Blood at the Root

Stand-Your-Ground (SYG) Meets "Law and Order." 

One of the many things revealed by reactionary responses to the Zimmerman verdict is the seeming contradiction when ‘law and order’ proponents champion vigilantism, or taking the law into their own hands. But it actually follows an ultra-conservative logic that idolizes markets, eviscerates social welfare state and promotes hyper-indivualism. And now that the legitimacy of the State’s power to protect ‘us’ from ‘them’ is breaking down for a small but significant grouping in the US --- the communities drawn to Tea Party-style paranoia, especially --- we see the rise of hyper-individualist approaches to law and order: the vigilante who is armed and empowered to shoot first and ask questions later. Whether race is a conscious factor or not for proponents of SYG, the history of racialization and existence of unconscious bias guarantees that practices encouraging vigilantism will target communities of color.

When Margaret Thatcher famously said “there is no society” almost 40 years ago, she was expressing a political and economic logic, often referred to as ‘neoliberalism,’ which represented the triumph of market fundamentalism over the social contract that had been in place since World War II, in Europe and to a lesser extent, in the US, wherein business, labor and government worked together to create shared prosperity and a social safety-net. By the late 1970s this contract had been all-but-voided (just as things were beginning to open up for those who had been excluded, namely, African Americans and women); multinational corporations and financial institutions based in the global North made moves to free themselves from all social obligations. As neoliberalism took hold, the only functions of the State that were deemed legitimate were policing and military action. Even these functions have to be constantly legitimated.

The process of legitimating the State’s coercive powers is primarily ideological: how does the government ensure that a critical majority of the populace consents to the criminal justice apparatus (including surveillance)? One key way is by creating an ‘other’ whose very existence is deemed a threat to public order and economic well-being. The 'other' is labeled as 'criminal' or 'deviant' in multiple ways, justifying the use of coercive power to control them.

Criminalization attaches a criminal label to groups who are deemed necessary to control. Who gets criminalized can shift, over time. For example, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, workers who were not entirely convinced that they should have no say in their wages and working conditions, who organized, who took action, were deemed a threat to public order. State and Federal troops were dispatched to break up strikes, resulting in mass injuries, arrests, and quite a few post-strike show trials that ended with public hangings. In a society with great wealth disparities, those at or near the bottom are seen as a potential threat, especially if/when they question why the 1% gets to rule in a supposed democracy. Today, the ‘other’ includes those who no longer ‘fit’ within the increasingly contingent labor market; this category of 'other' continues to expand.

Race and Criminalization

One thing that has remained constant throughout US history is the criminalization of black and brown people. As Glenn Loury says: "Crime and punishment in America have a color." Criminal justice in the United States is connected to our country's legacy of slavery and segregation. Lynching, Jim Crow, and legal segregation were all part of a deep-seated pattern of racial subordination in America that lasted long after slavery ended. Racially-skewed incarceration rates, the bogus War on Drugs and biased sentencing practices have become a new way of continuing the same old patterns.

The line that runs through the historical development of our nation's political economy and the criminal justice system is the use of race to legitimate police functions while at the same time evicerating the social welfare functions of the State. A useful side-effect is the way in which this also tamps down multi-racial and class-conscious solidarity.

As Makani Themba argued just days after the Zimmerman verdict, it is no accident that the rise of vigilantism coincides with shifting demographics. Within the next 20 years, the majority will no longer be white, according the Census Bureau projections. As demographic shifts are being used to heighten white fears of the ‘other,’ we are seeing a spate of laws that legitimate vigilantism. A crisis of legitimation, the myth of post-racialism, the increasingly overt appeals to a sense of white victimhood that are broadcast daily, along with fears of impending demographic shifts, are all contributing factors.

SYG and Unconscious Bias

The coercive power of the State, represented by the police, the courts and other parts of the criminal justice system has always been applied in racially biased ways. Practices like stop-and-frisk, or ‘show me your papers’ initiatives targeting immigrants, reflect those biases, regardless of the purported intent of the architects of such practices (I'm talking about you, Mayor Bloomberg). Laws like SYG are made possible by radical, anti-government (and anti-collectivist) individualism, combined with laws and customs that reinforce implicit racial biases, which are fed by the consistent criminalization of black and brown people, which goes back 500 years.

Incredibly, some pundits and bloggers have suggested that the Zimmerman trial showed that the death of Trayvon Martin had little or noting to do with race and that, if anyone was racist, it was Martin. In their formulation of what constitutes 'racism' --- individual prejudice or hatred --- they claim that we just don't know whether Zimmerman had racial hatred in his heart when he shot Martin. We may never know exactly what was in Zimmerman's heart; but we do know a lot about the cultural and historical themes that have shaped our collective consciousness about race and criminality. It iinfluences all of us on some level. It is in the air that we breathe. The problem that this particular tragedy reveals is that we have laws and customs that play up this kind of bias, that perpetuate the criminalization of black and brown people, and that reinforce the notion that black lives are less valued than white lives (or the lives of people who seem closer to the ‘white’ side of the spectrum).

Regardless of what Zimmerman felt that night, how aware or not he was that he was profiling Martin, his defense team knew very well that they were using white fears of black criminality to sway the jury. They presented a rationale for killing Trayvon Martin that could have been written in the days when lynching was still legal. And for the jury of mostly white women, they evoked fears of black masculinity. While we don't know that the white women on the jury were consciously buying into racist images of dangerous black manhood, we do know how racism has poisoned our collective understandings of criminality. We also know that the jurors were constrained by the laws of Florida and also by the prosecution’s decision to build their case around the un-provable notion that anyone could discern whether Zimmerman had hatred in his heart on that fateful night.

The travesty of Zimmerman’s trial boils down to this: the victim was made out to be the transgressor because he was a black boy in a hoodie; his very existence was deemed to be transgressive. In her blog, Themba quotes a friend whose immediate reaction to the verdict was maddeningly succinct: Trayvon Martin was tried and convicted of his own murder.