and bold leadership coming from the Justice Department.
Amy Goodman: Michelle Alexander, I want to ask you to stay with us. We're going to break quickly. Michelle is author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. And then we're going to come back to talk about a new study of African Americans killed by police or security guards just in the last year. Stay with us.
Michelle Alexander (born October 7, 1967 is an associate professor of law at Ohio State University, a civil rights advocate and a writer.
Alexander is a graduate of Stanford Law School and Vanderbilt University. She served for several years as director of the Racial Justice Project at the ACLU of Northern California, which spearheaded a national campaign against racial profiling by law enforcement. Alexander directed the Civil Rights Clinic at Stanford Law School and was a law clerk for Justice Harry Blackmun at the U. S. Supreme Court and for Chief Judge Abner Mikva on the United States Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.
As an associate at Saperstein, Goldstein, Demchak & Baller, she specialized in plaintiff-side class action suits alleging race and gender discrimination
Alexander now holds a joint appointment at the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity and the Moritz College of Law at Ohio State.
Alexander has litigated numerous class action discrimination cases and worked on criminal justice reform issues. She is a recipient of a 2005 Soros Justice Fellowship of the Open Society Institute
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness
Alexander published the book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. The New Press (2010). In it, she argues that systemic racial discrimination in the United States has resumed following the Civil Rights Movement's gains; the resumption is embedded in the US War on Drugs and other governmental policies and is having devastating social consequences. She considers the scope and impact of this current law enforcement, legal and penal activity to be comparable with that of the Jim Crow laws of the 19th and 20th centuries. Her book concentrates on the mass incarceration of African-American men.
In The New Jim Crow, Alexander argues that mass incarceration in America functions as a system of racial control in a similar way to how Jim Crow once operated. Alexander’s work draws attention to the racial disparity that exists in the criminal justice system. Alexander notes, “Race plays a major role-indeed, a defining role – in the current system, but not because of what is commonly understood as old-fashioned, hostile bigotry. This system of control depends far more on racial indifference (defined as a lack of compassion and caring about race and racial groups) than racial hostility – a feature it actually shares with its predecessors.
In a 2012 interview, Alexander told the story of the origin of the book. Working on "Driving While Black" DWB racial profiling in Oakland with the ACLU, a young African-American man came in with a well-documented case of most of a year of repeated stops by police with dates and names. Listening to his story, Alexander increasingly felt she had the test case for which she was looking. Then the man said in passing he had a drug-felony conviction on his record and Alexander had to backtrack completely and finally: The conviction was an insurmountable obstacle to a test case in front of a jury for her at that time. In turn, the man then built a strong anger toward her, saying in effect "I'm innocent ...; it was just a plea bargain"; and that she "was no better than the police" and "You're crazy if you think you're going to find anyone here to challenge the police who is not already 'in the system'?"; he ended by stalking out, tearing up his notes as he went. The experience stuck with Alexander and eventually grew, prompted in part by more observations of events in Oakland, into the book. She has tried to find the young man again, in part to dedicate the book to him, but has so far been unable to.
The New Jim Crow was re-released in paperback in early 2012 and has received national acclaim. As of September 30, 2012 it has been on the The New York Times Best Seller list for 35 weeks and it also reached #1 on the Washington Post best seller list in 2012.
There are all kinds of both willful as well as subconscious and unconscious distortions and misrepresentations in this article as is so typical of the phony/false journalistic view of "objectivity" that there is an inherent "balance" in the way these events and their meaning(s) can or should be portrayed. This is simply more dishonest and equivocating nonsense from a typically braindead, misinformed, and intellectually dishonest and timid media. This piece is even more lukewarm that what Obama said in his press conference in that a highly suspect and obviously distorted Gallup poll can tell us anything real, accurate, or substantive about current levels of racial discrimination and black attitudes about it. There's a lot of manipulative bullshit here as there too often is in these so-called mainstream" press accounts of the complex actual roles of race, class, gender, and sexuality within the political economy of late capitalism and globalization--especially in the areas of criminal justice, structural racism, and the contemporary ideological maintenance and expansion of the established values and institutionally enforced public policies of white supremacy in the American body politic...
President Offers a Personal Take on Race in U.S.By MARK LANDLER and MICHAEL D. SHEAR
New York Times
Obama Speaks on the Zimmerman Verdict: In surprise remarks at the White House, President Obama said, “Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago.”
For the next 15 minutes, according to a senior aide, Mr. Obama spoke without interruption, laying out his message of why the not-guilty ruling had caused such pain among African-Americans, particularly young black men accustomed to arousing the kind of suspicion that led to the shooting death of Mr. Martin in a gated Florida neighborhood.
On Friday, reading an unusually personal, handwritten statement, Mr. Obama summed up his views with a single line: “Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago.”
That moment punctuated a turbulent week marked by dozens of phone calls to the White House from black leaders, angry protests that lit up the Internet and streets from Baltimore to Los Angeles, and anguished soul-searching by Mr. Obama. Aides say the president closely monitored the public reaction and talked repeatedly about the case with friends and family.
Several people who have had conversations with Mr. Obama’s top aides said a president who has rarely spoken about America’s racial tensions from the White House was particularly torn about appearing to force the hand of Eric H. Holder Jr., the attorney general, when it comes to any investigations in the case.
The White House’s original plan — for Mr. Obama to address the verdict in brief interviews on Tuesday with four Spanish-language television networks — was foiled when none of them asked about it.
Instead, he appeared in the White House briefing room with no advance warning and little of the orchestration that usually accompanies presidential speeches. Mr. Obama spoke for 18 minutes, offering his own reflections and implicitly criticizing gun laws and racial profiling methods — both of which, critics say, played a role in Mr. Martin’s death.
Mr. Obama continued to avoid criticizing either the conduct of the trial or the verdict, in which a jury found a neighborhood watch volunteer in Sanford, Fla., George Zimmerman, not guilty of all charges in the killing of Mr. Martin in February 2012.
But in the most expansive remarks he has made about race since becoming president, Mr. Obama offered three examples of the humiliations borne by young black men in America: being followed while shopping in a department store, hearing the click of car doors locking as they cross a street, or watching as women clutch their purses nervously when they step onto an elevator. The first two experiences, he said, had happened to him.
“Those sets of experiences inform how the African-American community interprets what happened one night in Florida,” Mr. Obama said. “And it’s inescapable for people to bring those experiences to bear.”
For black leaders who had beseeched the president to speak out — inundating White House officials with phone calls — his remarks were greeted with a mixture of relief and satisfaction.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson said Mr. Obama had no choice but to confront mounting concern among African-Americans about the Martin case and recent Supreme Court rulings on affirmative action and voting rights.
“At some point, the volcano erupts,” Mr. Jackson said.
From the moment the verdict was announced on Saturday night, black activists had called on Mr. Obama to express the anger and frustration of their community. The pressure only increased after he issued a carefully worded statement urging respect for the jury’s decision.
“We needed this president to use his bully pulpit,” said the Rev. Al Sharpton, the civil rights activist and host on MSNBC, who urged Mr. Obama’s advisers to have him speak out.
The parents of Mr. Martin, Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin, said they were “deeply honored and moved” by Mr. Obama’s comments. “President Obama sees himself in Trayvon and identifies with him,” they said in a statement on Friday. “This is a beautiful tribute to our boy.”
For some black activists, however, Mr. Obama’s remarks were too little, too late. Tavis Smiley, a radio host who has long been a critic of the president, said the president has chosen to “lead from behind” on race issues.
The president’s advisers selected the White House briefing room as the location for Mr. Obama’s remarks during the Thursday meeting, calculating that it would be less formal than a full-dress speech — but would shield him from the questions he would likely face in a longer interview about why he had waited days after the verdict to speak.
The advisers said Mr. Obama was anxious to confront the issue of race in a way that he has not since he ran for president in 2008. In a landmark speech to defuse the political storm over his Chicago pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., Mr. Obama spoke about what he called “the complexities of race” in America.
As president, Mr. Obama has only periodically returned to the subject. And on the few occasions that he has, it has often been in reaction to an event — a black Harvard professor’s arrest, or Mr. Martin’s death. A month after Mr. Martin was killed, Mr. Obama said, “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.”
The president’s remarks on Friday were different: more expansive, more personal and more reflective of the concerns of fellow blacks. His comments mirror public opinion among African-Americans, according to polls.
A telephone poll conducted June 13 to July 5 by Gallup found that blacks were “significantly less likely now than they were 20 years ago to cite discrimination as the main reason blacks on average have worse jobs, income, and housing than whites.” It found that 37 percent of blacks today blame discrimination. In 1993, 44 percent said the same.
Mr. Obama has also shown more willingness to speak in personal terms. At Morehouse College in Atlanta in May, he told graduates, “Sometimes I wrote off my own failings as just another example of the world trying to keep a black man down.”
His remarks Friday were also reminiscent of the tone in his speeches during his trip to Africa earlier this month. After standing in the cell that Nelson Mandela occupied for 18 years, Mr. Obama told a South African audience, “You’ve shown us how a prisoner can become a president.”
On Friday, Mr. Obama brought that message home, urging Americans to be honest with themselves about how far this country has come in confronting its own racial history.
“Am I wringing as much bias out of myself as I can?” he asked. “Am I judging people, as much as I can, based on not the color of their skin but the content of their character? That would, I think, be an appropriate exercise in the wake of this tragedy.”
Jodi Kantor contributed reporting from Truro, Mass.
President’s Comments at Briefing Are Greeted With a Mix of Hope and Skepticism
By ERIK ECKHOLM
July 19, 2013
New York Times
“Wow” is what Joseph Jones of Baltimore said after watching President Obama’s unexpected and deeply personal plea on race and crime on Friday.
“Wow,” repeated Mr. Jones, who as the president of the Center for Urban Families in Baltimore promotes job skills and “responsible fatherhood” training for young men, many of whom know the criminal justice system from the inside.
Like many black Americans, Mr. Jones felt a surge of pride, recognition and hope, he said, when he heard the first African-American president speak so candidly about issues that are of desperate concern within the black community but are often ignored in political debates.
“We’ve grown in our society to a place where the leader of the free world can come out in the bully pulpit and talk honestly about race and young black men,” Mr. Jones said. But the true test of progress will be if another, nonblack president can be so honest, he added.
Mr. Obama’s remarks, at the daily White House press briefing, stirred immediate and emotional reactions around the country. Many people, black and white, expressed appreciation that the president had ventured beyond the debate over Stand Your Ground laws to broach delicate subjects like the high crime rate among young black men and the profiling and fearful responses that many black men say they face, corroding their faith in the system and themselves.
Still, some of the president’s detractors responded with skepticism about his motives or even anger at what they saw as a divisive injection of race into the case of George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin, and what some saw as a sly call for gun control and easing up on crime. Others expressed sadness, saying the president seemed to be saying that the nation’s racial divide would never end.
“The great achievement of our society, the possibility of not talking about race, has been moved even farther away and maybe out of reach forever,” said Joseph A. Davis, an artist and frame shop owner in Boca Raton, Fla., after listening to Mr. Obama speak.
On Twitter, a line from the President’s remarks posted on his White House account — "Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago" — was shared more than 6,700 times in the first three hours after the speech.
Trayvon Martin’s parents issued a statement thanking the president.
“President Obama sees himself in Trayvon and identifies with him,” said the parents, Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin. “This is a beautiful tribute to our boy.”
“We applaud the president’s call to action to bring communities together to encourage an open and difficult dialogue,” they said.
In Florida, Arthenia L. Joyner, a state senator and 1960s civil rights advocate who will serve as Senate Democratic leader in 2014, said the speech was important because it came from a black president who had experienced profiling himself.
“I think he laid it out for some folks who don’t know how black folks feel about what happens to black boys in this country,” she said.
John H. McWhorter, a black professor of linguistics and American studies at Columbia University who is known for contrarian views on racial issues, said he felt that Mr. Obama had exaggerated the daily racism felt by most blacks and that he personally had never experienced, as Mr. Obama said he had, fearful reactions from white people he passed in the streets.
But Mr. McWhorter said he was hopeful that the Martin case and Mr. Obama’s response could trigger a national look at the ways the police treat young black men, the destructive impact of the war on drugs, and the proliferation of guns and laws that almost encourage their use.
“This is an opportunity for nonblack America to see that these things matter greatly to black America,” he said.
But even some longtime civil rights advocates were more skeptical about the potential impact of Mr. Obama’s remarks. “We’re kidding ourselves if we think we’ve made major headway on the issue of racism,” said one veteran of the movement, the Rev. Nelson Johnson, 70, of Greensboro, N.C.
Among some conservative advocates of gun rights, the president’s comments sparked darker suspicions.
“It is a deep exploitation of events to further gun control,” Paul Valone, president of Grass Roots North Carolina, said of Friday’s remarks. “They will stoop to any depth to make this happen. Even a race relations argument should be irrelevant to this case.”
Kim Severson contributed reporting from Atlanta, Lizette Alvarez from Miami and Jennifer Preston from New York.
President Obama’s remarks on Trayvon Martin
July 19, 2013
President Obama spoke about the killing of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin and ‘Stand Your Ground’ laws on Friday at the White House.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: That’s so -- that’s so disappointing, man. Jay, is this kind of -- the kind of respect that you get? (Laughter.)
Q: Wake up!
Q: What brings you out here, Mr. --
PRESIDENT OBAMA: You know, on -- on -- on television it usually looks like you’re addressing a full room.
Q: (Laughs.) It’s just a mirage.
Q: There’s generally not --
PRESIDENT OBAMA: All right.
Q: (Inaudible) -- got the Detroit story.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: I got you. All right. Sorry about that. Do you think anybody else is showing up? Good.
Well, I -- I wanted to come out here first of all to tell you that Jay is prepared for all your questions and is -- is very much looking forward to the session.
Second thing is I want to let you know that over the next couple of weeks there are going to obviously be a whole range of issues -- immigration, economics, et cetera -- we’ll try to arrange a fuller press conference to address your questions.
The reason I actually wanted to come out today is not to take questions, but to speak to an issue that obviously has gotten a lot of attention over the course of the last week, the issue of the Trayvon Martin ruling. I gave an -- a preliminary statement right after the ruling on Sunday, but watching the debate over the course of the last week I thought it might be useful for me to expand on my thoughts a little bit.
First of all, you know, I -- I want to make sure that, once again, I send my thoughts and prayers, as well as Michelle’s, to the family of Trayvon Martin, and to remark on the incredible grace and dignity with which they’ve dealt with the entire situation. I can only imagine what they’re going through, and it’s -- it’s remarkable how they’ve handled it.
The second thing I want to say is to reiterate what I said on Sunday, which is there are going to be a lot of arguments about the legal -- legal issues in the case. I’ll let all the legal analysts and talking heads address those issues.
The judge conducted the trial in a professional manner. The prosecution and the defense made their arguments. The juries were properly instructed that in a -- in a case such as this, reasonable doubt was relevant, and they rendered a verdict. And once the jury’s spoken, that’s how our system works.
But I did want to just talk a little bit about context and how people have responded to it and how people are feeling. You know, when Trayvon Martin was first shot, I said that this could have been my son. Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago. And when you think about why, in the African- American community at least, there’s a lot of pain around what happened here, I think it’s important to recognize that the African- American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that -- that doesn’t go away.
There are very few African-American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me.
And there are very few African-American men who haven’t had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happens to me, at least before I was a senator. There are very few African-Americans who haven’t had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off. That happens often.
And you know, I don’t want to exaggerate this, but those sets of experiences inform how the African-American community interprets what happened one night in Florida. And it’s inescapable for people to bring those experiences to bear.
The African-American community is also knowledgeable that there is a history of racial disparities in the application of our criminal laws, everything from the death penalty to enforcement of our drug laws. And that ends up having an impact in terms of how people interpret the case.
Now, this isn’t to say that the African-American community is naive about the fact that African-American young men are disproportionately involved in the criminal justice system, that they are disproportionately both victims and perpetrators of violence. It’s not to make excuses for that fact, although black folks do interpret the reasons for that in a historical context.
We understand that some of the violence that takes place in poor black neighborhoods around the country is born out of a very violent past in this country, and that the poverty and dysfunction that we see in those communities can be traced to a very difficult history.
And so the fact that sometimes that’s unacknowledged adds to the frustration. And the fact that a lot of African-American boys are painted with a broad brush and the excuse is given, well, there are these statistics out there that show that African-American boys are more violent -- using that as an excuse to then see sons treated differently causes pain.
I think the African-American community is also not naive in understanding that statistically somebody like Trayvon Martin was probably statistically more likely to be shot by a peer than he was by somebody else.
So -- so folks understand the challenges that exist for African- American boys, but they get frustrated, I think, if they feel that there’s no context for it or -- and that context is being denied. And -- and that all contributes, I think, to a sense that if a white male teen was involved in the same kind of scenario, that, from top to bottom, both the outcome and the aftermath might have been different.
Now, the question for me at least, and I think, for a lot of folks is, where do we take this? How do we learn some lessons from this and move in a positive direction? You know, I think it’s understandable that there have been demonstrations and vigils and protests, and some of that stuff is just going to have to work its way through as long as it remains nonviolent. If I see any violence, then I will remind folks that that dishonors what happened to Trayvon Martin and his family.
But beyond protests or vigils, the question is, are there some concrete things that we might be able to do? I know that Eric Holder is reviewing what happened down there, but I think it’s important for people to have some clear expectations here. Traditionally, these are issues of state and local government -- the criminal code. And law enforcement has traditionally done it at the state and local levels, not at the federal levels.
That doesn’t mean, though, that as a nation, we can’t do some things that I think would be productive. So let me just give a couple of specifics that I’m still bouncing around with my staff so we’re not rolling out some five-point plan, but some areas where I think all of us could potentially focus.
Number one, precisely because law enforcement is often determined at the state and local level, I think it’d be productive for the Justice Department -- governors, mayors to work with law enforcement about training at the state and local levels in order to reduce the kind of mistrust in the system that sometimes currently exists.
You know, when I was in Illinois I passed racial profiling legislation. And it actually did just two simple things. One, it collected data on traffic stops and the race of the person who was stopped. But the other thing was it resourced us training police departments across the state on how to think about potential racial bias and ways to further professionalize what they were doing.
And initially, the police departments across the state were resistant, but actually they came to recognize that if it was done in a fair, straightforward way, that it would allow them to do their jobs better and communities would have more confidence in them and in turn be more helpful in applying the law. And obviously law enforcement’s got a very tough job.
So that’s one area where I think there are a lot of resources and best practices that could be brought bear if state and local governments are receptive. And I think a lot of them would be. And -- and let’s figure out other ways for us to push out that kind of training.
Along the same lines, I think it would be useful for us to examine some state and local laws to see if it -- if they are designed in such a way that they may encourage the kinds of altercations and confrontations and tragedies that we saw in the Florida case, rather than defuse potential altercations.
I know that there’s been commentary about the fact that the stand your ground laws in Florida were not used as a defense in the case.
On the other hand, if we’re sending a message as a society in our communities that someone who is armed potentially has the right to use those firearms even if there’s a way for them to exit from a situation, is that really going to be contributing to the kind of peace and security and order that we’d like to see?
And for those who resist that idea that we should think about something like these “stand your ground” laws, I just ask people to consider if Trayvon Martin was of age and armed, could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk? And do we actually think that he would have been justified in shooting Mr. Zimmerman, who had followed him in a car, because he felt threatened?
And if the answer to that question is at least ambiguous, it seems to me that we might want to examine those kinds of laws.
Number three -- and this is a long-term project: We need to spend some time in thinking about how do we bolster and reinforce our African-American boys? And this is something that Michelle and I talk a lot about. There are a lot of kids out there who need help who are getting a lot of negative reinforcement. And is there more that we can do to give them the sense that their country cares about them and values them and is willing to invest in them?
You know, I’m not naive about the prospects of some brand-new federal program.
I’m not sure that that’s what we’re talking about here. But I do recognize that as president, I’ve got some convening power.
And there are a lot of good programs that are being done across the country on this front. And for us to be able to gather together business leaders and local elected officials and clergy and celebrities and athletes and figure out how are we doing a better job helping young African-American men feel that they’re a full part of this society and that -- and that they’ve got pathways and avenues to succeed -- you know, I think that would be a pretty good outcome from what was obviously a tragic situation. And we’re going to spend some time working on that and thinking about that.
And then finally, I think it’s going to be important for all of us to do some soul-searching. You know, there have been talk about should we convene a conversation on race. I haven’t seen that be particularly productive when politicians try to organize conversations. They end up being stilted and politicized, and folks are locked into the positions they already have.
On the other hand, in families and churches and workplaces, there’s a possibility that people are a little bit more honest, and at least you ask yourself your own questions about, am I wringing as much bias out of myself as I can; am I judging people, as much as I can, based on not the color of their skin but the content of their character? That would, I think, be an appropriate exercise in the wake of this tragedy.
And let me just leave you with -- with a final thought, that as difficult and challenging as this whole episode has been for a lot of people, I don’t want us to lose sight that things are getting better. Each successive generation seems to be making progress in changing attitudes when it comes to race. I doesn’t mean that we’re in a postracial society. It doesn’t mean that racism is eliminated. But you know, when I talk to Malia and Sasha and I listen to their friends and I see them interact, they’re better than we are. They’re better than we were on these issues. And that’s true in every community that I’ve visited all across the country.
And so, you know, we have to be vigilant and we have to work on these issues, and those of us in authority should be doing everything we can to encourage the better angels of our nature as opposed to using these episodes to heighten divisions. But we should also have confidence that kids these days I think have more sense than we did back then, and certainly more than our parents did or our grandparents did, and that along this long, difficult journey, you know, we’re becoming a more perfect union -- not a perfect union, but a more perfect union.
All right? Thank you, guys.
Q: Could you --
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Now you can -- now you can talk to Jay.
(Transcript courtesy of Federal News Service)
Los Angeles Times | Report
The George Zimmerman trial highlighted the legal and moral complexity of Florida's "stand your ground" laws. Stevie Wonder, for one, thinks it's time to fight back against them.sjjfiowffn'ggegt
The legendary singer-songwriter told a Quebec City, Canada, crowd on Sunday that he would boycott Florida on future tours, along with any other state that has passed similar "stand your ground" legislation.
"I decided today that until the 'stand your ground' law is abolished in Florida, I will never perform there again," Wonder said. "As a matter of fact, wherever I find that law exists, I will not perform in that state or in that part of the world."
Wonder is known for his music's deeply felt messages of love and community, so it's striking to hear him so angry. But his remarks to Sunday's crowd drew a connection between civil rights-era activism and the unfinished business of the movement today.
"The truth is that — for those of you who’ve lost in the battle for justice, wherever that fits in any part of the world — we can’t bring them back," he said. "What we can do is we can let our voices be heard. And we can vote in our various countries throughout the world for change and equality for everybody. That’s what I know we can do."
If he follows through and boycotts all "stand your ground" states, he will have made his touring life significantly more difficult: At least 20 other states have passed similar legislation.
© 2012 McClatchy-Tribune Information Services. Truthout has licensed this content. It may not be reproduced by any other source and is not covered by our Creative Commons license.
August Brown has covered pop music at the Los Angeles Times since 2005.
White Supremacy Acquits George Zimmerman
by Aura Bogado
July 14, 2013
A jury has found George Zimmerman not guilty of all charges in connection to death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. But while the verdict came as a surprise to some people, it makes perfect sense to others. This verdict is a crystal-clear illustration of the way white supremacy operates in America.
Throughout the trial, the media repeatedly referred to an “all-woman jury” in that Seminole County courtroom, adding that most of them were mothers. That is true—but so is that five of the six jurors were white, and that is profoundly significant for cases like this one. We also know that the lone juror of color was seen apparently wiping a tear during the prosecution’s rebuttal yesterday. But that tear didn’t ultimately convince her or the white people on that jury that Zimmerman was guilty of anything. Not guilty. Not after stalking, shooting and killing a black child, a child that the defense insultingly argued was “armed with concrete.”
In the last few days, Latinos in particular have spoken up again about Zimmerman’s race, and the “white Hispanic” label especially, largely responding to social media users and mass media pundits who employed the term. Watching Zimmerman in the defense seat, his sister in the courtroom, and his mother on the stand, one can’t deny the skin color that informs their experience. They are not white. Yet Zimmerman’s apparent ideology—one that is suspicious of black men in his neighborhood, the “assholes who always get away—” is one that adheres to white supremacy. It was replicated in the courtroom by his defense, whose team tore away at Rachel Jeantel, questioning the young woman as if she was taking a Jim Crow–era literacy test. A defense that, during closing, cited slave-owning rapist Thomas Jefferson, played an animation for the jury based on erroneous assumptions, made racially coded accusations about Trayvon Martin emerging “out of the darkness,” and had the audacity to compare the case of the killing of an unarmed black teenager to siblings arguing over which one stole a cookie.
When Zimmerman was acquitted today, it wasn’t because he’s a so-called white Hispanic. He’s not. It’s because he abides by the logic of white supremacy, and was supported by a defense team—and a swath of society—that supports the lingering idea that some black men must occasionally be killed with impunity in order to keep society-at-large safe.
Media on the left, right and center have been fanning the flames of fear-mongering, speculating that people—and black people especially—will take to the streets. That fear-mongering represents a deep white anxiety about black bodies on the streets, and echoes Zimmerman’s fears: that black bodies on the street pose a public threat. But the real violence in those speculations, regardless of whether they prove to be true, is that it silences black anxiety. The anxiety that black men feel every time they walk outside the door—and the anxiety their loved ones feel for them as well. That white anxiety serves to conceal the real public threat: that a black man is killed every twenty-eight hours by a cop or vigilante.
People will take to the streets, and with good reason. They’ll be there because they know that, yes, some people do always get away—and it tends to be those strapped with guns and the logic of white supremacy at their side.
The NAACP will seek the Department of Justice's intervention in the Zimmerman case. Read John Nichols's report.
Read more: White Supremacy Acquits George Zimmerman | The Nation http://www.thenation.com/blog/175260/white-supremacy-acquits-george-zimmerman#ixzz2ZEbqY1b4
With Criminal Case Closed, Justice Department Will Restart Hate Crime Inquiry
By ERIC LIPTON
July 14, 2013
New York Times
WASHINGTON — The Justice Department said Sunday that it was restarting its investigation into the 2012 shooting death of Trayvon Martin to consider possible separate hate crime charges against George Zimmerman.
Mr. Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch volunteer who shot Mr. Martin, was acquitted of all charges by a jury late Saturday.
The federal inquiry, which was started shortly after the shooting last year but had been delayed while the state criminal trial in Florida was under way, was being restarted after civil rights leaders called on the Justice Department to re-examine the case. The leaders said Sunday that they remained convinced that the shooting had a racial element. Mr. Martin, 17, was black.
“There is a pattern of George Zimmerman making dozens of calls to 911 over several years, frequently about young men of color,” Benjamin T. Jealous, the president of the N.A.A.C.P., said in an interview on Sunday. Mr. Zimmerman and his family have defended the shooting as an act of self-defense.
In a statement on Sunday, the Justice Department said that now that the state criminal trial was over, it would continue its examination of the circumstances in the shooting. “Experienced federal prosecutors will determine whether the evidence reveals a prosecutable violation of any of the limited federal criminal civil rights statutes within our jurisdiction,” the statement said.
The department sets a high bar for such a prosecution. Three former Justice Department officials who once worked in the department’s Civil Rights Division, which is handling the inquiry, said Sunday that the federal government must clear a series of difficult legal hurdles before it could move to indict Mr. Zimmerman.
“It is not enough if it’s just a fight that escalated,” said Samuel Bagenstos, who until 2011 served as the principal deputy assistant attorney general in the division. “The government has to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the defendant acted willfully with a seriously culpable state of mind” to violate Mr. Martin’s civil rights.
Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. hinted at those challenges last year.
“We have to prove the highest standard in the law,” Mr. Holder said at a news conference in April 2012. “Something that was reckless, that was negligent, does not meet that standard. We have to show that there was specific intent to do the crime with the requisite state of mind.”
Criminal charges under federal hate crime law have increased significantly during the Obama administration. Between 2009 and 2012, the Justice Department prosecuted 29 percent more such cases than in the previous three fiscal years. Last month in Seattle, for example, Jamie Larson, 49, pleaded guilty to federal hate crime charges that he beat a cabdriver, who was from India and was wearing a turban.
The increase is in part because of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, enacted in 2009, which removed a requirement that a victim had to be engaged in a federally protected activity, like voting or going to school.
But the Obama administration’s Justice Department has been cautious in its use of the expanded law. In 2010, for example, it turned down calls by civil rights leaders to file charges in New York City in the 2006 death of Sean Bell, a 23-year-old black man who was fatally shot by police officers outside a Queens club just hours before he was to be married.
“There aren’t that many of these cases, and it is not because the government is not being vigilant,” said William R. Yeomans, a former chief of staff in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. “It is very difficult to establish a defendant’s state of mind.”