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<p>Photo by Roberto Gonzalez/Getty Images</p>

Photo by Roberto Gonzalez/Getty Images

A protestor in Sanford, Florida, March 26, 2012.

Justice Hidden In A Hoodie

The shooting of an unarmed black youth in America's South has reignited the volatile debate over race and justice in the United States.

“If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon.” (Barack Obama)

America's first black president rarely talks about race.

This country as a whole rarely talks about race, despite it being what David Remnick, Obama's biographer and the editor of the New Yorker magazine, describes as the nation's ''primal wound, the incendiary element in our national saga''.

Young African-Americans, if they graduate from high school, have a one in four chance of going to university but a one in three chance of going to prison.

Just how incendiary an element race is in the United States was graphically demonstrated by an incident that occurred shortly after President Obama moved into the White House. One of the nation's leading African-American academics, Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr, of Harvard University, was arrested as he was entering his own home after a neighbor who mistook him for a burglar alerted the police. In the controversy that ensued, Obama remarked: ''What I think we know, separate and apart from this incident, is that there is a long history in this country of African-Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately. That's just a fact." 

Due to the outcry from law enforcement agencies, the President was forced to apologize for his remarks. But his apology had more to do with a truth that can't be spoken than an error of fact.

Now the fatal shooting in Sanford, Florida of an unarmed, 17-year-old black youth, Trayvon Martin, by a Neighborhood Watch volunteer, 28-year-old George Zimmerman, has put the vexed issue of policing and the African-American community back on the national stage. Zimmerman, who has a white father and a Latino mother, has yet to be arrested or charged with any crime as he claimed he was acting in self-defence.

The local Orlando Sentinel newspaper reported that Zimmerman told police he had been struck down by a single punch from Trayvon Martin and that Martin had then slammed his head into the pavement. Thousands of protestors around the country who have rallied in support of Martin contend he's the victim of a racially motivated hate crime and was murdered as he was walking home from a local store by a ''wannabe cop''.

<p>Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images</p>

Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

A memorial to Trayvon Martin outside the Twin Lakes community, Sanford, Florida, where he was shot. March 23, 2012.

Investigations by the US Justice Department and a state grand jury are now underway to determine what in fact happened in this increasingly murky case. But the Martin shooting has reignited a debate about the festering issues of racial profiling, the alarmingly high number of African-Americans caught up in the criminal justice system and a deep-seated conviction in the black community that its members are treated unfairly by law-enforcement agencies.

Jamal Joseph is a prominent member of Harlem's storied African-American neighborhood. A former Black Panther, he served jail time for his activities as a militant in the 1960s and 70s and is now an Ivy League professor at Columbia University. Professor Joseph's personal story is a remarkable one of success born of adversity. However, he's quick to point out that he's an exception. ''More than 40 years after I joined the Black Panthers program, sadly I can't point to one thing that's been satisfied,'' says Joseph. ''Although there's a black president and although there are some black CEOs and there are success stories from entertainment and sports, the majority of people in the black community continue to struggle with food, with clothing, with shelter, with keeping a job and certainly with opportunity and hope.''

Like many others in his community, Jamal Joseph is disturbed by the Martin shooting and other incidents elsewhere in the country "where police have just randomly shot unarmed black boys''. George Zimmerman was not a policeman, he was a Neighborhood Watch captain and had a permit to carry the Kel Tek 9mm he used to shoot Trayvon Martin. Florida's “Stand Your Ground” law, which has allowed Zimmerman to avoid arrest by asserting he was acting to defend himself against an assailant, also has heightened perceptions that his actions have been condoned by the police. The intensity of these perceptions is such that Sanford police chief Bill Lee has had to temporarily step down because of the public outcry over his handling of the case.

“The myths attached to black men in American culture have left far too many people incapable of remembering that our sons are children …... They see the scary monsters that racist ideologies have helped them create in their minds.”

''This has been a botched investigation and prosecution from day one,'' says Dr Barry Krisberg, a leading criminologist from the University of California, Berkeley. ''I think we're all urgently waiting for the FBI and more competent investigative resources to come to the table and actually tell us what went on.''

Dr. Krisberg, who has written about race and crime, contends that the "Stand Your Ground'' law should not have prevented an arrest from being made: ''The law might ultimately have something to do with whether an indictment or a conviction is sustained but I am completely confused as to why the police chose not to make an arrest in this case based on the evidence that's being put forward.''

According to Krisberg, this failure to make an arrest has only bolstered the view among African-Americans that the justice system is not fair towards them: ''Why has this person [Zimmerman] not been arrested? If you went back over 250 years of American history you would not find too many situations in which African-Americans murdered young white people and this kind of behavior took place. I don't think you could find any.''

“If you went back over 250 years of American history, you would not find too many situations in which African-Americans murdered young white people and this kind of behavior took place. I don't think you could find any.”

Statistics help tell the story of race and American justice. According to police figures obtained by The Wall Street Journal,the New York Police Department stopped and interrogated people 684,300 times last year. Some 87 per cent of those stopped were black or Hispanic. While African-Americans comprise only 12 to 13 per cent of the population, they make up 40.1 per cent of the United States' 2 million male prison inmates. Another statistic that Jamal Joseph, who works extensively with black youths, cites is that young African-Americans, if they graduate from high school, have a one in four chance of going to university but a one in three chance of going to prison. "This is what we are up against," says Joseph.

It's statistics such as these which bear testament to just how deeply race permeates America's criminal justice system. They also feed the roiling cauldron of mistrust between black communities and law enforcement officials. They are statistics as well which have served to stigmatize young black men like Trayvon Martin in the wider community. Writing about the subject recently, the African-American blogger Mikki Kendall had this to say:

The myths attached to black men in American culture have left far too many people incapable of remembering that our sons are children. Somehow kids like Trayvon, like my son, like the boys I see at the playground, become grown men out to do harm to everyone once a stranger starts projecting their fears and biases onto them. They don't see gangly bodies, peach fuzz, a sweet tooth and a love of music. They see the scary monsters that racist ideologies have helped them create in their minds.

In the wake of Trayvon Martin's death, stories were leaked to the media that he had been on suspension from school for possessing a small amount of marijuana. The Fox TV shock jock Geraldo Rivera even suggested that the hoodie worn by Trayvon Martin contributed towards his death because it might have appeared menacing to Zimmerman. (Rivera later apologized.)

Martin's parents have dismissed these reports as attempts to demonize Trayvon and to muddy the waters surrounding the case. The only facts that concern the Martins at the moment are that their 17-year-old son is no longer with them and that no one has been arrested or charged with his killing.

5 comments on this story
by roblpittman

Re what is wrong with America, racism, racial profiling, vigilantism, the right to pack guns and the lack of justice plus a few other things.

What is wrong with Americans? Many Americans don't want to stand up and be counted, to learn how to live in peace.

We can only hope for justice in this case but when will the whole heartbeat of America change?

March 30, 2012 @ 2:06pm
by Paul

What surpises me is that Zimmerman apparently does not have to justify his assertion that he was acting in self-defence.
I would have thought that he should be tried, and that self-defence, if proven, is an admissable defence. But there should be an onus of proof on the person claiming this defence.

March 30, 2012 @ 2:59pm
Show previous 2 comments
by DT

While there is no denying that racism and racial profiling is a big problem in America, and is likely to be a factor in this case, everyone is speculating about the case with no facts available except that Trayvon was shot by Zimmerman. Zimmerman claims self defence, maby he was attacked and feared, rightly or wrongly, for his life. Maby he was harassing Trayvon and Trayvon pushed him. Maby Zimmerman just walked up, called Trayvon a f***ing n***r and shot him. Until we have more information, stories like this will just widen divisions in the community as each side gives their own the benefit of the doubt and demonises the other.

March 30, 2012 @ 3:59pm
by W B Sydney

Was this story written a week ago and only dated the day it was published? I ask, because that could explain why much detail is left out, detail which would add much-needed depth to the story. The Orlando Sentinel alone has reported much detail not even hinted at here. It also reported March 25, quoting Sanford Police chief Lee, that Seminole-Brevard State Attorney Norm Wolfinger had advised Sanford police not to arrest Zimmerman, saying they did not have enough evidence to convict, so why was a Berkely academic from the other side of the country thought appropriate to judge for the reader that “'This has been a botched investigation and prosecution from day one” and blame the police for this? And much more detail is coming out about potential witnesses, so much so that, with the Duke University La Crosse race scandal investigation still raw in the minds of Americans, there should not be a rush to judgement.
If the purpose was to pose general race questions within the context of the Trayvon Martin case this lack of detail could be excused by some, but not a media organisation that is seeking to lay claim to excellence or to make the direct searching of American news items unnecessary..
I would put down the silly quote about “This country as a whole rarely talks about race…” as a mistake by someone other than the author.

Did he know that a copy of the original police report is online?

March 30, 2012 @ 11:38pm
by Andrew

In 'Killing Time', David Daw, a Texan death row lawyer discusses some of the cases he has worked and his state's justice system in general.

He tells of appeals being rejected because they were lodged minutes after deadline; the fax machine jammed; or, the internet went down. Some of his clients, obviously innocent, had their verdicts upheld because new evidence, no matter how relevant, cannot be entered on death row cases.

He told of other clients, made insane by lives of abuse and neglect, who were sent to the chair without the intellectual capacity to understand their crimes, let alone feel remorse for them.

All of his clients have one thing in common: they are African-American men.

Thank God we live here.

April 1, 2012 @ 8:31pm
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