Trayvon Martin and Outrageously Bad Decisions

Unless you’ve been living in a cave, you’ve heard about Trayvon Martin, and his death at the hands of George Zimmerman, a Florida “community watch captain.” Trayvon Martin’s tragic death has prompted a national debate about racism in 21st century America, “Stand Your Ground Laws” and the expansion of gun rights, and how biased the LIEberal Media is (Warning: Link to Fox News, go down the rabbit hole at your own risk). In all the heat about hot-button issues and the he-said-she-said arguments about the exact circumstances of events surrounding the shooting, we’ve lost sight of two important issues.

George Zimmerman shooting and killing Trayvon Martin was a human tragedy, but what transforms it from a tragedy to an outrage is that George Zimmerman walked out of police custody without being charged with any sort of crime on the recognizance of a very small group of police officials. We like to believe that the justice system is about finding the truth; that the law looks like 12 Angry Men. But the truth does not exist out in the world, to found and collected like a pebble. In law, as in science, the truth is constructed: A single version of reality emerges from the rhetorical contestation between opposing parties.

We accept how the legal system constructs the truths of innocence or guilt because it combines the technocratic expertise of lawyers, prosecutors, and judges, with the democratic deliberation of a jury of our peers. By and large, we believe that the system works, and in cases where it does not work, we can point to the transparent functioning of the system, and critique how the case diverged from our desire for justice.

In the Trayvon Martin case, justice was constructed by the Sanford Police Department, interpreted according to a relatively new law passed by a vocal and powerful political minority of gun right’s advocates, rather than the broader Common Law understanding of murder and culpability. That a man can walk away from a shooting death, without any sort of judicial inquiry, purely on the recognizance of the police, is outrageous.

The second fact which has been lost is that the reason Trayvon Martin was walking down that street at that time was that he had been suspended from school for 10 days for “possession of a pipe and a baggie which may have contained marijuana.” Some conservative pundits have been using this as evidence that Trayvon Martin was a thug and Zimmerman was right to shoot him, but really: A 17 year-old smoking marijuana? Oh My God! The Horror, the Horror! Call the DEA and Interpol, there’s a dangerous criminal on the loose!

No. What’s outrageous is that we believe that kicking a kid out of school is a reasonable form of discipline. Discipline is supposed to be an act of ‘strict training’, according to Foucault’s reading of 18th century education structures. Suspension teaches a student that misbehavior results in more free time, and upon return to the classroom, a greater degree of confusion. Perhaps the rationale behind suspension is that it is supposed to provide time to reflect on one’s errors, in the manner of the penitentiary (literally a place to be penitent), but this implies an unrealistically optimistic appraisal of teenager’s ability to reflect. The only way in which suspension might be effective is in removing a disruptive student from the population so that others can be educated. But even if that is true, the way that suspension is applied is piecemeal and ineffective.

It’s a undeniable statistical fact that being young, black, and male in America is a very bad idea. Black men are massively over-represented in suspensions, prisons, and ultimately the morgue. A slippery slope leads from a youthful disciplinary violation to lower grades, reduced economic opportunities, and higher crime. Even if Jim Crow is dead and buried, we still absurdly punish people for their skin color rather than their choices. This is morally wrong, and this is a persistent human tragedy, and it is one that we as Americans have accepted and ignored and for far too long. There are no simple solutions here, no easy path to justice.

The death of Trayvon Martin is not the result of a broad cultural problem about which we can wash our hands and say ‘it’s just too big to fix, so sorry.’ Rather, Trayvon Martin is dead and we are angry because of the decisions of smalls group of bureaucrats who have made policy in a way that is easy for them to administer but socially injurious. This is a rightful target for our outrage: the persistent corruption that allows schools to slowly fail ‘problem’ students without consequences, and a police force that protects and serves the interests of the powerful rather than the weak.

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