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Crimcast is a virtual resource devoted to critical conversations about criminology and criminal justice issues. Our blogposts, twitter feeds, podcasts and other content provide an overview of trends, research, commentary and events of interest to criminal justice practitioners, academics and the general public. CrimCast is sponsored by The Center for Crime and Popular Culture, St. Francis College, Brooklyn, NY.

"Racism Savings Time": Trayvon Martin Verdict Sets the Clock Back 60 Years

Nickie Phillips

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Acclaimed comic book writer Mark Waid summed up the frustration with last Saturday's verdict when he tweeted: "Remember, it's Racism Savings Time tonight. Don't forget to set your clock back 60 years before you go to bed." Thousands of New Yorkers took to the streets last night to demonstrate their outrage that Florida's criminal justice system could end up acquitting an armed vigilante who gunned down a black kid who was returning to his home from getting a snack at a convenience store. Demonstrators also amassed in Los Angeles, D.C. and Oakland.  They are asking, who or what is to blame?  The jury?  The prosecutors? The judge?  "Stand your ground" laws?   A racist system?  A racist society?  As one demonstrator summed it up, anyone who cares about social justice knows that the wrong verdict was reached for whatever reason.

But reasons matter.  If something is broken, the fix, however difficult, must confront the reality of the problem. Here are some notable takes on why Zimmerman was acquitted and what it means for American criminal justice and society in general.

  • CNN weighs in saying that the prosecution's case was weak in a number of ways, including over-charging the defendant in the first place. The prosecutors, then, used poor discretion.
  • USA Today opines that the defense failed to refute the Zimmerman's self-defense claim adequately, suggesting they missed an opportunity to paint the picture of racism-based vigilantism that was operating in the situation.
  • One can question whether a mostly white and all female jury could truly understand the social reality of being a black male teenager.  Dr. Delores Jones-Brown has documented the "symbolic assailant" assumption that people often paste onto young black men regardless of their actual individual behavior. In this case, Trayvon, the vicitim, was under suspicion, made all the more easy by stereotypes about young black men as perpetrators.
  • Andrew Cohen in the Atlantic and Common Dreams write that the problem is Florida's Stand Your Ground laws (Cohen: "You can go looking for trouble in Florida, with a gun and a great deal of racial bias, and you can find that trouble, and you can act upon that trouble in a way that leaves a young man dead, and none of it guarantees that you will be convicted of a crime.")
  • The Martin's family attorney says that Trayvon Martin is a symbol of unequal justice in America, along with Emmett Till and Medgar Evers, suggesting that the court failed to provide justice given the context of continued American racism in the minds of criminal justice actors and/or the system itself. (Sadly, in the same press conference, Zimmerman's attorney rolled out reverse racism in suggesting that Zimmerman was vilified because he wasn't black.)
  • Gawker and Racism Review reminded us before the verdict that some media engaged in a racism smear campaign that attempted to discredit Trayvon Martin as a victim; some of these attitudes may have made their way to the courtroom or been in jurors' minds.
  • The genuine, heartfelt reactions of demonstrators say it best here; The criminal justice system just isn't in line with the present-day social justice concerns of Americans.

Crimcast takes issue with State Attorney General Angela Corey's statement that criminal justice should only take place in a courtroom and that people should refrain from having opinions on the Trayvon Martin case and its verdict.  Criminal justice takes place everywhere-- in courts but also online and in movies and on television and in schools and in one's imagination-- and it is a part of public life in a democracy.  We find Corey's appeal, which privileges alleged technical and legal competency, tragically forgets that the criminal justice system must work for the American people.  It does not exist in a vacuum.  It is a system that absolutely must be up for commentary.  Whereas we agree that the court is the formal place for justice, and that it should be respected as an institution aimed at actualizing the rule of law, we also believe that its meaning in the context of the issues of the day and whether it is working is always up for debate.  Participating in a democracy fundamentally means that none of its institutions or actors should be beyond opinion-making-- even when those opinions are critical or uncomfortable.  And progressive criminologists in particular should not be silent in doing newsmaking criminology.

Comment below or email us (crimcast@gmail.com) if you have found a response to the verdict that is particularly good at uncovering why it happened and what it means.