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Opinion

Trayvon Martin case a travesty of justice

George Zimmerman's acquittal was largely due to institutional racism in the United States, writes author.

Last Modified: 08 Aug 2013 10:13
Susan Abulhawa

Susan Abulhawa is a Palestinian writer and the author of the international bestselling novel, Mornings in Jenin (Bloomsbury 2010). She is also the founder of Playgrounds for Palestine, an NGO for children.
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The non-guilty verdict for George Zimmerman sparked rallies across the United States in July [Reuters]

The "not guilty" verdict for George Zimmerman's killing of Trayvon Martin did not come as a surprise to African Americans or anyone familiar with the US justice system. Ultimately, the trial was theatre because the decision to clear Zimmerman was effectively made the same day that he shot Trayvon, a 17-year-old African American.

Footage of the "arrest" of Zimmerman showed him walking into the police station without the cuts and marks seen later in the photos. The police knew, from Zimmerman's own 911 calls, that he had stalked Trayvon. They knew that Zimmerman assumed that Trayvon lived in the neighborhood (in the interview Zimmerman said he continued to follow Trayvon to "get an address"). They knew, from one of the witnesses who called, that someone was yelling desperately, heartbreakingly, for help.

Zimmerman's father would claim those calls were from his son, not Trayvon, even though George Zimmerman himself said during the interview that it didn't sound like his own voice. Further, and I wonder why this question was not asked: Why would someone with a gun scream with such terror for help? (Incidentally, the cries for help stopped abruptly when Trayvon was shot.)

Other than photographing Zimmerman's face, the police did not collect forensic evidence from him, despite clear inconsistencies in his story during the initial interview on February 26. They didn't dust his hands for gunpowder residues. They didn't scrape his nails or hands for DNA evidence that could have clarified the nature of the physical struggle between him and Trayvon. They didn't collect urine or blood samples to see if he was doped up on drugs. They didn't take his clothes for evidence.

They let him go home.

A young man with a life yet unlived lay dead, face down in a pool of his own blood, a bag of candy and a can of iced tea testifying to his intentions that night, and the police let the man who killed him walk out of the station. Instead, it was Trayvon's urine that was tested for drugs. It was Trayvon's lifeless body that was examined for evidence so that Trayvon, from the grave, would be the one who had to defend himself for being killed!

Inside Story - Law, justice, and the Zimmerman case

Many of my Facebook friends in Europe were astonished. "How can this happen in the US?" asked a Norwegian friend. Most people of colour, and particularly African Americans, know well the answer to this question, and it comes in two parts: 1) the "Good Ol' Boy" network; and 2) the value of a black body.

George Zimmerman's father is a retired Virginia Supreme Court magistrate. It seems he likely had spoken with the police that night, and that the police knew, based on the previous 48 times that Zimmerman had called them, that his father was a magistrate. This could explain, partly, why the police didn't even make a pretense of doing the minimal work required when a person is shot and killed, because this is how the "good ol' boy" network works in the United States. It's the fraternity of white privilege and white supremacy that communicates with itself in in nods and winks and in unspoken words coded into speech to protect that privilege and that supremacy. To the police, Zimmerman senior was one of them and so, then, was his son.

Had it not been for the vocal outrage of the African American community that spread through social media, Zimmerman would likely never have been charged and Trayvon would have been just another dead black man - a number in breathtaking statistics, like the fact that about one in every three African American men are incarcerated at some point in their lives.

But the primary reason the police didn't arrest Zimmerman is that in the current power structure, black bodies are worthless and expendable. Not only did the police allow a murderer to walk out of the station with his gun that night, but they lazily bagged Trayvon's body as "John Doe" and carried on. Not one officer thought to knock on a few doors in that gated community to try to locate the young man's family, who were surely worried that their son had not come home. We know all too well that things would have gone very differently had Trayvon been white.

Institutional racism

The contempt, the disregard, and the disrespect for the black body runs through this whole case. It runs through this country and transforms itself to adapt to the times. It moved from slavery to Jim Crow laws and lives now in the so-called "War on Drugs" that targets, by legal design, African Americans. The evidence of racism in these laws is abundantly clear.

Most recently, austerity measures creeping into American cities disproportionately target African American children. Chicago, Philadelphia, and New York closed 54, 23, and 26 schools, respectively. In Chicago, 88 percent of children whose lives were upended by the closures were African American, even though they represent only 43 percent of all Chicago students. Those disparities were similar in Philadelphia and New York.

The statistics are staggering and heartbreaking, but they provide a clear picture of the many ways in which African Americans, especially African American men, are targeted from the time they are born. If they are not broken by their broken schools, they will be caught in the snags of racist police brutality, or discriminatory employment practices, or the pervasive assumption that criminalises black and brown skin, which is ultimately what led to the murder of Trayvon Martin. It's what provoked four white police officers to fire 41 bullets at Amadou Diallo, another unarmed black man, in 1999.

Trayvon Martin's parents lead rallies in US

Black bodies are sacrificed for personal professional gain. Easy to entrap, coerce and manipulate, young black men have made the careers of many politicians and legal professionals. The most noteworthy is the case of the Central Park Five, a group of young men of colour accused of brutally raping a white jogger in Central Park. Black men were rounded up wholesale that night and the police picked the most vulnerable five, and told them they could go home if they admitted to raping the jogger.

Scared and bewildered, the boys made up stories that changed and adapted according to what seemed to sound good to the police. Their accounts didn't match up at all with each other, nor with the known details of the crime. The timeline of events didn't make sense. Semen found at the scene did not match any of them. In fact, there was not one shred of forensic evidence linking any one of the boys to the crime. Listening to one of the "confessions" to Linda Fairstein, the prosecutor, it was easy to see that the boy was making things up just so he could get out and go home, as the police had promised him. But they didn't go home, of course. They went to jail, until the real rapist confessed 12 years later and tests showed a match to the semen on the victim. The lives of five boys were stolen in their prime, but what mattered was that legal careers were made, including that of Linda Fairstein.

If there is anything good to come from this senselessness, it will be to provoke greater political alertness and participation of African Americans; solidarity within communities of colour towards a unified goal of collective empowerment socially, politically, and economically. Community organisers across the country are planning, organising, and acting. Peaceful protests were carried out throughout the United States and abroad in the wake of the verdict. Boycott campaigns have been launched, and initiatives to empower black youth are being implemented.

Trayvon walked to a store and never made it home. Though there can be no consolation for Trayvon's parents, Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton, perhaps they can find comfort in knowing that their son has touched us all who care about social justice and imbued us with renewed resolve.

Susan Abulhawa is a Palestinian thinker, essayist, and the author of the international bestselling novel, Mornings in Jenin (Bloomsbury 2010). She is also the founder of Playgrounds for Palestine, an NGO for children.

Follow her on Twitter: @sjabulhawa

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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