We should be getting used to the Onion reporting news articles concerning the USA more accurately than most media organisations. But somehow it still just doesn’t feel right, and it is still a depressing and angering state of affairs that it is a satirical joke publication that has managed to distil the outrage this week more clearly and accurately than most mainstream media organisations, and most media commentators. If you haven’t read this article I suggest you check it. Essentially it nails the issue on the head – yes George Zimmerman was not guilty of a crime under Florida law. Yes, there was reasonable doubt, and yes the prosecution were not able to make the conviction they should have been able to. But come the fuck on!
This line of reasoning that everything is okay because Zimmerman didn’t break Florida law is a red herring, and an offensive, vile, racist red herring at that. The problem isn’t whether or not George Zimmerman was found innocent or not. There is no disputing this fact. According to Florida law, Zimmerman was not guilty of murder or manslaughter – this much is true. The problem however isn’t so much that the verdict was wrong, as that the verdict, stunningly and rather incomprehensibly was technically right. The anger and frustration that Zimmerman supporters don’t seem to understand is aimed not at the verdict as such, but at the legal framework that this verdict lies in. This blatant example of how the legal framework is so clearly two-tiered is what is so heartbreaking, and infuriating about the whole sad saga that was the murder of Trayvon Martin.
Trayvon Martin wasn’t just a victim of a wannabe Batman with a hard on for vigilante justice. He was the victim of a system that uses historical oppression and evil historic actions, to repress a whole sector of society today, so that America doesn’t have to live up to the fundament hypocrisy and lies that their nation is built on. This system is ingenious in the way that it uses the two prongs of historical oppression, and American racism (both soft and hard), to form a powerful system of justice that is two tiered, renders minorities powerless in the face of its breadth, and literally allows people to get away with murder – as long as the person has the right skin colour.
Even the most cursory glance at punishment statistics shows that America is unequal. America has set up many laws to make sure that this fundamental inequality is enshrined because it is better politically and much easier to simply jail or kill a young black person from a poverty stricken background than it is to change the poverty and actually bring about change (or treat the symptoms of societal illness rather than the illness itself). We have seen this modern oppression in many forms including in drug legislation. Up until recently crack cocaine was punished at a ratio of 100-1 for powdered cocaine (now it’s a ‘progressive’ 18-1). There is no difference between these two drugs other than the fact that crack has baking soda, water, and heat added to it. Well, that and the fact that crack was/is widely used in poor black communities because of the fact that it was cheaper and far more addictive so people who had one cheap hit were very susceptible to becoming addicts. But by punishing it at such a higher rate, more young black people were to be put away for longer, while the white men on Wall Street who ruined the economy using the same drug in a different way never had to worry.
This inherent and historically entrenched racism in the justice sector allows states like Florida that are notorious for their unjust and unequal treatment of African Americans, to place into effect laws that protect white property owners from the alleged black menace, by allowing trial free executions for any transgression as long as it’s supposedly against a person or their property (which buys into the American capitalist notion that private property and capital trumps everything). Florida officials are all too aware of the staggering inequality that resides in their state, and across the country (they can’t not be) in regards to living standards, poverty, employment, and crime for African Americans in comparison to white Americans. They know that the chances of petty crime committed by desperate people, who have been forced into desperate circumstances, are going to be African American, because the stats show this. By making it legal for you to ‘stand your ground’ in Florida against any threat whatsoever against you or your property, the rednecks and racists see this as carte blanche to attack with fatal force at the slightest provocation. Since African Americans are over represented in all crime statistics (other than white collar fraud) it makes it the word of a killer vs. the word of the killed which all in all is an almost orgasmic scenario for these racist, blood lusting thugs who crave the simpler times of segregation.
Killing a person is almost never a case of something being in black and white (pun definitely not intended), so creating a law that is black and white (like American self-defence laws), clearly benefits one group more than the other. And we saw that this week when a grown man who pursued a black child despite being told not to, shot that child in the chest killing him, and received no punishment to the rapturous applause of many. This is the situation today, where racism doesn’t have to be explicit like it was during the slavery era, or during segregation – it can be instituted via laws that reflect popular extremist views of the constitution, and through laws that seem to be neutral and equal but tip the balance heavily in the favour of the group that is going to be more aggressive, but at the same time realistically needs the least protection.
This imbalance isn’t unique to African Americans though, or even unique to America even. We face similar problems in New Zealand that appear to our public to be non-existent because of the massive levels of soft racism, ignorance, and economic oppression that permeate New Zealand.
We also have a legislative system that is two tiered and has been designed to ignore and repress the poor in this country, which in turn because of historical oppression is a sector made up by and large of minorities, most notably Maori. Neo-liberal economics in recent decades has also tipped the balance so far in favour of the wealthy in this country that (a group that is overwhelmingly represented by Caucasians) that there is now a justice system that favours one group more than the other – considerably. The poor (who are again predominantly Maori) have been placed in a sector of society where they have limited social mobility, practically zero assistance (which is somehow getting reduced even further to the point where I assume one day beneficiaries will have to pay to receive any benefits), and are susceptible to being hunted down and punished brutally for either nothing, or for petty crimes.
And this all seems to fair to middle New Zealand. In New Zealand this perception that comes about isn’t as aggressively racist like in the USA, but is more borne out of ignorance and false anger. The workers and the poor in New Zealand genuinely fight amongst themselves along false racial lines, dictated by the elites who run the economy to distract them from the overwhelmingly negative impacts of their legislation on the poor and the workers. We have seen this recently with the 2005 National Party election strategy, and the very recent rise of the Pakeha Party. In New Zealand we now have one sector of society overwhelmingly represented in the poverty stakes (again, like the African Americans in the USA) coupled with a population that are struggling to get by so badly that empathy and education are expensive commodities with no ‘value’ (everything in this country is about ‘value’ these days, and only in economic terms). People can’t see through their own suffering and understandably so. Because of their own economic oppression they assume that they must have about as hard as it gets opportunity wise, and they assume that Maori and minorities have the same opportunities they do. They claim that history shouldn’t have dictated a lot of the problems faced by these groups today, which is both stunningly naive, but also ignorant of the facts. So when the crime stats inevitably become skewed because of systemic inequality, people assume it’s a rational choice that has been made and they demand justice and blood, or even the chance to shed this blood themselves (metaphorically and literally).
While our stricter gun laws mean that Joe Public can’t just shoot Maori and minorities in the street like they can in the USA, we can still punish them unjustly, and our police force who are meant to be serving and protecting us, can arrest, beat, or even in some extreme cases shoot people without a seconds questioning from most of the general public, other than those groups directly affected. The poor, and particularly poor Maori, can be disposed of yet wealthy whites who commit serious fraud never see the inside of a cell.
In 2000 a young Maori man named Steven Wallace who was intoxicated and swinging a golf club violently smashing up cars, was shot to death by a police officer in Taranaki. I am not here to make judgment on the incident itself as much as has been said about this incident in the past. I bring it up because again, the result of what happened is not significant compared to the bigger picture surrounding the legal and societal framework that this incident happened in. There was outrage around Maori circles that a man armed with a golf club could be executed like this by the police particularly as this wasn’t the first time a Maori male had been executed by the police without trial or arrest (in 1996 a Maori man wanted for questioning was shot in the chest by Police and killed for example). There was no trial for Steven Wallace, no other attempt to subdue him other than by going straight for the gun, and a 23 year old was left to die after four fatal gunshots.
The outrage caused by this incident brought to the fore a whole lot of racial tension that as Maori made their claims about being marginalised and victimised by a completely biased justice system. Maori understood that had the roles have been reversed where a Maori had shot a white man with golf clubs, there would have been considerably more outrage from the general public. When asked why they hadn’t spoken up earlier many exasperated Maori pointed out that the people they were meant to speak to were the very ones doing the oppressing in the first place so they had no choice but to accept the system.
It should have been a moment to look at the bigger picture of why Maori felt so victimised by the police and by the state, why the police could shoot down a Maori in cold blood with a shrug of the shoulders from most Pakeha, and why Maori are over represented in all negative areas of our society such as crime, but these questions were swept aside, and nothing has been done about it since. And being that our government is looking to privatise prisons, you can guarantee that this problem will exacerbate rapidly and conviction rates for the poor will go skyrocket even more, so that the government does not have to deal with trying to remove the conditions that lead to crimes, whether they be real, or imagined like in the case of Trayvon.
There is no justice for Trayvon because the system in America is a racist sham that uses capitalist and nationalising myths to dupe a population into believing that their system is fair and colour-blind when it is the complete opposite. I wish I could say that this was just an American problem, but sadly if things keep going the same way in Aotearoa, it won’t be long until our two-tiered system allows blatant unchecked police brutality, or there is a bloodlust for vigilante justice much like America has as part of its national ethos.
-Bevan M. SA