(Un)equal justice under the law
examines the racist double standards that are written into the laws of the land--and that are evident in the actions of law enforcement every day.
THERE'S ONE law for the man who murdered unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin in Florida--it's called "Stand Your Ground."
And there's another for young Black teenagers in New York City, like Ramarley Graham, who was killed an NYPD officer in the bathroom of his home--it's called "stop-and-frisk."
Because in the eyes of the U.S. justice system, if you kill a Black teenager, you're innocent until proven guilty. But if you're a Black teenager, you're already guilty when you get up in the morning.
These are two faces of the U.S. criminal justice system, where the priority is anything but justice and where racism infects every inch of it.
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IN 2005, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush signed the Stand Your Ground self-defense law, which states that a person "has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground'' if they think deadly force is necessary to prevent death, great bodily harm or a forcible felony like a robbery.
According to the legislation, law enforcement and the justice system only have to ask three questions in self-defense cases: Did the defendant have the right to be there? Was he or she engaged in a lawful activity? Was he or she reasonably in fear of death or great bodily harm?
Before anti-racist protests erupted earlier this year over the killing of Trayvon Martin by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman, few people knew about the law that he and his attorneys would use to defend his actions. But since then, Stand Your Ground and other similar laws have been exposed as a cover for racist vigilantes to injure, maim and kill, and face no punishment.
Trayvon's family and others who are victims of such laws are pushing for a repeal of the Stand Your Ground law in Florida. And the U.S. Civil Rights Commission recently decided to investigate these laws across the country--25 states have similar ones--for racial bias in their application and effects.
That bias is shockingly obviously in a recent investigation by the Tampa Bay Times of 200 stand-your-ground cases that showed dramatic inconsistencies in the outcome of different cases, despite similar circumstances.
For example: Owen Eugene Whitlock came home on Christmas Eve 2009 to find his daughter's boyfriend Jose Ramirez angrily coming up the driveway, "swinging his fists," Whitlock said. Whitlock stood his ground and fired a fatal shot. He wasn't charged.
Meanwhile, Terry Tyrone Davis shot and killed his cousin as he came up the walkway of Davis' home in 2010 with a group of friends. "There's no doubt he was going over there to kick his ass,'' Circuit Judge Philip Federico said, "but that does not allow you to kill a guy." Davis is now serving 25 years in prison.
The cases are strikingly similar, except for one thing. Whitlock is white. Davis is Black.
Despite the capriciousness of the law, Stand Your Ground is being invoked more and more frequently. According to the Tampa Bay Times, there has been a fivefold increase in nonfatal cases from 2008 to 2011. That's because Stand Your Ground works--according to the Times report, 70 percent of those who use the Stand Your Ground defense go free.
At the same time, gun ownership in Florida has increased. There are 1.1 million permits for concealed weapons, three times as many as in 2005 when the law was passed. Meanwhile, the investigation found that in a wide majority of cases when Stand Your Ground was invoked--135 out of 192--the victim was unarmed.
If the person killed by someone "standing their ground" was Black, the shooter is more likely to go free. "Seventy-three percent of those who killed a Black person faced no penalty compared to 59 percent of those who killed a white," reported the Tampa Bay Times.
As Kareem Jordan, a criminologist at the University of Central Florida, told the Florida newspaper, "I don't think judges or prosecutors or whoever works in the field of criminal justice is consciously saying Black life is worth less than that of other ethnicities. But at the end of the day, it could be something that's subconscious going on if you look at how the media depicts Black life.''
Consider the case of Marissa Alexander, and you'll wonder about the "subconscious" part.
In 2010, the 31-year-old Black Jacksonville woman, afraid that harm might come to her or her two children, fired a warning shot to try and get her abusive husband out of the house during an argument. No one was hurt in the shooting. But when Alexander's lawyer tried to invoke Stand Your Ground in his motion for immunity from prosecution, the judge ruled against her. A jury convicted Alexander on three charges of aggravated assault, which carred a mandatory sentence of 20 years in prison.
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THIS ISN'T just an issue in Florida. Some 25 states have Stand Your Ground-type laws--some of them nicknamed "Make My Day" laws after Clint Eastwood's line in a movie about a vigilante cop. Five more states have tried to pass such laws, even after Trayvon Martin's murder.
Laws like these don't have to be in Florida to produce similar results. In Wisconsin, Bo Morrison was shot and killed by a man who found the 20-year-old unarmed African American on his front porch, hiding from police who were investigating an underage drinking party in the neighborhood.
Wisconsin passed a "Castle Doctrine" law--as in "a man's home is his castle"--in December, which stipulates that deadly force against a trespasser is reasonable, whether or not a intruder is armed. Before the law was enacted, homeowners could only use deadly force if they could show their lives were at risk.
But in the case of Stand Your Ground laws, a shooter can be anywhere, not just in their "castle," and still claim they were defending themselves. This was the case for George Zimmerman--and for Joe Horn.
Two months after the Texas legislature passed its Stand Your Ground law, 61-year-old Joe Horn shot and killed Hernando Torres and Diego Ortiz when he said he saw them robbing his neighbor's home. Before shooting, Horn called 911, and when the operator asked him to stay inside his home, Horn said that he was going to shoot. "I have a right to protect myself, too, sir," Horn said. "The laws have been changed in this country since September the first, and you know it."
On the 911 call recording, the operator says, "You're going to get yourself shot." Horn replies, "You want to make a bet? I'm going to kill them." Moments later, he says, "Well here it goes, buddy. You hear the shotgun clicking, and I'm going." Then his voice is heard saying: "Move, you're dead." There are two quick explosions, then a third, and the 911 call ends.
A police report showed that the two men, who were undocumented immigrants, were shot in the back.
Because of Stand Your Ground, men like Joe Horn and George Zimmerman get to act as judge, jury and executioner--and their victims are presumed guilty because they are Black or Latino. These laws let the vigilantes off the hook and leave victims' families without their loved ones--and without a hope of finding justice.
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IF PEOPLE like George Zimmerman believe that Black lives are expendable, the police and the justice system helped teach them that.
Policies like the New York Police Department's stop-and-frisk--where people of color are under the constant threat of police harassment and arrest--make racial profiling of Blacks and Latinos perfectly legal, and an everyday occurrence.
And it is every day. According to the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), out of the 685,724 stop-and-frisks reported by New York cops in 2011, 350,743 were of Blacks and 223,740 were of Latinos. So five out of six stops were of Blacks or Latinos--and at a rate of more than 1,500 a day for just these two racial groups.
The NYCLU also points out that when the police stopped whites, they found guns, drugs or stolen property about twice as often as they did for African American suspects. Yet 2006 statistics showed that police used force--such as handcuffing, frisking, drawing a weapon, or using restraint--about 50 percent more often on Blacks than on whites.
It is also worth noting just how ineffectual these stops are. According to NYCLU, the majority of people stopped by police were found to be completely innocent--605,328 out of 685,724 in 2011.
If any other program in the city was exposed for such terrible results--let's say a school or a hospital--it would be closed down promptly. But the only "results" that law enforcement is really interested in is targeting Black and Latino youth. And by this measure of "success," the results are stellar.
For the victims of stop-and-frisk, the policy is a nightmare--and sometimes worse. Eighteen-year-old Ramarley Graham was killed by police in February after they chased him to his home following a stop. The cops kicked down his family's door and shot him to death in front of his grandmother and 6-year-old brother. Police claimed Ramarley had a gun. He didn't.
When police treat Black youth as suspects, is it any wonder that racist vigilantes like Zimmerman do the same? As Royce Russell, a lawyer for the Graham family, noted on Democracy Now!:
When you look at cases like Ramarley Graham, Sean Bell, [Anthony] Baez, Amadou Diallo, [and you have] someone who idolizes to be law enforcement, and they see how law enforcement treats people of color, how could you not have a case like Trayvon Martin? It seems like it's so within the norm, right? Someone who's going to brutalize someone of color because they think they're in a position of authority and a position of law enforcement.
Law enforcement officials claim that stop-and-frisk is about "getting guns off the streets." But if they really wanted to reduce weapons--and the violence caused by them, they might try a National Rifle Association meeting, where the right-wing group is offering members extra "Stand Your Ground insurance."
Or they could look at their own police forces. In cities across the country, cops commit violence and murder against the citizens they're supposed to "serve and protect," but these acts are rarely, if ever, recorded as "gun violence."
The murder of Trayvon Martin cast a spotlight on Stand Your Ground and the racist double standard of American law and order. Several months before that, tens of thousands of people turned their attention to the racist death penalty, when Troy Davis, an innocent African American, was executed by the state of Georgia.
And now, on Fathers' Day, thousands of New Yorkers took to the streets for a silent march against stop-and-frisk and the police violence and harassment endured by individuals on a daily basis.
In other cities, activists and the relatives and friends of victims of the injustice system are holding meetings and building solidarity for their cases. In the San Francisco Bay Area, the family of Alan Blueford, slain by Oakland police earlier this year, is organizing to expose police alongside the relatives of Oscar Grant, who was killed by an officer on a transit station platform in 2009.
As Martinez Sutton, the brother of Rekia Boyd, who was shot and killed by an off-duty Chicago cop in March, said at a protest meeting earlier this year:
We're just looking for answers, and these tears on my face, they're not tears of defeat. They're not. I'm not going to stop. They're tears of determination. They're tears of anger. They're just trying to sweep this under the rug. I want you all to know the rug has just been lifted off the floor. We're going to keep pushing for this until I get justice for my sister.
Anger at a system of laws that discriminate against you if you are Black and poor is brewing in cities across the country. Racial profiling and police violence are hardly new, but a movement strong enough to take it on is needed right now--and we're going to have to build it.