Can Imperfect Crime Victims Get Justice?

Whether a clean-cut Trayvon Martin or a troubled Ramarley Graham, everyone rates fair treatment.

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Perhaps he was all of these things. But do these characteristics make his murder more heinous? Is our outrage in response to acts of murderous aggression by officials or to the affect of the victim? Do we require innocence, a spotless record and a cheery -- or at least not scary -- countenance to determine the value of a life? If you are angry, have a criminal record, were formerly incarcerated, smoke marijuana or aren't photogenic, would your murder go unnoticed without public outrage and cries for justice? 

As Michelle Alexander writes in The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, "More African Americans are under correctional control today -- in prison or jail, on probation or parole -- than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began." Given the staggering numbers of black and Latino men who are or will at some point be under the control of the criminal-justice system, it's crucial that we relinquish our notion that some victims of police or vigilante violence are less deserving of our sympathy than others.

Too many young black men are effectively demonized in life. But we can choose not to allow or participate in this dehumanization, in life or death, of those who could be our sons, brothers, nephews or friends. On Feb. 2 in the Bronx, N.Y., three weeks before Trayvon Martin was killed, 18-year-old Ramarley Graham was followed home by the police. After Graham went inside, the police broke down the door, rushed inside and shot him to death in the bathroom as his 58-year-old grandmother and 6-year-old brother watched in horror. Graham's grandmother was thrown to the ground, held at gunpoint and taken into police custody and held incommunicado for seven hours.

Yet there was not the national collective outrage about the killing of Graham. Why? Because Graham had allegedly been arrested a number of times? Because in photographs, Graham did not look suitably angelic? Because the police initially alleged that he was in the bathroom flushing marijuana down the toilet? Because Graham's two half brothers were awaiting trial on unrelated charges?

Graham's parents, Franclot Graham and Constance Malcolm, like Trayvon's parents, refused to let the circumstances surrounding his killing be ignored, holding a public funeral, a weekly vigil and a march demanding justice. On June 13 police officer Richard Haste was indicted for manslaughter, the first time a member of the New York Police Department has been charged in the death of a citizen since Sean Bell was killed in a hail of 50 bullets in 2006. Haste pleaded not guilty.

Those accused of the murders of Trayvon and Graham have been indicted and will stand trial. But what of others killed in the 24 states that have "Stand your ground" laws similar to Florida's? What about the three other people shot and killed by police in Anaheim this year? The two other black men shot by police in New York City the same week as Ramarley Graham? The many others whose names we do not know and whose deaths will remain unrecognized and unresolved unless communities organize to challenge excessive and deadly violence on the part of police, vigilantes or anyone else, whatever the personal history of the deceased?

We must not succumb to the notion of good and bad victims. The organizing slogan "I am Trayvon Martin" should apply to all of those who are victims of murder -- whether by police, vigilantes or those who reside in our communities. Our outrage and demands for justice cannot be confined only to those victims perceived as innocents. 

Jill Nelson edited Police Brutality: An Anthology, published by W.W. Norton in 2000.

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