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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As historian Robin D.G. Kelley writes (in an essay that was published in an anthology I edited, Police Brutality), “Even before formal police forces were established in cities at the end of the nineteenth century, people in power relied on ‘legal’ and extralegal violence and terrorism to pacify, discipline, and exploit communities of color.” Kelley is no neophyte concerning the real need for police in communities of color, but he is clear that existing systems do not work. “The colonial mentality, rooted in slavery and imperialism, that has structured the entire history of policing in urban America needs to be overturned,” he writes.

The July 24 killing of 25-year-old Manuel Diaz, killed by police in Anaheim, Calif., as he allegedly fled, is an instance of unchecked police brutality. Eyewitness accounts say that Diaz was shot in the leg, fell and was then shot in the head. Police responded to a demonstration by outraged citizens, many of them women and children, by shooting bean bags and pepper spray and unleashing a police dog.

No one was killed during that incident, though in a separate incident the following night, Anaheim police shot and killed Joel Acevedo, who allegedly fired on them from a stolen vehicle as they pursued him. According to the Anaheim police, Acevedo was a “documented gang member.”

McWhorter is not alone in indulging in the idealization of Trayvon Martin by those who did not know him but were compelled, rightfully, to respond to his murder. Descriptions of Trayvon often include words like “normal,” “promising,” “outgoing,” “average,” “brave,” “smart,” “college-bound.”

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.