The System vs Trayvon Martin

An Oppressor's Trial, an Intolerable Verdict

July 16, 2013 | Revolution Newspaper |


"Zimmerman was a predator, and Trayvon was his prey. And now it's open season on all of us."

Young Black man in Sanford Florida, July 13

The system has delivered its verdict in the case of the State of Florida v George Zimmerman. Outrage at this verdict has been expressed in many forms by tens of thousands of people across the country, most powerfully in the large demonstrations that filled the streets of cities coast to coast.

The political battle to win Justice for Trayvon is far from over. But this verdict put a legal seal on ugly, murderous social relations of white supremacy—on the brutal oppression of Black people—enforced by the most vicious means. President Obama said on July 14 that "we are a nation of laws, and a jury has spoken."

The verdict, and everything it represents, must be rejected and overcome. Yes, the system's courts and legal system have spoken, and Obama has expressed a call for acceptance.

But people have NOT accepted this verdict. Black people, and people of many nationalities, from all corners of the country, from many walks of life, have risen up in protest and expressed their anger in many other forms, from tweets to announcements at concerts.

We must not relent. At stake is whether a declaration that open season on Black youth will continue and deepen; whether any vigilante watchman who decides a youth looks "suspicious" can gun him down with impunity; or whether the Black youth of this society—in their millions—can not just survive but flourish, and be cherished. The real question was not "is it legitimate self-defense or not," but whether racist vigilantes like George Zimmerman will be given a green light to gun down youth like Trayvon Martin.

A Modern Lynching

For almost 100 years, lynching of Black people was routinely carried out in this country to maintain a vicious system of white domination. No justification was needed, any excuse was considered legitimate. Lynching was a bulwark enforcing a deeply entrenched system and culture of open and blatant white supremacy. Lynchers were rarely brought before a court. Even more rarely were they convicted.

Now a Black youth is gunned down by a racist vigilante and is made out to be responsible for his own death. George Zimmerman's brother went on national news on CNN and echoed arguments made by defense lawyers in the courtroom, saying over and over that it was "Trayvon's fault," he shouldn't have been there, he shouldn't have defended himself. He said that what his brother did was completely legitimate.

The murder of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman was a modern-day lynching. The acquittal of Zimmerman expresses a legal legitimization of the oppression of Black people and white "entitlement" every bit as vicious and potentially genocidal as the Jim Crow of the not-so-long-ago past. These are the terms that have been set, this is the crossroads society is at.

"Stand Your Ground" Laws Promote Racist Murder

Let's soberly assess what was upheld in the Sanford courtroom. Opening and closing remarks by Zimmerman's lawyers claimed that Trayvon's "deadly weapon," the sinister tool used in his alleged assault upon Zimmerman, was the sidewalk! One of his lawyers pulled out a slab of cement and dropped it on the floor in front of the jury. He sneered, "That's cement. That is a sidewalk. And that (meaning Trayvon) is not an unarmed teenager with nothing but Skittles trying to get home."

This is not just a ridiculous courtroom stunt. Think of the implications of this almost insanely malevolent claim. Any Black youth walking on a sidewalk could be claimed to be "armed and dangerous" by this standard—and living in a permanent open season—by racist vigilantes like George Zimmerman!

The process that led to Trayvon's murder was the system working as it has been set up to work—working so that a Black youth in a hoodie, carrying candy and a soft drink, was profiled, stalked, and gunned down by a racist vigilante who called him a "fucking punk." Working so that no charges were filed against Trayvon's killer until an outcry of protest throughout the country demanded Justice for Trayvon. And now, working in how the court in Seminole County, Florida has declared George Zimmerman "not guilty" in the murder of Trayvon Martin.

So-called "self-defense" laws in Florida and beyond have been passed that basically encourage white racists to shoot Black people under any pretense and call it self-defense.

Of course, the wording of these laws doesn't overtly specify that these laws are specifically intended as a license for racists to kill Black people. But in a society so deeply stamped with white supremacy, that's the subtext. An example: In Jacksonville, Florida in 2010, a 32-year-old Black woman named Marissa Alexander fired warning shots that didn't hit anyone in an attempt to scare off an attack by an assailant against whom she had a court protective order. Unlike Zimmerman, she was arrested and charged with attempted murder. Marissa Alexander tried to invoke Florida's Stand Your Ground and self-defense statutes as her defense—she fired the shots to protect herself and her children—but she was convicted of attempted murder in 15 minutes by a jury and is currently serving a 20-year jail sentence.

When George Zimmerman saw Trayvon Martin, he acted based on the way he and others like him have been programmed by the system to act—he saw a "suspect," a "fucking punk," an "asshole" who "always gets away." George Zimmerman felt he had a license to kill Trayvon Martin, and he did just that.

In his dying moments, Trayvon Martin was treated as a "suspect" and less than human. Police tested his lifeless body for drugs while essentially giving his killer a pat on the back. Police who testified in court backed up Zimmerman's lies and helped him fabricate them when they interviewed him.

And, again reminiscent of the old-style lynching days, when Black people would search the river beds and other places where the bodies of lynching victims were often found, Trayvon Martin's father—whose home was Trayvon's destination that night—had to file a missing person's report to even learn his son was dead. The police and authorities had so little regard for the terrible loss of life that they didn't locate and inform Trayvon's father with whom he was staying until a missing person's report was filed.

Legitimizing Lynching

Can these abominations be allowed to continue? What does it say about a culture that spawns such hate filled racists as George Zimmerman? What does it say about a legal system that upholds the murder of a 17-year-old doing nothing but walking home? What does it say about political leaders and the system they represent when they say this must be "accepted"?

A Trial Legitimizing Lynching

The whole way the trial of Trayvon Martin's killer was conducted, from open to close, reflected, served, and enforced a system that has as a foundational pillar the oppression of Black people.

The jury was not just overwhelmingly white, it was skewed to people who already thought Trayvon Martin was guilty, and to keep out potential jurors who might have a basic understanding of the realities of the case. After the prosecution invoked their right to remove a juror who said Trayvon Martin should not have been out that late (shortly after 7!), the judge overruled their objection and put the woman back on the jury. Meanwhile, a woman was kicked off the jury because her pastor had spoken out for justice for Trayvon Martin.

The case against Zimmerman was short-circuited in part because police made no serious effort to collect evidence of what happened when they arrived on the scene. They did not collect and preserve the evidence (for example, they shoved Trayvon's sweatshirt into a plastic bag where it molded). They drug tested Trayvon Martin—the victim, but not Zimmerman—the killer.

The defense—Zimmerman's lawyers—set the tone in court with endless open appeals to racism—from their vicious attacks on Rachel Jeantel to their constant depiction of Black people as criminals. One particularly obscene moment was their display of Trayvon Martin's shirtless torso—a scene out of "Birth of a Nation" intended to depict young Black males as dehumanized aggressors. All to insist that Trayvon Martin was the criminal for simply walking home with a snack and a drink, and Zimmerman a hero for killing him.

And while the defense invoked and played on the crudest racist stereotypes, the prosecution never challenged that, but accepted those terms, promoted them, and in their own way pandered to them. Between the judge's instructions and the prosecution's timidity, institutionalized racial profiling was never exposed (nor was it even explained what that is). The prosecution pandered to the whole logic of the "war on crime" which is essentially a war on Black and Latino people—including youth for whom the system has no jobs, no future but jail, prison, or death on the streets.

Every part of this, from the police not charging Zimmerman after he killed Trayvon to the verdict's announcement, is an unacceptable outrage. The anger and pain felt by so many people is completely justified, and will burn in our hearts forever. This is an historic moment that concentrates so much of the daily, life-grinding reality of this vicious system. A moment similar to the lynching of Emmett Till in Mississippi in 1955—where a young Black man can be killed for whistling at a white woman, for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, for not stepping off a sidewalk or calling a white man "sir." Or, for nothing at all.

Let's soberly assess what was upheld in the Sanford courtroom. Opening and closing remarks by Zimmerman's lawyers claimed that Trayvon's "deadly weapon," the sinister tool used in his alleged assault upon Zimmerman, was the sidewalk! One of his lawyers pulled out a slab of cement and dropped it on the floor in front of the jury. He sneered, "That's cement. That is a sidewalk. And that (meaning Trayvon) is not an unarmed teenager with nothing but Skittles trying to get home."

This is not just a ridiculous courtroom stunt. Think of the implications of this almost insanely malevolent claim. Any Black youth walking on a sidewalk could be claimed to be "armed and dangerous" by this standard—and living in a permanent open season—by racist vigilantes like George Zimmerman!

The basic plan of Zimmerman's defense was to put a Black youth on trial for his own murder. Mark O'Mara, Zimmerman's lead attorney, turned reality upside down when he made the outrageous, deceitful argument that if anyone had ill will or hatred on the night of February 26, 2012, it was Trayvon Martin. He said the "person responsible (for the encounter in Sanford that night) didn't go home when he had the chance."

This is not simply a case of O'Mara pandering to and helping unleash the most rabidly racist sections of U.S. society, though it is that, and the impact in social media and elsewhere was immediate and no doubt will reverberate and grow even uglier.

But even more, it is an argument by a well-connected attorney, in the most high-profile legal case in years, that an "open season" on Black youth should be upheld by the law. It is an argument for the legitimization of modern-day lynching.

The System at Work… The Way It Always Works

A young Black woman outside the Sanford courthouse expressed what she felt when she heard the verdict. "Anger. Sadness. Shock. Disbelief. One thing I didn't feel was surprise. This is how they've been doing us for a long time. Think about it. How many times have things like this happened to Black people?"

Another woman added, "This is really gonna divide things more than they are. The country is divided, and this trial is gonna divide it more. How can anyone not understand how angry we are? This could have been anyone, it could have been one of our brothers, anyone."

Almost a year and a half ago, Zimmerman was charged with second degree murder. Pleas to "let the system work" and stop the protests began soon after Zimmerman was charged last year, and intensified as the trial drew to a close.

What the whole world saw was precisely how the system works. This is a social system that exploits and oppresses billions of people across the world, and has always had deep, brutal oppression of Black people embedded into its every fiber. The legal system that exists in this country—called "the best in the world" by is defenders—arises from and enforces that system of oppression.

"Justice is blind" is a common defense of this country's legal system. But many people think that the same laws are applied very differently to different people, and to different sections of people—and they are right. Laws like the Florida "self-defense" and "stand your ground" laws that were used by Zimmerman serve as an invitation to the Zimmermans of the world to attack Black people. And they are used very differently against Black people.

There are plenty of racist, hateful judges and lawyers in this country. But the problem goes much deeper than that. And the problem is not just that the law is being applied unevenly. The law is being applied the way it was meant to be applied, the only way it can be applied.

One difference between today and the days of the open, institutionalized and legalized discrimination and repression of the Jim Crow era is that today there is the appearance of equality before the law. Many of the legal barriers that enforced white supremacy have been removed, even in the South. (And yes, Sanford, Florida is the Deep South.)

But the same basic relations of oppression exist, and in many ways the real, actual inequalities imposed on the masses of Black people have deepened in the years since open Jim Crow ended and the New Jim Crow of mass criminalization and incarceration began to take shape.

Massive unemployment stalks the inner cities. The factories and businesses didn't leave because the youth had sagging pants. They left because the opportunity for investment and profit based on profound exploitation was greater elsewhere. And the cities are left to rot; housing crumbling and public housing getting shut down; schools closing, while the remaining open ones are underfunded and overcrowded; prowling police who consider every Black or Latino youth a "suspect."

These are basic realities of life for millions of youth in this society. Now, added to that, a court in the state of Florida, based on laws similar to self-defense laws in every other state, has ruled that these youth can be legally gunned down by racist killers.

The United States promotes its democracy and its legal system as models for the entire world. But at the same time, the U.S. holds millions of people in prisons, tortures tens of thousands of prisoners in solitary every day, has criminalized generations of youth, subjects hundreds of thousands of youth every year to the humiliation of stop-and-frisk in New York alone. Most of the people hit by all this are Black and Latino youth. All this is done legally and properly, and in accord with the U.S. Constitution.

For many people in this country, and throughout the world, some important questions of the legitimacy of the whole legal system have been challenged by the way the case of the State of Florida v George Zimmerman has unfolded.

Step back and look at a larger picture of how this murder came to happen, how it was so "easy" and "natural" for Zimmerman to profile Trayvon; how the social relations and the prevailing culture breed the kind of racist, vigilante attitudes that are used to "justify" actions like Zimmerman's, and how the legal system can justify it.

This country is filled with youth like Trayvon. And there also are many people like Zimmerman, people conditioned and trained by this system to hate and fear the Trayvons of the world.

As Revolution wrote in a previous article, when George Zimmerman stalked and hunted Trayvon Martin, and killed him with a shot to the heart, Zimmerman "felt the strength of this system behind him."

Trayvon was part of a "generation of suspects," and that's exactly how Zimmerman treated him, and exactly why Zimmerman thought he'd get away with murder, even be praised by some people for killing a Black youth, a "suspect," an "asshole." But Trayvon and other youth like Trayvon have every right to live, to walk the streets without fear, and to flourish!

Carl Dix has spoken about the possibility of a "slow genocide" of Black people turning into a "fast genocide" under this system, and in particular in the grip of today's plague of mass criminalization and incarceration of Black and Latino youth. The not guilty verdict for George Zimmerman can actually accelerate that transformation into a fast genocide—and mass opposition and resistance to the verdict can and must be an important component of reversing it.

The Criminalization of Black Youth

Zimmerman told his story of killing Trayvon several times, and each time he changed it. But one thing didn't change. The way he started. He always referred to the "break-ins" and burglaries that supposedly had been happening in his neighborhood. His lawyers took this a step further and identified the suspects in these alleged crimes as young Black men. They held up a mug shot of one of the youths arrested for a burglary in that neighborhood.

Their entire point was to portray and defend an image of mostly white, middle class people in their gated enclave besieged by legions of Black criminals. Neither the police nor any of Zimmerman's witnesses thought there was anything wrong in him repeatedly describing Trayvon as a "suspect," even though he had done nothing wrong.

These burglaries, in Zimmerman's eyes, and in the arguments made to a jury of people similar to Zimmerman, was justification for the malicious, hateful language he used to describe a Black youth he had never met. His paranoid portrayal of a peaceful community "under attack" from young Black men became his justification for stalking and shooting Trayvon.

The judge had forbidden any use of the phrase "racial profiling" during the trial. Her ruling protected Zimmerman and his lawyers and cut out the heart of how Zimmerman could be prosecuted for the crime of murdering Trayvon. But Zimmerman's lawyers were allowed to repeatedly describe suspects in burglaries as being Black. The unspoken assumption was that Zimmerman thought these "fucking punks" all "looked alike," and all came to threaten the property and lives of the placid subdivision he lived in.

Evidence presented by the prosecution demonstrated the anger and hatred that had been festering in Zimmerman, and the way it became focused on a total stranger, a Black youth in a hoodie, the night of February 26, 2012. To Zimmerman, Trayvon was a "suspect," someone who didn't belong there, one of "them."

Zimmerman's defense was founded in a blatant reliance on white supremacy and entitlement. And every element of how this case worked its way through the legal system meshed to reinforce white supremacy, and to ensure that the case would be charged and tried on terms that benefited Zimmerman. The cops who tested Trayvon for drugs, but not Zimmerman. The law of "self-defense" that allowed Zimmerman to be released by the police five hours after he murdered a Black youth.

As for the prosecutors, they prosecuted precisely as they know how, within the confines of a legal system that has always enshrined and protected white privilege, and in the past few decades has legitimized the criminalization of generations of Black youth.

Not only was this basic framework never challenged by the prosecution, it was upheld. The prosecution proceeded from the same basic assumptions as Zimmerman's lawyers.

For example, prosecutors gushed about how "honorable" it is to be the neighborhood watch captain, what a "positive thing" it was that Zimmerman wanted to be a cop. Even more disgracefully, they accepted and tried to apologize for Rachel Jeantel for not being as polished and smoothly presentable as the white, middle class witnesses.

In fact, Rachel Jeantel provided the most important and credible testimony of the trial. She was on the phone with Trayvon before Zimmerman began stalking him, and as the confrontation began. She was talking to Trayvon when her phone suddenly went dead after she heard Trayvon telling someone to "get off, get off!" Her testimony about their phone call—both when they were on the phone, what Trayvon said, and what he described happening to him—most closely matches the physical evidence.

For this, she was relentlessly hammered by one of Zimmerman's lawyers, and subjected to vicious, hateful attacks in social media. But Rachel Jeantel provided testimony that was the fullest, that demonstrated that Trayvon was just trying to get home when he was assaulted by the gun toting Zimmerman.

An entire reality of life for Black people has become more evident to many people broadly in society. The killing of Trayvon Martin has become a state-sanctioned lynching—duly tried and approved in a court of law.

This case struck such a deep chord with so many people because it concentrates the experience—the hundreds of years old experience—of Black people in this society. Trayvon's murder and the acquittal of his murderer flow from and reinforce an entire set of social relations that are founded in brutal oppression of Black people. The oppression of Black people is served by a feverish outlook of white entitlement" and privilege. This oppression and this outlook have changed in form over the years, but have long been a part of what coheres U.S. society and its dominant culture. It is an outlook built on assumptions and interests founded in great injustice.

We are at a moment in history when white people must step up and reject this mentality, emphatically and decisively, and it is a very positive development that many white people, and people of many nationalities, joined in protests across the country against the outrageous verdict.

Society's Verdict

The jury, as Obama said, has given its verdict. But the ultimate societal verdict has not been settled. Things many people in this country thought had been "settled" and that society had "moved beyond" have been revealed in a tumultuous, emotional moment to be all around us. This society is not what many people had thought it is, or would have liked to think it is.

Many, many people have been jolted into activity, and have come face to face with the ugly nature of this society—this system. Some things have changed over the years in the forms of oppression within this system. But one thing that hasn't changed is that the system of capitalism imperialism exists on the backs of the suffering of millions, and that brutal, ongoing, daily oppression of Black people is an integral part of that system's functioning.

At moments like this great advances can and must be made in building the kind of force and movement that can actually not just confront but get to the root of the problem. And getting to the root of the problem means Revolution—Nothing Less.

The Revolutionary Communist Party has a strategy for revolution in this country, contributing to and accelerating revolution all over the world. As the RCP says in "On the Strategy for Revolution":

"Fight the Power, and Transform the People, for Revolution is a key part of our strategic approach, which provides a way for the Party to unite with and give leadership to people to change themselves as they take part in the struggle to change the lift their heads and broaden their vision, to recognize what kind of world is possible, what their real interests are, and who their real friends and real enemies are, as they rise up against this take up a revolutionary viewpoint and revolutionary values and morals as they join with others to resist this system's crimes and build up the basis for the ultimate all-out revolutionary struggle to sweep this system away and bring in a whole new way of organizing society, a whole new way of become emancipators of humanity."


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