TRAYVON MARTIN AND MARISSA ALEXANDER ARE OPPOSITE SIDES OF THE BLOODY COIN AND PROVE THAT IF YOU’RE BLACK IN THE UNITED STATES, YOU SHOULD HAVE LOWER EXPECTATIONS OF JUSTICE
By now, every one has heard that George Zimmerman has been found not guilty of second degree murder (or manslaughter) for the death of Trayvon Martin. The verdict, which came down Saturday evening, sent a tsunami of conflicted emotional responses and outcry across social media, particularly Facebook and Twitter. Protests took place in a number of American cities, including San Diego, Atlanta and the town of Sanford, Florida, where Zimmerman shot and killed the seventeen year old Martin. While many protests were peaceful, there were numerous reports of vandalism and the protest in Oakland (a city that is no stranger to violent clashes between police and protesters of any sort-ask members of the Occupy Wall Street movement) turned mildly violent (so far there are no reports of arrests or injuries). But even before Saturday’s polarizing verdict hit headlines across the world, the Zimmerman case had exposed the deep racial divides that still exist in the United States. Many felt this verdict was a foregone conclusion, that the fact Martin was black determined that Zimmerman, half latino and half white, would indeed go free. On the other side of the coin, there were many who believed that Zimmerman had been convicted in the court of public opinion because the victim was a young black man, feeling that if Martin had been white few would have cared (during their closing arguments, Zimmerman’s defence claimed that if their client had been black he never would have been on trial). There are valid points to be made by both sides of that argument, and the truth is this case alone doesn’t reflect the reality that in many places in the United States it isn’t the evidence or legal arguments that dictates justice as opposed to the colour of someone’s skin. But what does illustrate that ugly reality is the broader context that the Zimmerman case falls into, because while a mostly white jury acquitted George Zimmerman for fatally shooting Trayvon Martin as an act of self-defence, a year earlier the same district attorney (Angela Corey) convicted Marissa Alexander of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon when she fired a warning shot to ward off her abusive husband. She invoked Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, a move supported by at least two Floridian lawmakers who helped create the controversial law in 2005, but in the end she was sentenced to a minimum of twenty years in prison. If you haven’t guessed yet, Marissa Alexander was black as well. If anything, the painful similarities of these cases and their opposite outcomes proves that if your black, you can expect different, somewhat lower standards of justice.
No one knows exactly what happened the night of February 26 except this; neighbourhood watch member George Zimmerman called 911 to report a suspicious person walking the streets of the gated community of Sanford, a suburb of Orlando, Florida. Zimmerman, carrying a licensed firearm, then got of his car to follow to follow the “suspect” against the instructions of the 911 operator and moments later, an unarmed Trayvon Martin lay dead on the ground and a bloodied George Zimmerman was taken away by police for questioning. The 28-year-old Zimmerman claimed that he was assaulted and in fear for his life by the seventeen year old Martin, and after five hours of questioning he was released without charges under Florida’s Stand Your Ground Law. Zimmerman wasn’t formally arrested until 45 days later when a warrant was issued for him and he turned himself in. While Zimmerman’s defence never used the Stand Your Ground law, they successfully argued shooting Trayvon Martin was self-defence and there will be no legal consequences or accountability for his death. Zimmerman never took the stand in his defence.
In 2010, Marissa Alexander invoked Florida’s Stand Your Ground law after she fired a warning shot at her abusive husband who had threatened to kill her. Alexander’s husband, whose violence had landed her in the hospital at least once prior, supported her story of self-defence before changing it at the trial. Alexander had no criminal record, had never been arrested before and no one was injured during the incident. The prosecution, lead by the same district attorney who would lead the failed attempt to prosecute George Zimmerman a year later, convinced the jury that Alexander didn’t make enough of an effort to flee her house (even thought the Supreme Court had earlier ruled a person isn’t obligated to flee their homes) and because there were children in the room at the time, Stand Your Ground didn’t apply. After sixteen minutes of deliberation, the jury sentenced Alexander to 20 years in prison.
If you’re asking yourself how one person got away with murder employing claims of self-defence that can’t be substantiated while another person will be spending the next two decades in prison in a case of undeniable self-defence where not a single drop of blood was shed, you’re not alone. If you’re asking how the same District Attorney who convinced a group of people that a woman who was without a doubt defending herself against a man whose abuse was documented needed to be put in a cage for twenty years but couldn’t get another group of people in the same state to convict a man who killed an unarmed teenager to spend a day behind bars, you’re not alone.
And don’t think for a second race doesn’t play into this. The simple fact of the matter is, if Trayvon Martin had been a white kid walking home with his skittles and iced tea, George Zimmerman never would have followed him that evening in February. He never would have cared who Martin was. And could you possibly imagine the police letting a black man who had just shot and killed someone go after five hours of questioning? Without laying charges? No, me neither. The mainstream media has been accused of race baiting to drive up an appetite for this already controversial case, but conservative media outlets like Fox News and Rush Limbaugh launched campaigns to assassinate Martin’s character once the story snared the world’s attention. Geraldo Rivera lead the charge, stating that he thought that Martin’s “urban” (re: black) fashion choices (re: hoodie) lead him to an early grave. He doesn’t make those statement (let alone get away with them) if Martin is white. And while Rush Limbaugh complained ad naseum about the media showing positive pictures of Martin, Fox News went crazy sowing the most unflattering pictures they could get their hands on. The only reason an arrest warrant was ever issued for George Zimmerman and an investigation started was because of public pressure. If Trayvon Martin is white , George Zimmerman is arrested five seconds before anything happens.
And just imagine for a second that if Marissa Alexander had been a pretty young white soccer mom who had fired a warning shot at her abusive husband after he’d just threatened to kill her. Can you imagine a jury sending her to prison until she was in her fifties? Challenges the limits of your imagination doesn’t it? Recently in Montana, a man returned home to find a burglar, shot him the chest and the burglar later died while fleeing. The man is still free under that state’s Stand Your Ground law. How are his actions any worse than Alexander’s? For that matter, how were Alexander’s actions any worse Zimmerman’s, who actually cost someone their life? To sum up, if Zimmerman is innocent in the eyes of Florida’s law, so too should Alexander.
The unfortunate part is, this doesn’t surprise much of America’s black community. And there are actual statistic to back it up. A recent survey published relating race and homicide has demonstrated a dramatic rise in so-called “justified killings” of blacks in states that embrace the Stand Your Ground laws (laws that have drawn criticism from civil rights workers and senior law enforcement officials like Miami’s former police chief John Timoney) and American prisons house a disproportionate number of blacks as opposed to whites for the same crimes (it is estimated that drug use among blacks and whites in the United States is nearly identical at 14% each, yet blacks constitute 37% of arrests for drug use while whites remain half that). The fact is Marissa Alexander is looking at losing the next twenty years of her life because she didn’t hurt anyone defending her life while George Zimmerman is completely free after killing a 17-year-old boy. In both cases blacks were hoping for justice and so far, both have been denied any.
- Why did Marissa Alexander get a 20-year sentence despite invoking ‘Stand Your Ground’? (tv.msnbc.com)
- Critics’ dismay at Zimmerman verdict (bbc.co.uk)
- Liberty and justice for all, but not in equal measure (mdzlog.alcor.net)