Can Imperfect Crime Victims Get Justice?

(The Root) — The collective, sustained outrage and organizing in response to the Feb. 26, 2012, murder of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla., by police enthusiast and self-appointed neighborhood-watch kingpin George Zimmerman has been both effective and inspiring. Trayvon's parents, Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin, refused to accept that their son's murder was justified or that, despite Florida's insane "Stand your ground" law, the man who shot him should not be held accountable. In the midst of unfathomable grief, they relentlessly used the media to get the word out about what had happened and to demand that the legal system take action.

Without their work, joined by black online journalists and bloggers who drove the story — particularly the Huffington Post's Trymaine Lee — it's doubtful that most of us would ever have heard of the shooting of Trayvon, who was killed on his way home from a 7-Eleven carrying only a package of Skittles and a can of iced tea.

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The national outrage in response to the shooting of Trayvon — including demonstrations, media coverage, scrutiny of police operations, spontaneous local demonstrations by young people and a million-hoodie march — forced a re-examination of the circumstances of his death and the eventual arrest and indictment of Zimmerman for second-degree murder.

Trayvon Martin is not alone in being the victim of an unacceptable tragedy. While the outrage and sustained protest over his killing resulted in an indictment and has, at least to this point, been effective (we'll see what the legal system does in the months ahead), it raises the question of why we fail to respond similarly to other victims of such violence meted out by the police or their groupies. Have we fallen into the trick bag of being able to perceive state criminality and demand justice only for those we perceive as innocents? Have we bought into a "perfect victim" mentality?

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In a March 20 piece in the New Republic, "What a Florida Teenager's Death Tells Us About Being Black in America," John McWhorter describes one of the tragedies of the confrontation between Trayvon and Zimmerman as "the senseless death of a bright, good-natured boy." I'd argue that the central horror of Trayvon's death is that it wasn't senseless but was actually par for the course for black men in America. Much as we might like to convince ourselves otherwise, too often the function of formal and informal policing in America is to repress, intimidate and at times serve as executioner when the policing is of black males. (And, less frequently, black women.)

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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."

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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? 

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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

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