Some Thoughts On Trayvon Martin

This week I've done a good deal of reading and quite a bit of thinking about the George Zimmerman trial and the various issues that it brings up. Let's work through a few:

The Difference Between Legal and Just
It seems that in this case the prosecution was unable to provide evidence, or a narrative, that George Zimmerman's killing of Trayvon Martin was not an act of self defense. The burden of proof in a criminal case is rightfully very high, and we want prosecutors to be forced to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a crime has been committed. In this case, the prosecution was unable to convince the jury that Zimmerman's act was not one of self defense, and so they made a decision that we will call the "correct" one.

But that does not make it the just decision.

The facts of this case have been repeated over and over ad nauseum and I won't repeat them again here, but the basics of self-defense law in Florida (and across a wide swath of the rest of the country, thanks to the corporate model legislation composing front known as ALEC) are such that one can conceivably INITIATE an altercation and then act with lethal force if one should begin to lose.

It's worth pointing out that many in the political establishment have attempted to defend the NSA's egregious Orwellian spying regime by pointing out that "no laws have been broken."

Quite simply, there is a vast gulf between what is "legal" and what is "just." It is certainly unfortunate that this is the case, and perhaps in an ideal country it would not be, but America is simply not that country.  It is legal for George Zimmerman to prevent himself from losing a scuffle with a lanky, unarmed 16-year-old boy by shooting that boy through the chest. It is.

But it is also an unconscionable injustice.

I've been thinking a lot lately about the strange phenomenon of conservative Christians who were rooting for George Zimmerman's acquittal. They saw, as many gun rights advocates saw, nothing wrong with his action. He was protecting his neighborhood from a threat. He was protecting himself from a threat. He was legally allowed to have that gun. From his cold dead hands, and all that.

I find this to be a fairly straightforward and logical line of thinking for a gun rights activist. I disagree, but I get it.

I find it so completely out of line with the teachings of Christ as to be entirely irreconcilable with His teaching. 

Christ teaches us to turn the other cheek when struck--a seemingly clear cut argument against acting in violent self defense, but certainly a clear cut argument against lethal self defense.

Christ teaches us to offer our tunic to one who would take our cloak--a seemingly clear cut argument against the belief that the Christian has the right to violent, or lethal, defense of his own "property." And, for the uninitiated, property is in scare quotes because everything a Christian has, belongs to the Lord (which is why we don't put up that big a fight when he tells us to give him 10%, it's really more that he's letting us keep 90%).

The Bible also teaches us that vengeance belongs to the Lord--a seemingly clear cut argument against seeking vengeance, or revenge, or vigilantism.

I find arguments that Christians are entitled to firearms to be extremely problematic, even for so-called sporting reasons.

As for concealed carry, as for self or home defense, as for standing one's ground, I find Christian arguments for the ownership of firearms to be simply unChristian.

I've seen a lot of talk in the days since the trial about the ways in which it was either "not about race" or "should not have been about race" or the ways in which various participants in these conversations "don't like to make it about race."

This is absurd.

My favorite recurring phrase regarding the desire for colorblindess was "I just want to see people as people." Unfortunately, this faux-righteous claim for a progressive outlook is actually a tool for the very repression you claim to be above. Colorblind language is part of racism.  Let's unpack why that is.

It's very common to hear someone claim that the criminal justice system is not explicitly racist. Police are not allowed to profile, after all! (Ignoring for a second the fact that's only half-true,) the fact that it's mostly blacks who are arrested for crimes is simply a result of the fact that they commit more crimes, the argument goes. 

The idea that any race commits more or fewer crimes than any other has been proven untrue again and again. Selective policing and the decision to "fight crime" by targeting black neighborhoods over white neighborhoods is the true reason for this discrepancy.

As far as that rhetorical argument, though, is it not easy to see how it breaks down upon inspection? The sincere hope of the colorblind is that by refusing to "see race" or at least to "make it about race," we will bring about equality. But the drug war has been color-blindly raging for decades, and black incarceration rates absolutely dwarf white incarceration rates. So how is colorblindness working out for you so far?

Now, let's take a look at prisons with colorblind eyes. What do we see? People. Criminals. Not 10-to1 disparities between minorities and whites, just people.

So what has colorblindness accomplished? It has simply taught us to turn a blind eye to actual injustice as it actually takes place, and taught us to ignore the plain, visible evidence of that injustice as it sits in the prison system.

Yes, let's pat ourselves on the back for how very progressive colorblindness is.


My Review of The New Jim Crow

It wouldn’t be an understatement to consider Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness a paradigm shifting book. Many Americans are cognizant of the fact that the criminal justice system in America today is less than fair, but Alexander demonstrates that the racial disparity in incarceration is precisely the point. The system isn’t locking up African Americans at rates absurdly higher than those of whites because it is broken, it is doing so because that is precisely what it was designed to do.
The New Jim Crow is one of the most powerful, shocking, and infuriating books I have ever read. While I recommended Jeremy Scahill’s Dirty Wars to anyone with an interest in national security affairs, I recommend The New Jim Crow to absolutely everyone who lives in the United States of America. It’s that important, and Alexander makes her point that impactfully.
The book argues that within a few decades of the racial caste system of “Jim Crow” ending, a new racial caste system was built in its place. Mass Incarceration began in the 1980s with the Reagan Administration’s war on drugs–a war declared at a time when drug use nationwide was actually declining. But according to the book, “Since 1980, the number of people incarcerated for drug offenses rose 1100%, from some 41K to over half a million, while drug use has remained relatively flat. 90% of those incarcerated are black or latino, despite whites making up a slight majority of drug users.”
Though what makes Mass Incarceration a true caste system is the fact that it extends far beyond simply jails and prisons. “Unfairness in criminal justice doesn’t end with prison. Legal discrimination exists in employment, civic involvement, housing, and welfare for those permanently labeled felons. Extensive use of probation and parole exacerbate the problem as more people were imprisoned for simple parole violations in 2000 than for ALL REASONS in 1980.”
Alexander writes that though the war on drugs is supposedly a war on a thing, the numbers belie that it is actually a war on people–specifically brown people: “Human Rights Watch reported in 2000 that, in seven states, African Americans constitute 80 to 90 percent of all drug offenders sent to prison. In at least fifteen states, blacks are admitted to prison on drug charges at a rate from twenty to fifty-seven times greater than that of white men.” By 2000, the incarceration rate of African Americans had increased more than twenty-six times the rates of 1983.
Of course the idea that the criminal justice system is INTENTIONALLY racist begs for skepticism, but Alexander speaks to exactly this fact. As the increase in drug arrests was due, not to an increase in drug crime, but to an increase in seeking out such arrests by law enforcement. Between the “crack epidemic” rhetoric of the Reagan Administration and other “us” vs. “them” media portrayals of drug criminals, the pump was primed for bias, intentional or otherwise. Then, when a check on majoritarian overreach was most needed, the US Supreme Court instead raised the bar necessary to prove discrimination and then effectively closed its doors to future challenges of racial bias in policing. Indeed, the Court let law enforcement off its leash, effectively carving a “War on Drugs” exemption into the Fourth Amendment.
Alexander writes:
The risk that prosecutorial discretion will be racially biased is especially acute in the drug enforcement context, where virtually identical behavior is susceptible to a wide variety of interpretations and responses and the media imagery and political discourse has been so thoroughly racialized. Whether a kid is perceived as a dangerous drug-dealing thug or instead viewed as a good kid who was merely experimenting with drugs and selling to a few friends has to do with the ways in which information about illegal drug activity is processed and interpreted, in a social climate in which drug dealing is racially defined. As a former U.S. Attorney explained:
I had an [assistant U.S. attorney who] wanted to drop the gun charge against the defendant [in a case in which] there were no extenuating circumstances. I asked “Why do you want to drop the gun offense?” And he said, “He’s a rural guy and grew up on a farm. The gun he had with him was a rifle. He’s a good ol’ boy, and all good ol’ boys have rifles, and it’s not like he was a gun-toting drug dealer.” But he was a gun-toting drug dealer, exactly.
Alexander shows that the US Supreme Court has immunized police from complaints in bias in policing, prosecutors from complaints of bias in charging and jury selection, and the system as a whole from complaints of bias in sentencing. It simply refuses to hear cases arguing for racial bias unless that bias is demonstrated overtly: explicitly race based, or racist language. Mere racist results are insufficient proof.
Another reason the war on drugs is waged against communities of color is that they simply lack the political might to raise a fuss. Where paramilitary tactics to break up perception drug abuse by soccer moms, ecstasy use by teens, or pot use by frats would silly in severe backlash. These tactics in the ghetto, by contrast, go largely unnoticed by most of society.
Yet the injustice doesn’t end with incarceration, the shame and stigma of a felony on ones record, paired with the legal discrimination against felons in employment, housing, welfare, healthcare, education, professional licensing, voting, serving on juries, custody make reintegration an almost unbearable hardship. Additionally, many ground face extremely high debts as a result of their incarceration, debts they struggle to pay in the face of bleak employment options, and which can paradoxically lead them back to prison if left unpaid.
Overcoming this system is daunting. First because it requires overcoming or own denial. It sounds exaggerated, even fanciful, to believe that in our colorblind age Mass Incarceration is a thinly veiled racial caste system, but an examination of the facts and myths surrounding Mass Incarceration can lead to no other conclusion.
But we must overcome this denial, end the legal discrimination, the ghetto to prison pipelines, end the dug war, and dismantle Mass Incarceration. More importantly, however, Americans must learn to care across racial lines: the reflexively conjured image of the face of a drug criminal must cease to be a brown one. Real economic opportunity must be extended to the ghetto.
There is no moral alternative.


My Review of Dirty Wars

While reading Jeremy Scahill's new book Dirty Wars: The World is A Battlefield, I described it to a friend as a "direct sequel" to Lawrence Wright's The Looming Tower. Now that I've finished it, I'll gladly double-down on that assertion--and not only because it's a spiritual successor to that book, but also because it too deserves a Pulitzer.

Where Wright led us through the story of the rise of radical Islam to its climax on September 11, Scahill takes us through the following decade. As Wright told the story of both the FBI team following bin Laden and the man himself, Scahill follows JSOC, the CIA, various privateers and warlords, and their fight against the likes of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), al Shabab, the Taliban, and others.

The book tells the story of the rise of the Joint Special Operations Command, and the quiet deployment of special and covert ops forces in countries around the world, and away from the places where official wars have been declared. These so-called small wars are taking place off the books and out of most headlines in places like Somalia, Yemen, Mali, and Pakistan. The new military doctrine that "The world is a battlefield" has allowed both the Bush and the Obama administration to bend the letter of the law to mean that war can be waged anywhere, any time, as long as it is in the interest of the United States of America.

Dirty Wars finds its humanity, and it's most personal story, in the life and death of Anwar al-Awlaki. The American born cleric who transformed from a pro-US defender of democracy and non-violence in the wake of 9/11 to a radicalized firebrand who preached on jihad and praised the deaths of Americans. Awlaki's story echoes the themes of the rest of the book: the best anti-terrorism efforts of the United States inexorably inflame radical Islam rather than suppress it, and rather than learn from these failures, our country simply walks further down a darkened path from which return is unlikely.

The book is incredibly well reported, it touches on nearly every major story of the post-9/11 national security beat. The breadth and depth of the interviews that support its stories make it clear that Scahill is not alone in his concern about the path American militarism has taken. Current and former officials, analysts, fighters, tribesman, warlords, and victims' families come together to tell a story of unchecked power, imprecise violence, and global war.

Dirty Wars' darkest chapters are easily its 34th and 35th. The former is comprised largely of a letter from American-educated Nasser A. Al-Aulaqi to President Barack Obama, pleading with the President to reconsider his apparent desire to kill--without charge or trial--Nasser's son Anwar. The latter tells in gruesome detail the story of a botched raid on a homestead in Gardez, Afghanistan, where JSOC forces descended on the household of anti-Taliban Afghani police officer killing several members of the family--some of them women--and then callously attempting to cover up the mistake.

Scahill's book is easily one of the most important of the year, and I am greatly looking forward to seeing the book's companion film, also titled Dirty Wars. I recommend it highly and almost without qualification.  It will leave you with pressing questions that you'll be immediately wanting to ask of your politicians.

When can, or can't, the President decide to kill an American abroad?
Why is the Yemeni journalist Abdulelah Haider Shaye still in prison?
and perhaps most upsettingly,
Why was Anwar al-Awlaki's American-born 16-year-old son Abdulrahman, an innocent boy, killed by a drone strike while eating with his cousins?

Dirty Wars: The World Is A Battlefield will make you want the answers.