Bourgeois "justice" is not the answer for Trayvon Martin
The article below was originally published in February of last year in the aftermath of the shooting death in Sanford, Florida of unarmed African-American teenager Trayvon Martin by "neighborhood watch captain" George Zimmerman. The case provoked weeks of protests as local authorities initially refused to prosecute Zimmerman citing Florida's "Stand Your Ground Law," which they claimed gave Zimmerman the right to defend himself.
Since the article was published, a special prosecutor appointed by Florida's Governor filed second-degree murder charge against Mr. Zimmerman. This lead to a two-week long trial that has just concluded with Mr. Zimmerman's acquittal. For weeks, the trial dominated the cable news networks, even knocking the scandal around NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden out of the spotlight. The media's lurid media spectacle around the trial featured legal experts handicapping the state and defense cases as if it were a sporting event, right-wing commentators fearing race riots if Mr. Zimmerman was acquitted, and Civil Rights leaders pinning the future of racial justice on a successful conviction.
Given the media circus around the trial, we think it is appropriate to "republish" our original article on the shooting now. In the article, we argued that whatever the outcome of the investigation and possible trial, there could be no "justice" for Trayvon Martin, his family or any other young person subject to similar treatment obtained through the bourgeois justice system.
Clearly, the trial has been a powerful confirmation of our analysis. Prosecuting one man, regardless of how distasteful we may find his character and actions, cannot solve the deep rooted historical scars that produce racial stereotyping and prejudice as persistent social problems in the United States (and many other countries); nor can it compensate for the galloping social decomposition that produced the ideological and social conditions that are ultimately responsible for the tragic and fatal events of that day in February of last year.
Even when the bourgeois criminal justice system functions as it is supposed to (and it rarely does), it can only ever consider the facts and circumstances of individual cases according to its own very limited legal principles; it cannot get to the root of the social, historical and economic problems that produce the context for these individual cases. Bourgeois justice may have exonerated Mr. Zimmerman for now, but it cannot excuse the violence, tragedy and suffering that the continued existence of capitalism will continue to produce everyday. This would be the case even if Mr. Zimmerman had been convicted and sent to prison. Whatever the verdict was, it was only ever going to be the case that there will be more Trayvon Martins to come, as long as this inhuman system continues to exist.
On February 26th, Trayvon Martin, an unarmed seventeen-year-old African American man, was shot and killed by George Zimmerman, a "neighborhood watch captain," as he walked home from a local convenience store in Sanford, Florida. The official investigation into the killing by the local authorities has been fraught with difficulties and controversy. About the only thing we know for sure is that Trayvon was not carrying any weapons at the time he was killed, carrying only a bag of Skittles and an iced tea he purchased moments before his life was tragically snuffed out.
For his part, Mr. Zimmerman claims to have acted in self-defense, shooting Trayvon only after their confrontation turned violent. Citing Florida's controversial "stand your ground law," Zimmerman's camp claim that he had no legal duty to retreat before using deadly force to defend himself. But what was Zimmerman doing in the first place pursuing a young man through the neighborhood for no other crime other than being black and wearing a hoodie?1 Zimmerman's camp claims he was acting to protect his neighborhood, which had been subject to a string of recent burglaries reportedly carried out by young black males. But why should he feel as if it was his job to protect his neighborhood? And protect it from what exactly? In bourgeois society, it seems only individuals can be responsible for crime. Rarely, and only in passing, are social and economic conditions such as the erosion of the social fabric, a pervasive each for their own mentality, mass unemployment and poverty that produce crime in the first place ever considered. No, under capitalism, the poor are considered the "dangerous classes" which it is the duty of all good citizens to keep a watchful eye over. Unfortunately, for Trayvon Martin, in the United States, being young and black is generally enough to raise suspicion that one is up to no good.
Unsurprisingly, this episode has provoked a tremendous outrage in the African-American community in Florida and indeed across the entire country. But the outrage is not just limited to the official African-American spokespersons; a deep sense of remorse and regret are gripping the country over the fact that a young man could lose his life in such a brutal way apparently having done nothing wrong.
The last several weeks have seen Trayvon's case become a cause célèbre for the national civil rights organizations, as well as the national media. Last week, over 30,000 people participated in a rally in Sanford, with similar rallies being held in cities a far afield as Chicago and Washington, DC. The outspoken civil rights activist, Reverend Al Sharpton has taken up Trayvon's case and even President Obama has entered the discussion, saying that, "If he had a son, he would look like Trayvon."2 Of course, the President fails to mention that if he had a son, he wouldn't be walking down the street without Secret Service protection. Even the contenders for the Republican presidential nomination, who have not shied away from playing the race card over the course of their bitter campaign, have been forced to denounce the shooting. 3
From our perspective as revolutionary Marxists, Taryvon's death is indeed a terrible tragedy. How revealing is it that in our day and age, a chain of events can occur where a short trip to a local convienence store ends in a brutal death? This incident stands as a stark reminder that whatever advances might have been made over the past several decades, the quest for true human solidarity across racial lines will always be frustrated as long as capitalist society still stands. Trayvon's family, the African American community and all those concerned with human dignity have every right to be outraged by this terrible event. This incident is but one more example that the social system under which we live—capitalism—is more and more characterized by senseless violence and a total disregard for human life. Even if Zimmerman's fears about a pending burglary were correct, there is no rational reason why this should have lead to Trayvon's brutal death in the neighborhood streets. Under capitalism it seems the protection of property rights trumps the dignity of human life. Clearly, this incident should cause us all to think about the root cause behind this type of senseless interpersonal brutality.
However, the involvement of the various bourgeois civil rights organizations and the narrative being developed by the national media appear to be designed to make sure we never get to the underlying issues that have produced this brutal outcome. Over the last several weeks, the civil rights organizations have turned the outrage over this shooting into a campaign to pressure the state into making an arrest and prosecuting Zimmerman. 4 Calls for "Justice for Trayvon," and "No Justice, No Peace," have been the dominant slogans of the rallies and the press conferences.
Indeed, the local police and prosecutors seem to have bungled the investigation into this case from the beginning. This fact seems to finally have been acknowledged by the bourgeois authorities. The Sanford Police Chief has temporarily stepped down, and the local prosecutor has recused himself from the case. Florida Governor Rick Scott—himself a radical Tea Party Republican—has appointed a special prosecutor and a grand jury is scheduled to examine evidence in the case in early April with the goal of finding out if there is any charges that can legally be brought against Zimmerman at all. Moreover, word is that the federal Justice Department is reviewing the evidence to see if there is anyway that Zimmerman can be charged with a federal hate crime—a charge that could bring a life sentence if he were convicted, since the underlying act led to Trayvon's death. 5
Clearly, the failure of the state to bring any charges against Zimmerman has fueled the outrage that continues to brew. How can a man shoot an unarmed teenager to death in the street and no charges are brought? This must be the result of a racist justice system that does not value the life of black people. If the circumstances had been reversed, had it been an armed black man, shooting a white teenager, certainly the authorities wouldn't be discouraged by the state's odd gun laws from making an arrest?6 Surely, there is a way of making some charges against this man stick? After all, we have all seen Law and Order—we now that when the state wants someone to go to jail, there are always creative ways to find a basis for prosecution. The state's seemingly willful failure to bring any charges of Zimmerman seems to harken back to the brutal days in the struggle for civil rights, when the Ku Klux Klan, and even local law enforcement officers themselves, could murder black people with impunity.
We can certainly sympathize with the frustration and outrage expressed here, but for us these are the wrong questions for getting to the bottom of the senseless and often racist violence that so often characterizes capitalist society. Framing the problem as the lack of prosecution of Mr. Zimmerman, does not escape the horizon of bourgeois justice, which for us is no justice at all in the end. After all, what is the bourgeois justice system? A set of laws and institutions set up above all to protect the sanctity of private property. Its version of justice for the masses is no more than cruel retribution. No serious academic who studies these issues really believes the bourgeois justice system is capable of humanely rehabilitating anyone. Its only purpose is to discipline and punish the bodies of offenders and to convince the rest of us to be content that once the state has extracted its pound of flesh, no further questioning of the root basis of crime is necessary.
We have no way of knowing what motivated Mr. Zimmerman to take the actions that he did. However, given his history of making dozens of phone calls to the police sometimes on the same day, it seems reasonable to consider whether he suffers from some kind of detachment from reality, a perverse identification with the repressive power of the capitalist state, which he strove to emulate. This phenomenon is well known to law enforcement officials, something that has been called "Wanna-Be Cop Syndrome" by some commentators. This may be reason enough to call Mr. Zimmerman's mental health into question, something that even under bourgeois justice could mitigate his personal responsibility for his actions.
However, whatever Mr. Zimmerman's mental state, it seems clear that his actions are only the logical fulfillment of a culture and a society that more and more encourages a "shoot first and ask questions later" attitude towards problem solving. An environment that more and more erodes social solidarity and promotes the most lurid interpersonal competition. Whether it is at the workplace or in the streets, decomposing capitalism seeks to turn everyone into an isolated monad, looking after their own best interests. If you aren't prepared to be brutal and ruthless, you are reduced to the status of a social loser, or worse, in Trayvon's case, cannon fodder in the fulfillment of a sick will to power.
For us, the real story in the Trayvon Martin case is the intersection of such a personality disorder with the social decomposition of capitalist society. Racism may predate the development of decomposition, and maybe even capitalism itself, but today's expression of racial animus take place in a context of the utter degradation of human relations characteristic of a moribund society. Rather than focusing on the question of Mr. Zimmerman's possible individual criminal responsibility (which would allow us to think "justice" could be served by his prosecution), we ask what kind of society produces the conditions that allow a personality such as his easy access to a gun, legitimates his power lust by giving him a position as a "neighborhood watch captain" and then emboldens him to fulfill his power fantasy through the "stand your ground" law? Our answer: a capitalist society in full decomposition.7
The absolutely bizarre law that may or may not allow Zimmerman to escape prosecution in this case seems to us to itself be a function of the social decomposition of capitalist society. These laws—on the books in some two dozen states— revise the common law standard for self-defense by allowing individuals to use deadly force to defend themselves and others without first obliging them to exhaust all opportunities to retreat from the situation. Moreover, many of these laws allow individual citizens to use deadly force to prevent the commission of any felony: even crimes against property such as burglary. Couple these laws with the vast expansion of the right to carry a concealed weapon that has occurred over the last decade and American society begins to resemble more and more the days of the Wild West. In the time of the Tea Party, even law enforcement it seems is being privatized with deadly consequences. American society moves further and further towards embodying the "everyman for himself" mentality that characterizes capitalist decomposition on so many levels.
Not surprisingly, law enforcement officials have generally opposed such laws. As professionals in repression, they know they don't need vigilante loose canons armed to the teeth making their job of policing capitalist society any more difficult.8 Not least because it flies in the face of the ideology of equality and justice and creates a social layer that thinks the only way the law will be enforced is to take it into one's own hands. 9 But in today's political climate, it seems as if doesn't matter what the experts say; the legislative process advances according to its own perverted political calculus that often defies logic. The inordinate weight carried by the National Rifle Association (N.R.A.) in U.S. politics has only been magnified by the Tea Party ascendancy, a political fact that makes the main factions of the bourgeoisie more and more uneasy, even as the Republicans repeatedly seek political gain by exploiting fears that the Democrats will take your guns away, and Democrats strain themselves to convince the electorate of their pro-gun credentials in awkward campaign photo-ops involving shotguns and dead animals.
In the end, we don't think that there can be any "justice" for Trayvon in the bourgeois justice system. Zimmerman may or may not be prosecuted by the state in the end. But even if he is, this will not address the social decomposition that produces the conditions that allow an act like this to transpire in the first place. The only way we can transcend these episodes of senseless interpersonal violence is to abolish capitalism itself altogether. Only then can we advance towards building a truly human community, in which each individual is valued according to his unique capabilities in service of the species as a whole. In such a society, there will be no need for police, "neighborhood watch captains" or "stand your ground laws." While the outrage over Trayvon's killing is indeed justified—we don't think we gain very much by focusing on the prosecution of one man.10 We need to call the entire society itself into question. To do less only lets the real criminal off the hook: capitalism itself.
1 Fox News Commentator Geraldo Rivera sparked controversy when he said that Trayvon's hoodie was as much responsible for his death as George Zimmerman was.
2 Matt Williams. "Obama: Trayvon Martin death a tragedy that must be fully investigated." The Guardian. March 23, 2012.
3 Although this didn't prevent Newt Gingrich from scolding Obama about politicizing the tragedy and using it to "divide Americans."
4 Indeed, on the face of it the idea that justice for African-Americans—disproportionate victims of the U.S. bourgeois justice system—involves an arrest and a prosecution seems odd. According to Michelle Alexander, writing in The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color-Blindness (The New Press: New York) 2010, there are now more African Americans under correctional control as a result of bourgeois "justice" than there were slaves in 1850.
5 Curt Anderson. "Trayvon Martin case: US could bring hate crime charge against George Zimmerman." The Christian Science Monitor. March 25, 2012.
6 Of course, the narrative in this case may be slightly complicated by the fact that Zimmerman's mother is Hispanic. The media seems to have downplayed this fact though as it might disrupt the more simplistic and racially incendiary narrative of a "white man" shooting an unarmed black teenager.
7 In fact, rather than taking steps to prevent such a person from obtaining a deadly weapon, the culture and the laws seem to actually encourage it.
8 The "stand your ground" gun laws are just one example of a growing phenomenon of laws being crafted that totally contradict the consensus of the experts in the fields they concern. This seems to be a growing feature of the U.S. political crisis. Other prominent examples include: the anti-immigrant "Papers Please Laws," which many law enforcement officials have argued only make their jobs more difficult and the non-dischargeability of student loans in bankruptcy, which just about every expert to study the matter has denounced. So irrational is this law that it is now even opposed by some student loan companies!
9 Of course, this doesn't mean that the state wouldn't hesitate to use such social layers in the service of the repression of working-class movements if the situation called for it. Perhaps, there is more than a surface connection between these developments in contemporary U.S. society and the Freikorps that crushed the German Revolution?
10 So successfully has the issue been framed in terms of Zimmerman's personal guilt that the so-called New Black Panther Party has issued a $10,000 reward for his capture. What they intend to do with him if he is captured is unclear, but it is hard not to see in this a mirror image of the sick vigilantism that led to Trayvon's death in the first place.