Emmett Till, Medgar Evers, Fred Hampton, Rodney King, Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell, Oscar Grant, Kenneth Harding, Jr., the long list of African-American males killed by racist police officers or vigilantes goes on. On the evening of February 26, 2012, that list got longer. In Sanford, Florida, a suburb of Orlando, Trayvon Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old African-American male, was shot and killed by George Zimmerman, a half-Latino/half-white self-appointed neighborhood watch captain. Zimmerman claimed he shot Martin in self-defense. He was recently arrested, charged with second-degree murder, and the case is still in court.
Like so many cases of state or vigilante violence against people of color, this is an example of systemic racism. Systemic racism — a system of power and inequality in which one racial group subjugates another racial group. This is why there are massive levels of inequalities (in housing, employment, education, etc.) between whites and nonwhites in America. What perpetuates this system is societal conditioning that dehumanizes oppressed groups, such as black people, and justifies their harsh social treatment. Black people are assumed to be dangerous and immoral. This conditioning is so deeply ingrained that people believe it without noticing it. Hence, why whenevera police officer or vigilante like Zimmerman shoots an unarmed black person, they justify it by saying “I thought he had a gun” or “He looked dangerous.” The reason why George Zimmerman thought Trayvon Martin looked “suspicious” is because Martin was black. He, like many others, was conditioned to believe that black people are automatically suspect because of their skin color.
Moreover, police brutality and other harsh practices in the criminal justice system, such as mass incarceration, serve to reinforce systemic racism rather than provide much-needed security and justice. Black people are no more likely to commit crime than white people. According to a 2010 FBI crime report, black people committed 38.2% of murders, whites committed 32.1%, while race was unknown for 28% of offenders. But, as a Colorlines.com report showed, most black youth are not committing any crimes. As for drug use, a Human Rights Watch report points out that of the over 111 million people in America who have used drugs in their lifetime, 82,587,000 (74%) are white and 12,477,000 (11%) are black. Yet, black people make up 35.1% of drug arrests (a rate 2.8 to 5.5 higher than whites) and 38.2% of the prison population (25.4% are white) but are 12% of the American population. Most of those in prison are there for nonviolent drug offenses. It is true that crime is a problem in poor, communities of color but this not because black people are inherently criminal. This is due to other socioeconomic factors, such as poverty, gangs, and poor education. One’s skin color does not determine whether they are a criminal.
It’s also important to keep in mind that some of the most egregious crimes, such as waging wars of aggression, authorizing the use of torture, killing civilians, committing war crimes, human rights abuses, and committing fraudulent activities in the financial sector, that kill and harm millions and destroy economies, are committed by powerful elites who are predominantly (but not always) white men. Yet, they almost always escape accountability and even get to brag about their crimes in the media. They face no police harassment, no police violence, and no prison time. Those practices are inflicted upon poor people and people of color. Therefore, police brutality and other harsh practices of the criminal justice system serve to reinforce systemic racial inequalities rather than provide safety or justice.
From the beginning, Martin’s family members, commentators, and activists called for Zimmerman’s arrest and a proper trial. This is a good idea, however, the judicial system will not guarantee justice. It is very possible that the judicial system will give Zimmerman a slap on the wrist. Mehserle received a slap on the wrist for killing Oscar Grant in January of 2009 (he was charged with involuntary manslaughter, sentenced to two years in prison, minus time served, and was released after six months in prison, to be exact). Unlike Martin’s death, there was video tape showing Mehserle kill Grant. Moreover, it will not prevent future acts of racist police or vigilante violence. Shortly after Martin’s death, a black teenager named Dane Scott, Jr. was killed by Oklahoma police officers. In addition, 29 black people were killed by police officers, security guards, or self-appointed neighborhood watchmen between January 1, 2012 and March 31, 2012. Most of them were unarmed and of the 29, 18 were killed after Martin died. In order to prevent tragedies like these from occurring, we need to think beyond working through the judicial system.
To deal with a problem like chronic state/vigilante violence, systemic changes need to occur. One could argue for reforms within the present criminal justice system. While reforms are certainly important, I would argue for alternatives to policing and rethinking how we make our communities safe. Rose City Copwatch, in Portland, Oregon, wrote a booklet called “Alternatives to Police” with examples of local efforts to make communities safe without relying police departments.
One great example is Citizens Local Alliance for a Safe Philadelphia (CLASP). In 1972, writes Copwatch, “residents of a multi-racial, mixed-class area in West Philadelphia came together and organized to prevent crime in their neighborhood.” The group started out as the Block Association of West Philadelphia but later joined with CLASP who adopted Block Association’s community action model of crime prevention. According to Copwatch, “CLASP worked to prevent burglaries with locks, lights, homemade burglar alarms, engraving machines, improved community ties, and an awareness of strangers.” They also used neighborhood walks to address street crime. During these walks, at least two unarmed and unmarked neighborhood residents would patrol the streets. When they saw a crime happen, “they used flashlights and freon horns to signal other neighbors to come out with their horns.” By 1976, as Copwatch says, “there were 600 organized autonomous blocks throughout the city”. This proved to be pretty successful. According to a CLASP survey, organized blocks experienced an average of 75% less crime compared to their respective police districts.
Another good example is from South Africa. During the Apartheid era, the police force was entirely repressive and offered no protection to the black population. To address the need for public safety, black communities, in the 1970s, organized community courts called “makgotla”. At first, makgotla perpetuated “hierarchies within the community, especially those based on age and gender” and “were almost wholly dominated by older men.” With the rise of the anti-Apartheid movement in the 1980s, which was largely youth-led, however, “the makgotla were replaced by more inclusive and democratic organizations — first ‘People’s Courts,’ and later ‘Street Committees.’” As a result, “young people and women slowly gained more of a role.” Street Committees were publicly elected, delegated with keeping peace within their area, and primarily focused on restorative justice and healing. Copwatch writes, “In addition to addressing normal street crime, the Street Committees also addressed disputes between neighbors, family conflicts, employee or tenant grievances, and the like.” The Copwatch booklet includes other alternatives to police, such as gang truces, rape crisis centers, and restorative justice programs that focus on healing rather than punishment.
I’m sure there are many other examples that are not included in Copwatch’s booklet. But what they all have in common is the realization that traditional police forces do not provide safety to communities. Unfortunately, many police forces act as bullies and oppressors rather than servants to protect the community from crime. How can black and brown people trust the police to protect them when the police are constantly harassing, beating up, and killing them? The sad truth is they can’t.
While it is a good thing that Zimmerman is being tried in court for killing Trayvon Martin, there is no guarantee that the judicial system will bring justice to this case. Nor will it prevent future killings of black and brown people at the hands of trigger-happy police officers and vigilantes. This is a systemic problem that requires systemic change. Without systemic change, more and more black and brown people will die needlessly at the hands of police officers and vigilantes. The sooner we begin discussing and implementing alternatives to the status quo, the better.