Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Skittles, Violence and Justice

Like many folks, the more I read about the incredibly sad and tragic death of Trayvon Martin the angrier I get. Perhaps I should just stop reading the stories. As I understand it, ostriches are seldom troubled by anger.
There’s plenty of legitimate targets for anger in this case: the 28-year-old white man who shot and killed the 17-year-old African-American kid armed with Skittles and iced-tea; the Florida police department that refuses to arrest Zimmerman; Florida lawmakers who passed an inanely named “stand-your-ground” law that allows people such as Zimmerman too easily to claim self-defense; Florida voters who filled their legislature with the yahoos who passed the nation’s first such law in 2005.
Take your pick. But my wrath is aimed at the National Rifle Association.
This front organization for weapons manufacturers promulgates legislation such as “stand-your-ground,” and then pushes bills through state legislatures across the country. More than 20 states followed Florida’s lead in adopting such laws, which could more accurately be called, “shoot first, ask questions later” laws.
Since Florida adopted its version there have been hundreds of shootings in which the shooter claimed self-defense. While the right of self-defense is a long-standing one, under the “stand-your-ground” laws asserting self-defense is often enough to end a police investigation short of trial. The laws effectively create a presumption of immunity from prosecution upon merely the claim of self-defense.
As the facts thus far reported in the case of Trayvon Martin make clear, the claim of self-defense can be remarkably flimsy. Martin was walking through a gated community from a 7-11 toward the home of his father’s girlfriend when Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, spotted him. Zimmerman called 911, reported a “suspicious person,” confirmed that he was following Martin, was told explicitly by the 911 operator not to follow the person and that police were on the way, nonetheless confronted the unarmed teenager, and shot him dead.
Because police cannot establish precisely what happened between the moment Zimmerman stepped out of his truck and the moment he pulled the trigger, claiming to feel threatened – perhaps by lethal Skittles – they have pressed no charges simply because of Zimmerman’s claim.
While we may never know exactly what happened in those critical moments, there’s one thing that I am utterly certain of: if you change the racial context of this event the shooter would be in jail under arrest for murder no matter what he claimed about self-defense. It is completely inconceivable to me that if, for example, my own teenaged son were walking through the nearby historically African-American neighborhood and got shot by a 28-year-old black man that the shooter would be walking the streets of Arlington a free man a month after killing a white teenager.
I won’t blame the NRA for America’s entrenched racism, but I will blame them for taking advantage of it during their decade’s long attempt to make of us a nation armed to the teeth with laws that protect gun users from prosecution even when they shoot and kill unarmed kids. Urban violence – a racially coded trope in American culture – has long been a staple of NRA communication and lobbying efforts.
Meanwhile, a bill before the Arizona legislature seeks to establish “as a class one misdemeanor, the crime of resisting arrest by passive resistance.”
On the face of things, the two pieces of legislation have nothing to do with one another. One establishes a presumptive immunity from civil or criminal prosecution with a claim of self-defense, while the other makes passive resistance to a lawful arrest itself a crime.
But the Arizona bill is, in fact, the other side of the coin from the stand-your-ground laws, and both of them embrace violence as the appropriate response to threats. In stand-your-ground states, individual citizen violence is upheld as the appropriate response to perceived threats against one’s person. The Arizona bill upholds the state violence of forcible arrest against perceived threats against state institutional prerogative, and, significantly, against the power of nonviolence.
It’s almost as if Arizona lawmakers have seen that nonviolence can be a force more powerful than violence and, in their fealty to the so-called law-and-order agenda of the purveyors of violence, they are doing their best to undermine nonviolence.
At the confluence of these two laws stands a nation’s love affair with violence, romanticized by the well-funded image masters of the NRA, who either fell lock, stock and barrel for the myth of redemptive violence or, perhaps, actually invented it from whole cloth in order to make a buck selling their death-dealing toys.
While they continue to sell us a wild, wild West vision of vigilante “justice,” the soul of Trayvon Martin cries out for authentic justice.