In the aftermath of the Ferguson grand jury verdict, here I am again, trying to make sense of insane pieces of news streaming through my social media network.
Yesterday the grand jury in Ferguson, Missouri, reached a verdict and acquitted officer Darren Wilson of shooting and killing Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager. Wilson’s claims of self-defense were taken to be credible. This shooting incident, which took place on August 9th 2014 not only bears resemblance to another highly publicized shooting and killing of an unarmed black teenager, Treyvon Martin, by civilian George Zimmerman, in Sanford Florida on February 26th 2012, but also follows on the heels of the acquittal of George Zimmerman of second-degree murder and manslaughter charges on July 13th 2013.
The two cases have important similarities and differences:
Setting aside all contextual information for the moment, and only looking at the bare bones of what happened, in Ferguson, MO, a man was shot and killed by a police officer on duty. In Sanford, FL, a man was shot and killed by a civilian. Taking only this information into consideration, lethal force wielded by a police officer is somewhat less disturbing than when a civilian exercises the same force.
In both cases, the defendants initiated contact with the victims. Again, for a police officer on duty to stop and question a pedestrian is not as remarkable as a civilian (even if he were part of the Neighborhood Watch) to approach a stranger, intimidate him and begin an altercation, as George Zimmerman did. When we also consider that Zimmerman disregarded the instructions from the 911 operator to not follow the suspicious teen he was reporting about, his actions appear all the more premeditated. For these reasons, the acquittal of George Zimmerman is far more outrageous than the acquittal of officer Darren Wilson.
Further, when we take into consideration that both teenage victims were unarmed, the use of lethal force by both Zimmerman and Wilson seem unwarranted, and the deaths of the two teenagers tragic, avoidable events.
When we add the detail that both victims were black, it appears to indicate that racism was what motivated the use of lethal force. Racial discrimination is what is being widely discussed in the media. While the issue of race certainly influences the use of force by the police, citing race as the primary reason for these two teenage deaths, is misguided.
Looking at the two incidents solely through the lens of race implies that if the very same incidents took place with white victims, the act of killing unarmed teenagers wouldn’t be so outrageous. What if Trayon Martin’s shooter in Sanford and the police officer in Ferguson had been black? Would the killings then be less distressing?
Racism is widely prevalent in America. Nobody denies it. There are more African Americans in prison than their proportion in the general population would indicate. Blacks and Latinos are pulled over and frisked in much greater proportions than whites. African American drug defendants are more likely than whites to receive mandatory sentences and sent to prison more than whites for the same drug offences. But racism is not the prime cause of the deaths of Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin.
When George Zimmerman became suspicious of a black teenager who was minding his own business and peacefully walking through Zimmerman’s neighborhood, that was racism. But when Zimmerman initiated an altercation, pulled out his gun and shot this black teenager (allegedly in self-defense,) that was not racism. That was an instance of America’s toxic gun culture at its worst.
We are so accustomed to the ubiquitous presence of guns in everyday American life that we look past gun culture as the primary cause of violence and cite incidental details as causes. It’s like saying someone died of gunshot wounds because his body was too weak to withstand bullets.
Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown were killed not because they were black, but because guns are used with impunity in America. If you hypothetically sift out racism from America and imagine how the Sanford, Ferguson and similar incidents might have played out, you would still see unnecessary gun deaths. They would just be equally distributed among the races! But if you sift out America’s noxious gun culture, keeping racism intact, these incidents would play out in ways that would still be unfairly biased towards blacks, but their outcomes would not be nearly as fatal.
It is true that more African Americans fall prey to the bullets discharged by white police officers than white victims. But it is also true that there are a greater number of deaths of African Americans in the hands of other African Americans wielding guns. Think Chicago. When we implicate racism as the root cause of gun deaths based on cases like the one in Ferguson and Sanford, we fail to account for the greater proportion of African American deaths. When we implicate Gun Culture - the easy availability and unchecked use of guns -as the root cause of deaths like that of Trayvon Martin, we account for all deaths in the hands of guns. Of course there are many layers of complexity within the influences of gun culture, and race, class and gender differences most certainly shape it.
In assessing the role of racism in the Ferguson and Sanford incidents, one must view the killings of the unarmed teenagers and the acquittal of the perpetrators as separate issues. The influence of racism in the killings is not as salient as the influence of racial discrimination in the acquittals. Would the juries in the Zimmerman and Wilson cases have indicted the killers if the victims had been white? Perhaps.
The use of guns in everyday life is second–nature to a large proportion of Americans. It is considered a birthright. But like all rights, some people have a greater share of it than others. White privilege has certainly staked a larger claim to the right to use guns:
Enter Marissa Alexander.
Marissa Alexander is an African American woman from Florida, and a mother of three. In 2010, she was charged with three counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.
According to her defense account, she fired warning shots in her home and in the direction of her estranged and abusive husband and his two sons after her husband attacked and threatened to have her killed.
The prosecution claims that they weren’t warning shots, that she wasn’t in fear for her life, and that the shots were fired in anger, at human height, and in the direction of her two stepchildren, endangering their lives.
Comparisons between Alexander’s case and Zimmerman’s case have been made for many reasons: Most obvious is that they are both Florida cases where the defendant invoked Florida’s “stand your ground” law to defend the discharge of a firearm under the perception that one’s life was in danger. Both defendants claimed that their lives were in danger. In Zimmerman’s case, this resulted in the death of an unarmed teenage boy. In Alexander’s case, nobody was harmed.
Another common factor is that both cases were under the supervision of State Prosecutor Angela Corey. Corey has encountered much criticism for her handling of the Alexander case. The guilty verdict she sought for Alexander is driven by Corey’s supposed commitment to victims’ advocacy, in this case, on behalf of the two children whose lives were endangered when Alexander fired her gun. Corey wanted to send a strong message that domestic disputes should not be handled the way Alexander handled hers, with a gun.
There are complexities in every case, and clearly the nuances in Zimmerman’s and Darren Wilson’s case helped cast their version of the events in a credible light. It was also convenient that the victims weren’t around to refute their versions.
The nuances in Alexander’s case, however, did not enhance her credibility. Despite a history of abusing his wife and other women (and admitting to it,) and despite changing his story - first corroborating Alexander’s version and then changing his version, Rico Gray, Alexander’s estranged husband was perceived as the victim, and Alexander the aggressor. The jury deliberated for a mere 13 minutes before they found her guilty on all three counts of aggravated assault. In May 2012, Alexander was sentenced to twenty years in prison (comprising three concurrent terms.) Yes, twenty years for using a gun and not killing anyone, while George Zimmerman walks free for using a gun and killing someone.
In September 2013, a re-trial was ordered by the 1st District Court of Appeals on grounds that the judge in the original trial did not properly instruct the jury on self-defense. The retrial was/is scheduled for December 8th. 2014, where, if it were to take place, Angela Corey intends to pursue the same three charges of aggravated assault, and a 60-year sentence - comprising three consecutive terms.
In the meantime, and as if the overly harsh judgment meted out to Alexander weren’t enough, the winds of chance conspired to have Marissa Alexander accept a plea bargain on the very same day that the jury in Ferguson reached their verdict. The two events – the grand jury acquitting Darren Wilson of murder, and Marissa Alexander agreeing to plead guilty - to not risk a 60-year term for not killing anyone- were juxtaposed by chance on November 24th 2014.
You have to be blind (like Lady Justice) to not see the irony and injustice of it all.
As per the plea agreement, Marissa Alexander will serve a three-year sentence (most of which she has already completed.) She is likely to be released on January 27th 2015.
Strange are the ways of “Lady” Justice. She turns on her own kind.