This week marks the beginning of the murder trial of George Zimmerman, and by now, you likely know far more personal details than you ever wanted to about the teenage boy Zimmerman is accused of murdering, Trayvon Martin. You know what he was wearing, what he was eating, what was on his cell phone, what his alleged emotional state was, what was in his bloodstream, etc. The list goes on. Zimmerman's defense team and the national media have tried everything imaginable to label Trayvon Martin a deserving victim.
Zimmerman's defense team has made a serious and sustained effort to reframe this case as a reflection of Martin's character, rather than Zimmerman's actions. While this smear campaign has largely been waged in the media landscape, Zimmerman's attorney requested to use Martin's school suspension, past record of fighting, and marijuana use in his opening statements, an effort that was denied by Circuit Judge Debra Nelson. While Judge Nelson's refusal to allow these statements in court is a noteworthy and important decision, this doesn't mean that Zimmerman's defense team won't find other ways of smearing Martin's memory. And it doesn't mean that we won't happily feed upon each detail, silently acquitting Zimmerman and ourselves from responsibility.
This kind of victim-blaming abounds in rape cases. In the recent Steubenville gang rape case, the victim was blamed for her own assault, while news anchors mourned the rapists as their sentencing occurred. Rather than face that grim reality and wrestle with our own complacency in the racist, patriarchal state that enables and often outright encourages these crimes, we blame the victim for their own misfortune. We blame the victim because we cannot blame ourselves.
No, I am not suggesting that we are responsible for the murder of Trayvon Martin. No one but George Zimmerman pulled the trigger that night, as far as we know. But that doesn't excuse our complacency and participation in a society that labels black teenage boys as "thugs" for wearing a hoodie. We may not have pulled the trigger, but we have helped sustain a justice system that systematically targets and oppresses people of color. We have participated in the cultural landscape that blames female and minority victims, rather than the perpetrators of violence.
The rush to find any possible character flaw of Martin's that might somehow excuse this horrific crime points to our own refusal to grappling with the reality of racism in America. Remember: initially, Zimmerman wasn't arrested or charged with a crime. Though Zimmerman was brought in for questioning the night that Zimmerman shot and killed Martin, police accepted his claim of self-defense and released him without charge. The benefit of the doubt given to Zimmerman by the Sanford Police Department is rarely given to people of color, especially black Americans.
As stated in a recent study by the ACLU, "a black person is 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than a white person, even though blacks and whites use marijuana at similar rates." While this finding may not be entirely surprising, it illuminates the grip that racism has on our justice system. Further proof: in Arizona, a black man was arrested and charged with a DUI, even though his blood alcohol level was 0.00, because the arresting officer said "I can tell you're driving DUI by looking in your eyes." Still not convinced? New York City's "Stop and Frisk" practice, one that allows the NYPD to stop people on the suspicion that they have committed a crime, led to 400,000 NYPD encounters with innocent black and Latino New Yorkers. Need more proof? Black woman Marissa Alexander fired a warning shot into a wall to scare off her abusive husband, and though no one was harmed, she was denied the ability to defend herself under Florida's Stand Your Ground Law (the same law George Zimmerman's defense team initially planned to use), and she was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
Our justice system targets, surveils, terrorizes, arrests, and incarcerates people of color at alarming rates, even when they haven't actually committed a crime.
That brings us back to the Zimmerman trial and our own culpability as participants in American society. It is much easier to sit back and think that Trayvon Martin had it coming than to face the reality that our justice system, like our society, is openly racist. While there have been protests and commentaries, we have been far too complacent in accepting a system predicated on racist injustice rather than liberty. A system that blatantly discriminates against people of color is not just. A cultural landscape that perpetuates racist stereotypes and narratives to maintain white supremacy is not emblematic of a morally sound nation. We should be better than this, and yet we consistently show that we're not.
No matter what judicial fate awaits George Zimmerman, the fact remains that Trayvon Martin is dead and our racist (in)justice system is alive and well.