Reading about Trayvon Martin’s killing and am beyond saddened, sickened, and outraged at the continuation of state-sanctioned killing of black and brown youth. I wonder, however, if there another way to push for justice for Trayvon, without appealing to the prison-industrial complex as a means of retribution. Even if the state does prosecute his killer, what does it do to our communities in the long run when we ask for more surveillance, stronger penalization, more brutal justice? In the end, whose bodies will be most subjected to the PIC?
As we demand Justice for Trayvon, I wonder if we can keep the call for prison abolition and real social transformation in mind.
A few resources on the prison abolition movement and the prison-industrial complex’s disproportionate targeting of communities of color, especially women and queer/trans people of color:
Women of Color and Prisons / INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence
Trans Youth and the Prison Industrial Complex / Sylvia Rivera Law Project
Yes. This is one of the complicated paradoxes of demanding justice from the very state that is so often the object of our critique—in order to demand justice we end up conferring legitimacy on the state whose ability to use violence we try to delegitimize. We may want George Zimmerman’s arrest, prosecution, and, probably, imprisonment, not only because some of us, in our more sadistic moments, would like to see him suffer (and thereby collapse suffering into our imagination of what justice should look like), but also because some of us likely believe it will be a way to register our collective rejection of the white supremacist imperatives that make a person like Trayvon Martin killable. Yet, in appealing to the power of the police to arrest, and to the power of the courts to sentence Zimmerman, we also make heard a message that we might otherwise hesitate to send: namely, that we believe that these institutions—the police, the courts, the law—are institutions capable of delivering the justice we want. The irony here is especially high in light of the track record of the Sanford Police Department that would, ostensibly be doing the arresting we demand. To what extent are we willing to appeal to a white supremacist police force as if it were capable of delivering justice for Trayvon? And also, why is this just about justice for Trayvon?
It is no disrespect to Trayvon Martin’s memory to point out that our ability to make him into a slogan is based less on who he was as a person as on our desire to fit him into a mold that will allow others to see him as worthy and deserving of justice. That mold is called the Innocent Victim, and its shape can be seen in the details that we choose to highlight and repeat ad nauseam about the case: He was unarmed, he was holding Skittles and Arizona Ice Tea, he was on foot, he had no criminal record, he was a “good kid.” Add whichever narrative that you’d like to hang on him here. It’s rather perverse, really, our collective love and desire for the innocent victim, the victim who “did nothing,” the victim who, we convince ourselves, must have been so pure that we immediately scoff at George Zimmerman’s alibi that he was acting in self-defense. What if Trayvon Martin had come at this white man who held a gun? Would his killing have been justified? Would we be protesting and petitioning as righteously as we are? What if he’d had, instead of Skittles, a bag of weed? Or a beer? Or a knife? Or something else that made it harder to make him look like a kid? How many fewer signatures would that correlate with on change.org?
It should hardly be disputable that a great share of what killed Trayvon Martin was his existence in a racist state system in which to be black is always to be seen as being guilty of something, a system in which criminality is always implied in blackness and in which blackness is understood as a predisposition toward criminality that nonblacks learn to imagine themselves as the innocent victims of.
It should also hardly be disputable that a great share of what subjects young black persons like Trayvon Martin to “the state sanctioned or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death” has something significant to do with the ways in which we fetishize innocence. It has something significant to do with the ways in which in order to see a person, or a group, as deserving of justice, we expend so much energy toward shoring up evidence that they did nothing at all, toward proving, once and for all that the Trayvon Martins of the world get killed not because of what they did—not, that is, because they broke the law or used viollence—but because of who they are. Black. Not criminal.
But what about the blacks who do commit crimes? The blacks who have criminal records? The blacks who might be found carrying knives rather than Skittles, or, lord forbid, both? The blacks who, unlike Trayvon Martin, might not have a parent living in the subdivision in which they happen to be walking at night? Would George Zimmerman’s bullets have been more appropriately directed at them, and not Trayvon? It may sound vulgar to say this, but in our collective dwelling on the details that make Trayvon Martin’s the innocent victim we want him to be, I get the sense that the answer is, more or less, yes. Or, to put it less vulgarly, I strongly doubt that if it were the case that Trayvon Martin had a criminal record, we would be seeing anywhere near the degree of public outcry that we currently are. There would be, in other words, much less of a palpable feeling that there has been a major and significant breach, breakdown, and failure of justice. We’d have a much harder time maintaining certainty that Trayvon’s killing was caused by what he was (black) than about what he’d done (break the law, in whatever fashion).
Innocence, Victimhood. Two social and legal constructions that make an almost inordinate claim both on whom we are and are not able to see as deserving of justice, and on whom we are and are not able to tolerate seeing as targets of violence. Our insistence in representing Trayvon Martin as an innocent victim is a stark reminder of how much we will will have to shift our angle of vision—to say nothing of our social infrastructure—in order collectively to regard millions upon millions of black and brown people as not only deserving but fundamentally entitled to a substantive kind of justice. For so many of those who have no claim to innocent victimhood, to have not done anything wrong, our public discourse has a radically difficult time imagining a form of justice whose instruments are something other than the barrel of a gun, or the interior of a cage.