The ‘Murican Dream (A Long Trayvon Martin Rant)

“Apparently, we are now at the point when a seventeen year old boy, unarmed, must make all the correct judgments during a confrontation with a grown man in order not to be shot to death.”

-David Simon, co-creator of HBO’s The Wire

I’ve been called a nigger, to my face, somewhere in the neighborhood of a dozen times in my life.  Clerks have followed me around stores countless times.  I’ve been automatically put in remedial English classes on 3 occasions and told by an English teacher that I have problems writing (it salted my opinion of my ability for years).  I’ve been stopped by police dozens of times, asked what I was doing, occasionally searched, yet never given a citation or a warning.  Once a cop pulled up when I was sitting in a car outside my house talking to a friend.  He checked my driver’s license three times (never hers, of course, she was white) on the grounds that there had been a robbery at a nearby convenience store.  He admitted when he first saw me that I didn’t fit the description except that I was black.  (Couldn’t she have been the getaway driver?)  The worst was the time the police pulled me over when I was driving home from work and drew guns on me.  The 1st cop asked for my registration, when I reached for it (it was in the glove-box) he blurted Whoa!Whoa!Whoa! at me while his partner aimed his gun at my head through the passenger window.  His intent was clear: Don’t move your hand another inch or you’re gonna get shot in the face. They kept me there for two hours, repeatedly checking my driver’s license and registration.  They said, once again, that my vehicle ‘matched a description,” but considering I was driving a grey Nissan pick up with blue side panels, you can count me  skeptical.

But I digress.  My point is, most black men have stories like these.  It’s just the reality of life in America.  I typically don’t give it much thought.

But I can’t treat this stuff so lightly anymore.  I mean, I live in a world where, as a black man, if being harassed and followed around is all you get, you’re actually doing okay.  Think about it; in any of the above instances, if I had been belligerent or, God-forbid physical, I might have been killed with impunity.

I mean, what the hell is that?  This is America, right?

We’re at the point now where a 12-year-old black kid needs a completely different set of instructions from a 12-year-old white kid.  If anything happens they won’t trust you if you’re black.  If you’re black and anything less than an absolute angel, you’re guilty.  And always run, because if you defend yourself successfully, the odds are you’re going to jail; if you defend yourself and lose, you could be dead.  And it will be your fault.

Yeah, yeah, I’m just being reactionary.  It’s got nothing at all to do with race.  It’s just happenstance.  Again.

The truth is, that while many of the details in the Trayvon Martin case have nothing to do with race, at its core, it’s all about race.  Race is what made George Zimmerman suspicious of Trayvon in the 1st place.  Race is why people are so quick to believe that Trayvon is a thug or must have initiated the physical confrontation that lead Zimmerman to shoot him.  Of course this is all based on Zimmerman’s account, which he had a month and a half to work on before being seriously questioned about it.

But I cannot possibly believe that if Zimmerman was black and Trayvon was white that Zimmerman’s story is the one law enforcement would go with any more than I believe that Sean Hannity and Fox News would help raise money for a black Zimmerman’s defense. Or that the police would give black  Zimmerman 44 days to get his story straight before arresting him. Or that a jury of six white women from a small southern town would sympathize with an armed black man patrolling the neighborhood and shooting an unarmed white teenager. Or that a 17-year-old white teenager would get racial profiled in his father’s gated community.

Don’t get me wrong, the judge’s instructions were horrendous; Zimmerman actually rejected Stand Your Ground in favor of a standard self defense claim. Yet the judge instructed the jury that Zimmerman had the right to stand his ground and Juror B37 has since admitted that Stand Your Ground factored into the acquittal.  Simultaneously, the judged failed to instruct them  that in a standard self-defense claim Zimmerman needs to prove that he didn’t initiate the confrontation.

Thus, I believe the evidence, or lack thereof, leaves room for reasonable doubt, particularly with how self-defense laws currently stand.  Moreover, I think the Dept. of Justice going after Zimmerman is de facto double jeopardy, a violation of Zimmerman’s Constitutional rights.  And I don’t think two wrongs make a right.

The fact is, this whole thing stinks.  And it hurts.  If Trayvon’s death was a punch to the gut, the verdict is a kick in the balls.

I honestly can’t help feeling…unwelcome these days. It’s somewhat familiar feeling,  unfortunately.

I know.  Everyone has to deal with racism.  But let’s be honest here.  America has one of the great atrocities of human history on its books. 400 years of the most brutal, oppressive, and dehumanizing slavery ever known followed by another 100 years of legislative, systematic, and violent oppression.

Trayvon Martin’s death is just an echo of this legacy.

Consider that at no point in American history have blacks enjoyed equal standing with whites in terms of income, wealth, education quality or access, job opportunities, corporate leadership, or representation in government.  This on top of being historically red-lined by banks denying us access to home and business loans, subjected to gentrification, stopped, frisked, arrested and charged by law enforcement with much greater frequency, and punished more severely for similar crimes.  So let’s stop pretending that there’s an equivalency, it’s ignorant if not downright duplicitous.

The problem is that we’ve allowed cowards, liars, and bigots–bullies essentially–to set the terms of the discussion.  And bullies hate a fair fight.  They have instead created an environment in which there can be no discourse on the subject of race, save for the occasional rant by Chris Rock.

When we’re not hitting each other over the head with the race card, we’re denying it outright (don’t be fooled, this is just a means of deflecting the entire argument back), focusing on minutia completely out of context as evidence of egality (a.k.a. the “see, when viewed in a vacuum, this detail isn’t racist”), or simply burying our heads in the sand and proclaiming that we’ve arrived at a post-racial America.

It’s bullshit.  And shame on all of us for accepting it as anything else.

The fact is, Trayvon Martin’s death and Zimmerman’s acquittal are about race.  A lot of things are about race, and will continue to be, because we refuse to face the issue.

I think about Germany, another nation with a Great Atrocity on its books.  They study the Holocaust as ugly and humiliating as it is.  They look at it and seek not only answers but solutions.  And soon after World War II they came to the conclusion that their government no longer has the right to take a person’s life.  Their current constitution, ratified in 1949, abolishes capital punishment.

That’s the kind of approach we need here in the United States.  Instead of meekly slapping injustice and discrimination away whenever it pops up, we should be actively hunting it down, rooting it out, and crushing it utterly.

More importantly, we can’t keep letting the people who are indifferent, weak-minded, self-interested, or hateful keep controlling the argument. There aren’t two equal sides to the issue.  There’s right and there’s wrong. We have to be determined to be on the right side of this issue forever more.  Not to make up for slavery, which at this point is impossible, but to ensure that inequality and discrimination are completely eliminated and bigotry of every stripe is banished to the shadows where it may wallow only in tremulous fear of the light.

Of course, this is only my dream.

We don’t actually live in a post-racialist America.  Toes are going to get stepped on, nerves will be frayed.  There are blatant racists and more significantly, oblivious ones.  Having your worldview shattered is an unnerving, occasionally violent thing.  It’s unpleasant.  But we can’t let that deter us.

We can no longer afford to be tolerant of intolerance.

Free.  Thought.

And boycott Florida.

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There’s Justice in the Death of Death as Justice – Pt. 2

It appears a measure banning the death penalty may be on the ballot in California this November.  The 800,000 signatures gathered are currently being validated so we shall see.

I posted in a previous blog about the systematic racism inherent in the application of capital punishment, but in doing so I may have missed the greater point:

Innocent people are very likely being executed–in which case race or any other group identifiers are a secondary concern.  There is no way to be sure about how many wrongful executions have taken place because courts do not review the potential innocence of a convict after execution.  Resources are allocated to those whose lives can still be saved.

The execution of Claude Jones is a prime example.  Jones was executed in 2000 after George W. Bush’s clemency advisers failed to inform the Texas governor of  a request for a DNA test.   A hair allegedly coming from Claude Jones was the only evidence linking him to the crime scene.  The DNA technology was not available at the time of Jones’ conviction and Gov. Bush had stayed previous executions to allow for DNA testing.  In 2007, a judge ordered for a DNA test of the hair sample.  The results were not definitive, but suggested that the hair sample did not come from Jones.  (You can read more about Claude Jones and others who may have been wrongfully executed here.)

DNA evidence has played a key role in exonerating several death penalty convicts.  Unfortunately, DNA testing is impossible in a great majority of cases.  However, there are other evidential and procedural mistakes that lead to convictions of innocent people.

  • Confessions have been obtained by police through coercive interrogation tactics.
  • Faulty line up techniques and witness leading has strengthened inaccurate witness testimony.
  • Other characteristics, such as gang affiliation, drastically affect conviction rates, irrespective of the evidence.
Los Angeles District Attorney, Steve Cooley

There is also the political angle.  District attorneys, often elected to office, don’t want to look weak on crime.  Convictions rates sell better than satisfying justice.  An example of this is the injunction filed against Los Angeles district attorney Steve Cooley for retaliating against prosecutors who unionized  because they were being pressured to convict people they believed to be innocent.

Perhaps the best argument against continuing with the death penalty is the staggering (even prohibitive) cost of capital cases.  Simply put, it is far more expensive to execute a convict than to imprison that convict for life without parole.  In fact, several states have repealed or discontinued capital punishment solely because of the expense.

The exorbitant cost (roughly US$30 million per execution)  lies in the additional requirements imbued in death penalty cases.  There are typically twice as many attorneys involved; there are more pre-trial motions; jury selection is more in -depth and jurors are usually sequestered; two trials are required, one for guilt and one for sentencing; the actual trial tends to take 3-5 times longer; then comes the series of Constitutionally-mandated appeals, during which time, inmates are held in maximum security on death row at an additional cost of roughly US$90,000 per year, per inmate for a duration generally lasting between 10-15 years.  The appeals system is so backlogged it takes roughly 5 years just to get an attorney assigned (imagine if you’re innocent :().

This long, drawn out system full of multiple appeals is the source of much consternation for death penalty supporters.  Unfortunately for them, there’s not much that can be done in this regard.  The Fifth Amendment plainly states:

No person shall…be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.

So until the convicted have availed themselves of every legal process they are due, the state does not have the right to kill them.  It might seem like a hassle but it’s for good reason.  A Columbia Law School study showed that 68% of death penalty convictions are overturned on appeal and 82% of re-tried death penalty cases resulted in life sentences. In fact, only 1 in 10 death penalty convictions actually leads to an execution.

Death penalty cases are often motivated by the emotional response to the crime rather than a reasoned evaluation of the evidence.  Once reason is applied, juries find that most of these cases do not meet the death penalty standard–because you don’t just want to be sure, you want to be absolutely-fucking-positive of guilt.  That’s almost never the case, as the stats show.

We must also consider the toll death penalty convictions take on prosecutors and jurors.  These people are responsible for answering for the murder of one person (or more) with the murder of another.  We have to remember that in reality, capital punishment tests people’s conscience and moral compass.  It’s one thing to pontificate in the abstract and quite another to make the decision about a person you can look in the eye and live with it.

I am sympathetic to seeing violent, merciless killers pay the ultimate price for what they’ve done.  I would certainly want anyone who kills someone I care about to face execution.  But I am not so thirsty for revenge that I’d risk murdering an innocent person.

The death penalty does not deter crime.  It is extremely costly.   It’s rife with mistakes, politics, and abuse.  It’s bogged down with mandatory procedures.  It takes an emotional toll on everyone involved.  It has and will continue to kill innocent people.  It is a revenge tool primarily used by third world nations and despotic regimes–most of the modern world has abandoned it.  And in the end it does not bring the victims back.

If and when you cast your vote on this measure in November, it’s important to remember that it’s not about the morality of executing brutal murderers, it’s about whether or not you want to continue this terribly flawed, biased, and ineffective system.

You have to ask yourself if a little blood from the guilty is worth a little innocent blood and a lot of taxpayer money.

There’s Justice in the Death of Death as Justice

America's past or future?

Connecticut just became the 17th state to repeal the death penalty.   Japan, China, and the United States are the only modern nations that still employ capital punishment.

Most modern nations have banned it outright.  Israel uses it only in extreme cases such as treason and terrorism (understandably).  Even Russia has a de facto death penalty ban.

We share  company with the likes of Iran, North Korea, and Uganda.

(Click to enlarge)

I’ve gone back and forth on the death penalty myself.  I’ve been leaning against it in recent years, but after a little digging on the subject, I have become firm my opposition to capital punishment.

I’m not opposed to it theoretically.  I accept that the death penalty is not justice but state sponsored revenge.  It does not rehabilitate.  It does not deter criminals or affect crime rates.

I’m okay with it–theoretically–based on my gut reaction when I hear about the absolutely horrible things some people do, their total disregard for other people’s lives and humanity.

My problem, however, is with how capital punishment is applied.  For a government to execute one of it’s own citizens there can be no bias and guilt must be proven beyond any doubt whatsoever.  One innocent person being murdered by the government is unacceptable.

So far, we’ve failed (EPICALLY) on both counts.

  • Since 1973, over 130 people have been released from death row with evidence of their innocence.
  • From 1973-1999, there was an average of 3 exonerations per year. From 2000-2011, there has been an average of 5 exonerations per year.

DNA testing has played a key role in at least 14 of the exonerations.  But there are many cases where DNA cannot help because of the deterioration, misplacing, or destruction of  evidence.

Think about that, over 130 people found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt were later proven innocent. It’s very likely that dozens of innocent people have been executed by the state simply because we do not have the means to prove innocence.

Then there’s bias.  Leaving aside gender and age which are each discussions on their own, race plays a HUGE factor in capital punishment cases.  The race of the victim, the race of the jurors, and even the race of the prosecutors significantly impacts the rate of  death penalty convictions.

Race of the victim in death penalty convictions.

Nationally, people who kill whites are 3 times more like to receive the death penalty than people who kill blacks and 4 times more likely than people who kill Hispanics.  Additionally all-white juries convict black defendants 16% more often than white defendants (in all types of criminal cases).

This is the textbook definition of systematic racism.  If a white man killed a Chinese man, don’t you think the likelihood of a death penalty conviction would change if the Jury was mainly Chinese or mainly white?  What about a black or white jury judging a black panther or a skinhead? If the victim is a 19-year old pretty blonde or a 40-year old migrant worker? It’s naive–or dishonest–to say that bias wouldn’t play a role.

This is an ingrained dilemma.  People are convicted by juries of their peers.  The attitude and mindset of all Americans plays a role.  You would have to “de-prejudice” every single person in America to fix the glitch in the system.  Impossible.

The Unabomber attacks, the Holocaust Museum shooting, the Oklahoma City bombing, the Centennial Olympic Park bombing, the 2001 Anthrax attacks, and the 2010 Austin IRS building plane crash were all acts of domestic terrorism carried out by whites.  (This is to say nothing of the 8 murders, 17 attempted murders, 153 assaults, 3 kidnappings, 41 bombings, 73 arsons, 383 death threats, and 619 bomb threats carried out against abortion clinics and providers since 1977, a majority of which by whites.)  Yet we didn’t hear a national outcry to have young white males get singled out and searched at security checkpoints.  No one caused a incident because they saw a white guy wearing a hooded sweatshirt and sunglasses boarding a plane.

Would it still be the case if all that stuff had been done by Mexican-Americans?

The fact is we’re prejudiced.   We see other people and before getting to know them as individuals we form an opinion based on how they dress, act, and talk.  It’s part of our nature–everyone’s nature.   We continue to combat it and we continue to get better about correcting it.  But we are a long, long way from getting past it.  In fact, we’ll probably have banned capital punishment long before getting beyond all the isms we might have against other people.

And until we do we cannot have a system that is so vulnerable to those biases deciding who lives and who dies.