Where will we find justice for Trayvon Martin?

April 4th, 2012 by Howard Zehr in Critical Issues

David Anderson Hooker

David Anderson Hooker

The following is an invited guest post by my friend, colleague and fellow Morehouse College grad, David Anderson Hooker.

Update July 18, 2013:  An interview with David following the Zimmerman trial can be heard here:

I have good news and bad news for the family and supporters of Trayvon Martin: The ‘justice’ you seek is not in the system from which you seek it!  If this sounds like a Jedi mind trick, I apologize.  I hope though that it will at least cause some to stop and think.

The bad news first: The ‘justice’ you seek is not in the system from which you seek it! In the late 1970’s and 80’s Black psychologist Bobby E. Wright coined a phrase – “Mentacide: The systematic destruction of a group of people’s minds with the ultimate aim being the complete extirpation of the race.”   The prime example Wright offered of the workings of Mentacide was when African American parents would send their children to the public schools with curricula that at best neglected and at worst denigrated their entire heritage. Then the parents would complain about the impact on children’s’ self-esteem.

Similarly today, the fact that the family and supporters of the family of Trayvon Martin are looking for relief to a justice system that has historically discriminated against African Americans seems naïve and idealistic, if not fully wrongheaded.  But I think the greatest disappointment will come from the hope that the judicial system could actually provide justice.

The reason the so-called justice system is not the answer in this instance and so many others is because the system asks the wrong questions.  Judicial justice asks: What law was broken?  Who is responsible?  What punishment do they deserve?

Traipsing down this rabbit hole will end up with twisted explanations of how it is ever acceptable to kill an unarmed person, let alone an innocent teenager.  It is not clear whether a law was broken – though I fully concede that George Zimmerman should at the very least have been arrested while someone answered that question.  What happens if the answer to that question is that no laws were broken?  If that’s the case, then no punishment will be required.  And that leaves us all without answers.

The better questions to ask are the typical questions of restorative justice:  What HARM was done?  What will it take to put it right?  Who has the obligation to make it right?  What process would be most effective to involve everyone who has a stake in making it right?  This approach doesn’t excuse what by all indications was the senseless killing of a young Black man.  Rather what it does is acknowledge that this killing and the official response have created many breaches that need to be repaired.

The family has experienced a loss; this needs to be addressed.

George Zimmerman’s life has been irreparably altered – he will both want to make amends and he will need to find ways of healing from the irrational ‘negrophobia’ that likely initiated this fatal sequence.

The image and respect for every aspect of the law enforcement community has been downgraded.  In order to work most effectively, law enforcement needs to have the MERITED trust of their community.  You can’t ask for the community’s cooperation to prosecute wrongdoing when it seems that law enforcement is willing to selectively prosecute.

The sense of community is damaged.  I am not familiar with the racial and class climate in Sanford, Florida but I can’t imagine that this in any way improves it.  Likely any divisions in the community fueled by racially and ethnically-charged mistrust have hardened.  In order for civil society to flourish, trust must be established or restored.

So here’s the good news: The ‘justice’ you seek is not in the system from which you seek it!

Justice is the establishment of right relationships.  In this case, justice would include improving the sense of safety – not insecurity bred by implicit bias, but actual safety for people walking the streets; assurance that law enforcement is about justice and not JUST US; and creation of laws that favor people over property and that don’t give privilege or place to actions based in racism – by shooters, sheriffs, Assistant State’s Attorneys or anyone else.

While it is essential that we continue to demand accountability for the actors including the shooter, the sheriff and the Assistant State’s Attorneys, the sense of balance and vindication is more likely to take a long time to establish.  This will require dialogue and discussion, including the following:

  • Having the Zimmermans and other members of that community hear from Trayvon’s families about the hopes and dreams dashed by this senseless death.
  • Hearing from George Zimmerman and others who describe the life experiences that have resulted in an irrational fear of young Black men.
  • Allowing law enforcement and media to participate in dialogue to recognize that they play a significant role in creating and perpetuating the irrational fear.
  • Examining the legal permission to act on irrationality that is granted by the  “stand your ground” policy.

This will require restitution and reshaping of both laws and practice.  This will require asking different questions.  This will require a full community effort – and possibly result in an actual sense of community.

Restoration is possible and the good news is this:  you don’t have to wait for the current justice system to act to begin to establish the justice you seek.

David 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.