The killing of Trayvon Martin reminds us that the death of an innocent person is senseless and tragic, whether at the hands of a self-appointed executioner, assassin, vigilante or lynch mob - or the state itself. Whether the violence is privatized or state-sponsored, the end result is inherently barbaric.
Like so many others in the past, black boys have provided a convenient target, and a scapegoat that was made to order.
Hoodies are by no means the monopoly of black and Latino young people and yet, hoodies are being used as a proxy for black criminality. And the badge of black criminality, in turn, stems from the stigma of slavery. Based on the assumption that two or more black men congregating in public constituted an uprising, the Slave Codes - and the Black Codes after the Civil War and Jim Crow laws after Reconstruction - restricted the movement and activities of black people. The goal was to limit their freedom and deprive them of their rights.
And under the Fugitive Slave Act, officials could deputize entire white communities to hunt down and capture suspected fugitive slaves, whether or not they actually were slaves. Ultimately, slave or free, all blacks were slaves, or criminals for that matter. No warrant was necessary, just someone who claimed ownership, whether or not that person actually was a slave owner. Yes, the George Zimmermans of that day thought they had a right, because they did. In fact, it was their duty.
For years, black mothers and fathers have advised their sons on what and what not to do or say when confronting white folks in public, in an effort to save their babies' lives from the Ku Klux Klan, the angry mob, the police, and other purveyors of extrajudicial executions. Black men were lynched and disappeared, later found in some river, as was the case with Emmett Till in 1955 Mississippi. Till was lynched by two white men for allegedly whistling at a white woman.
When lynching found its way to the court system, it was dressed up and made respectable under the guise of capital punishment. Same lynch mob, different venue - or at least, the mob was told to go home and let the kangaroo courts reach the desired result.
In 1944, 14-year-old George Stinney became the youngest person in the past century to meet his death in the electric chair. At 5' 1" and all of 95 pounds, the diminutive black boy was convicted of the impossible - applying blunt force trauma to the heads of two white girls by way of a railroad spike, shattering their skulls simultaneously in multiple places and leaving them in a ditch. There was no physical evidence. Stinney was interrogated without parents present, and coerced into a confession of which there was no written record. The all-white-male jury deliberated for only 10 minutes before passing judgment on one of their so-called "peers." They needed to tie someone to the murders, and Stinney was the perfect scapegoat.
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Fast-forward to today. The National Rifle Association and the American Legislative Exchange Council - or ALEC , the Koch Brothers -funded operation that has brought us voter ID, union-busting, forced transvaginal ultrasounds and other deplorable legislation - want to enact "Stand Your Ground" laws in all 50 states. The law, which is supported by corporations , adopted by at least 21 states and first adopted in Florida, breaks with centuries of legal tradition. The Castle Doctrine allows people to use deadly force in defending the home if they have a reasonable fear of death or serious bodily harm to themselves or others. Deadly force, however, was a last option, as there was a "duty to retreat" in order to defuse the situation.
Meanwhile, under "Stand Your Ground" laws, there is no duty to retreat. A person has a right to "stand one's ground" and use deadly force anywhere he or she feels threatened - in the home or on the street. Critics rightly concluded the law lays the groundwork for a shoot " em up, Wild Wild West environment. Moreover, it doesn't take much legal knowledge to realize that the new law forever turns the concept of self-defense on its head.
And those who are inclined to "blame it on a black man" have found their excuse to kill a black or Latino youth because they don't like them or feel threatened by them, and believe youth of color are dangerous and prone to violence. This paves the way for Trayvon Martin-style, race-based assassinations - a privatized sort of execution made legal, and vigilante justice with all the guns you care to use. Now, this should concern you.
David A. Love is the Executive Director of Witness to Innocence, a national nonprofit organization that empowers exonerated death row prisoners and their family members to become effective leaders in the movement to abolish the death penalty. He is (more...