Justice for Trayvon Martin – Adjudication or community? (Part III)

August 5th, 2013 by Howard Zehr in Critical Issues

(Last of the three-part series by David Anderson Hooker)

I take issue with three groups of comments that I’ve heard since the Zimmerman trial. I know that I am in disagreement with several individuals and institutional voices that I respect deeply. Yet I think our approach must change to get the life we want: a life in which everyone has full and fundamentally equal access to the resources and opportunities needed for full actualization.

Comment #1 – “The system failed.”  The criminal adjudication system is not equipped to fulfill the task it was assigned in this case: to make meaning of a senseless death. The primary function of a criminal proceeding is to discover facts and assign individual responsibility for any wrongdoing.

In this case, the basic facts were clear: An older, white-looking man saw an African American child who he deemed suspicious. Ignoring police direction, he followed the child who was talking on the phone while walking home from the store. The child told his friend that the man was “creepy,” indicating a sense of discomfort at being followed. At some point, the older man got close enough in his pursuit that he and the child had a direct confrontation. The man was armed; the child was not. The child was shot and killed. The man walked away.

The basic facts aren’t controversial. This means the court is no longer playing to its strength. Courts find fact; it is left to us the make meaning or tell the “truth.”  That truth will be determined, not by the courts, but by the way we each give meaning to the events and how we organize our lives in the aftermath.

The truth for some is that killing an unarmed child is reasonable, even if the killer initiated the confrontation. The truth for others will be that the State of Florida’s official position – as articulated in a state court by a jury of George Zimmerman’s peers – is that the lives of Black children are meaningless.

I agree that the system did fail, but it did so by failing to create conditions in which this community could be strengthened, or by which families could have greater faith in the government or their neighbors. The system failed because the only approach to justice that was considered was retribution. The system failed because it was unable to restore the hope for the future that Trayvon’s parents held when he was still alive.

Statement #2 – “George  Zimmerman is a racist; I can’t believe the courts didn’t hold him responsible.”  George Zimmerman may or may not be a racist but whether George is racist is inconsequential. He is biased and it was his bias, conscious or unconscious, that resulted in Trayvon’s death. But the source of his bias was not of his making.  With all the media portrayals of the dangerous nature of Blackness and the systemic exclusion of people of color from political and civic discourse, it is likely that George developed his action-oriented and life-taking biases as a result of this context.

The folklore, mythology, lies and wisdom, as well as the policies, practices, institutions and relational patterns that produce, reproduce, and sustain the existence of deeply held racialized biases, also have significant responsibility. So there may be diminished responsibility on his part.

At some point we do have to take personal responsibility for our actions. At the same time, it is understandable that some people don’t hold him responsible for having and then acting on his biases—because those biases have infiltrated the consciousness of each of us.

Statement #3: “We need Federal intervention.” Listening to the President’s remarks and those of Attorney General Eric Holder since the verdict, and reading the tea leaves, it seems unlikely that there will be any federal prosecution for hate crimes or civil rights violations.  This to me is a great stroke of serendipity. A federal trial is a no-win proposition with three possible outcomes, each of which is bad for building just and accountable communities:

  • A muddled verdict – A hung jury, compromise verdict, or guilty on inconsequential lesser charges: any of these outcomes simply delays and confuses the initiation of a healing conversation. That’s bad for community.
  • A Not Guilty verdict – This would magnify the disappointment with, and cynicism about, government by youth, people of color, and people of good will who are anguishing over the state verdicts.  Others will declare that this was a “politically correct waste of federal resources and attention.”  “Not guilty” drives an even deeper wedge between community factions by increasing fear, isolation, and mistrust in government and one another. That’s bad for community.
  • A Guilty verdict  This would have established the ‘truth’ (i.e. official position) of Zimmerman’s individual racism and hatred.  It would say that Zimmerman’s actions were based on personal failings and would not encourage us to look at the systems and institutions that have responsibility for creating, reproducing, magnifying, and profiting from the pervasive fear and racial mistrust that infected Zimmerman. It would notdecrease the likelihood of this type of killing in the future and would move us further away from a justice that heals communities. That would be bad for community

George Zimmerman was not held accountable for his action and in a perverse turn of events, he will for the rest of his life be looked upon with disgust or pity.  Had he paid some penalty he would at least be able to say, “I paid for my mistakes,” and perhaps he could be welcomed back into civil society. The courts did not give him that opportunity so he will have to make his own path.

By the same token, the courts did not give an excuse to those of us who say we are committed to building just and fully accessible communities. If Zimmerman were guilty, we could spend our energy finding other “bad actors” and weeding them out one at a time. But we should acknowledge that the people aren’t the problem, the problem is the problem.  We have to organize our response to this case (and Oscar Grant and Amadou Diallo and every similarly situated case) to address the actual problem, not just the latest symptomatic response to the problem.

Lethal racism is a sign that points to a deeper problem. This case is symptomatic of the cancer of fear that deeply infects these (yet to be) United States – fear that someone else is dangerous, or wants what “I” have (rights, women, territory, money, political power); fear that I am too fat or bald or old; fear that I won’t be able to live out my dreams if everyone has equal access; fear that my life and the life of my children really does not matter. This cancer is deep in our system, and using false standards of the courts to cover the blemish or punishment doesn’t deal with the underlying disease.

Our healing must be relational. Through deep and sustained dialogue we can eliminate the fears that make both George Zimmerman’s life and Trayvon Martin’s death equally unreasonable.  That would move us towards justice.

DAHDavid Anderson Hooker (J.D. M.Div.) is a lawyer, minister and mediator. For more than 25 years he has worked with communities in the US and throughout the world to host difficult conversations including post-war and post-riot reconciliation, environmental justice and restoratively transforming historical harm and injustice. He is also former Assistant Attorney General for the State of Georgia and an Associate Professor at the Center for Justice & Peacebuilding, Eastern Mennonite University.