Evils that befall the world are not nearly so often caused by bad men as they are by good men who are silent when an opinion must be voiced
Dear friends and readers,
As many people know last month an unarmed 17 year old African-American boy or young man was stalked, gunned down, and murdered by George Zimmerman, a young man who by law had the right to take it upon himself to arm himself and murder anyone who (in his mind) deserved this. This is a return to the feuding Grangerford and Shepherdsons in a novel which (alas) fully mirrors American life and culture still, Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. In this profoundly pessimistic sequence about the nature of US cultural life in the mid-west at the time Twain shows two families who take justice in their own hands. The cause is absurd and dependent on utterly egoistic angers, resentments, injuries of class and sexuality; the reaction repeated murders which breed more murders. (See Olivier Nyirubugara’s monograph on the satire of Twain’s novel.)
You think I exaggerate. Last night I watched four people talking on the Lehrer news hour. Donna Britt, a black woman whose brother was similarly murdered 30 years ago; Dennis Baxley, a white man, member of the Florida legislature, who defended this law as enabling people “to stand their own ground” and “defend themselves”, clearly complacent about what had happened, untouched; Rheiham Salem, a black representative of news media, and Ta Nehisi Coates, Atlantic on-line black commentator and blogger. Coates made the important comment:
There was a case this week that was thrown out by a judge where a gentleman found somebody stealing a radio out of his truck. He came down and stopped the person, chased the guy down, and then stabbed him to death.
Unfortunately, he did not follow this up with a context that brought out what his aptly-chosen example shows. He mentioned his empathy with the person whose car radio was ruined.
But he retrieved his point quickly, came back to the larger issue:
My great concern is that there’s been a number of cases besides Trayvon Martin where prosecutors, cops are very concerned about this law and the broad way in which it’s being implemented. If you have a number of cases like that, it seems to me it calls into question how the law was written.
Again he was deflected because although the moderator, Jeffrey Brown, saw the importance of the anecdote, when he asked Baxley what he had to say to that Baxley was able blandly to talk of an “unfortunate incident” (so now we had two) and that these did not at all invalidate the law’s concept. After all Coates had seen the person who lost his radio needed justice.
What was missing was what I heard on Amy Goodman and three people discussing the case on DemocracyNow.org. They had statistics. They looked at this case in the wider context of other examples of freewheeling murder. Since the inception of this law in Florida the murder rate in Florida has risen by a frightening percentage, I think it was something like 100% rise. I can’t seem to find the exact figure this morning; it’s mixed in with the online columns here. The point was made several times through statistics, anecdotes (several others of over-reactive crazed angers) and the particulars of this case that what is happening is an erasure of a previous reasoned justice system for vigilant murdering let loose.
Let loose on whom? In most of these cases males of color. It may be that what we are seeing here is part of the large re-institutionalization of racism through the prison and harsh criminal justice system. A mass incarceration of black men has been proceeding apace for some two decades now. Instead of community policing, we now have police in neighborhoods who are not part of the neighborhood allowed to frisk without warning any young man they see, and take him into arrest. The result of finding drugs on anyone can be long years sentence. The prisons are privatized and the contracts given out include provisions where the prison corporations are guaranteed 90% filled. Such corporations lobby legislatures to pass draconian legislation. These young men if they ever get out are disenfranchised.
But while this is clearly in effect a re-replacement of a new form of slavery (Potter Stewart said look at the results of a law let stand and you will know what it’s for), a new racism, the incident is larger than this. As has been pointed out, Zimmerman was himself hispanic. It has not been emphasized how he was not questioned, how the corpse of the young black man was tested immediately for drugs, but nothing at all done to check Zimmerman’s story.
The whole society of the US is colluding in a transformation of our society back to forms of barbarism some people thought we had it not eradicated, at least controlled and found systems of reasoned behavior to cope and deal with.
I note the legislation which provides harsh punishments for women seeking to control their own reproductive life, protect their bodies from rape and unwanted pregnancies. See the new legislation spreads like wildfire: women as dispensable and to be punished severely. These make explicit the values of enough people among US voters to keep politicians in office who regard women as secondary animals, secret sluts, containers. If enough voters didn’t have such views all along, such laws could not be passed. What had happened was these views were not the ones allowed to prevail in a society formed by a bill of rights and Enlightenment values which regard all people as equal, as having the right to liberty, dignity, a clear say in how they are governed and a way to make this felt. The court system and its justice officers were part of that.
Why is the neutral space of public life where religious partisanships have no place openly threatened in the US today? Santorum says the separation of church and state in the US constitution sickens him. Does he want to return to religious wars here in the US? Does he notice them in other parts of the world?
The open murder in the streets of a young boy, the adamant refusal of the authorities to arrest the murderer (for he has not yet been arrested and has fled) is one of two visceral instances of a return of atavism as a reigning set of customs. We have on tape the cries of despair of the young man as he is killed. The other is the story of Bei Bei Shuai, now under arrest for murder after she understandably tried to kill herself with rat poison as a reaction to the treatment people in our society meted out to her.
It’s crucially important to raise our voices against all of the above. We can vote for Obama as a man of reason, compassion, decency (systematic torture has ceased under Obama’s administration), as one who is for liberty, food, shelter, the right to health care for all (including women), but he cannot achieve even limited goals alone.
The worst betrayal of intelligence is finding justification for the world as it is.” — Jean Guehenno