It felt like everybody tuned in to the internet to hear the verdict of a trial about a boy stalked across gated streets, and shot in the rain outside his father’s house. The murder happened hundreds of thousands of kilometres away from where I live, in a state to which I’ve never been, in a country that attempts to shape the world in its image. Perhaps the attention came because of the imperialist tendencies of which the US can’t let go, perhaps because of America’s pathological fondness for guns, so obvious to those outside looking in.
At first I felt shock that George Zimmerman had not been found guilty. Here, in a time of social media and continuously updated news cycles, was the most public case of black paranoia and its fatal expression in the United States, and still the lifeless black body was to blame.
Southern trees bear a strange fruit, blood on the leaves and blood at the root – I played Billie Holiday on repeat, because it felt like nothing has changed, and every statistic about black incarceration or black citizens dead at the hands of the police confronted me with how terrible things truly are. Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze, Holiday crooned in that grief-lacquered way about a time when lynching spread like a grotesque contagion; strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
I listened to Nina Simone and her epitaph to those four girls – Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Denise McNair – murdered in Birmingham, Alabama 50 years ago this year. The rendition is mesmerising, the rage palpable, daring the audience to make eye contact, but these are the lines that get me every time:
Hound dogs on my trail
School children sitting in jail
Black cat cross my path
I think every day’s gonna be my last
They could have been written today. We could add And everybody knows about Florida, Goddam, but we really should have known well before now. Florida has a long history of trying to eliminate its black populace. Back in 1920, long before the Civil Rights Movement, black residents of Ocoee Florida attempted to vote in the presidential election, in a campaign that would have brought the movement forward by four decades. ‘State and local officials – along with the Ku Klux Klan – understood that white supremacy was in trouble,’ one historian writes.
They responded mercilessly. African Americans who tried to go to the polls were attacked, driven out of the state, and assassinated. In several counties, armed Klansmen surrounded courthouses on Election Day to ensure that black Floridians did not vote. In Ocoee, a well-organized group of paramilitaries killed and drove African Americans out of the town. Houses were torched, and refugees streamed out of western Orange County for days.
At least fifty black residents were murdered, and others fled. Ocoee remained a white town until 1981.
That was the year of the Rubik’s Cube, Cats and Ataris; the year Michael Jackson won multiple awards and Diana Ross and Lionel Ritchie sang duets and everyone danced to Kool & the Gang. That was two decades after affirmative action had been written into law, supposedly ensuring equal representation in the workplace (even if those same employees couldn’t reside in certain Floridian towns).
That was only twelve months after the Miami Riots (there was also a 1968 Miami Riot), which raged after four police officers were acquitted (by an all-white jury) following a two-hour-and-45-minute deliberation for the death of Arthur McDuffie, whose ‘crime’, Joan Didion reports, was to have ‘made a rolling stop at a red light, to have executed the manueruvre called “popping a wheelie” on his borrowed Kawasaki motorcycle and to have given the finger to a Dade Country Public Safety Department Officer parked nearby.’ McDuffie was pursued by more than a dozen police units, who all descended on his location.
Before that there had been the Perry Race Riot (1922), a response to a black man burned at the stake, the hanging of two other men, and the burning of homes, schools and lodges that belonged to African Americans.
According to the records available of such acts (documents were not kept well), 3500 African Americans were lynched in the first half of the twentieth century – and African Americans left Florida en masse.
‘The lynching of black men,’ argues Sherrilyn Ifill in her call for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission for Lynching, ‘was a crime targeted not only at individual victims, but at entire communities. Lynching aided in the political, social, and economic oppression of blacks in communities throughout the United States and served as an important tool of white supremacy. Moreover, although lynching was a crime perpetrated by several murderers, it was often observed, cheered and assisted by hundreds or thousands of white participants.’
The tacit approval of those in authority, Ifill points out – that is, police, lawyers and judges – allowed lynching to ‘flourish’. These lynchings would sometimes last five hours.
So yes, Florida has a long history of lynching and other violence against black bodies, and of black residents trying to resist, and being suppressed. But just as lynching was yesterday’s vigilantism, various commentators have recently argued, ‘Stand Your Ground’ is today’s. After all, the purpose of lynching was to keep non-white communities in a perpetual state of fear, a fear not unlike the one Gary Younge spoke of in yesterday’s Guardian column when he asked, ‘Is it open season on black boys after dark?’
The spectacle of violence against black bodies isn’t endemic to Florida, however. Trayvon Martin’s death was bookended by other black deaths: Kenneth Chamberlain Snr (68) of New York, shot in his home by police after a problem with his medical alert pendant; Ramarley Graham (18) of New York, shot in his home by police because they suspected he might be a drug dealer; Rekia Boyd (22) of Chicago, shot in a park by a police officer.
Police shooting black kids: it’s horrendous, unfathomable, but there are plenty of precedents. Police always have guns for one thing; they’re suspicious that everyone is doing wrong at all times; and they’re not immune to the kind of racism that says, black is criminal, black is Other, black is violent, black is not good parents.
Michelle Alexander, a lawyer and author, wrote a whole book about how the US legal system today operates in the same way as disenfranchisement did yesterday. It begins:
Rather than rely on race, we use our criminal justice system to label people of color ‘criminals’ and then engage in all the practices we supposedly left behind. Today it is perfectly legal to discriminate against criminals in nearly all the ways that it was once legal to discriminate against African Americans. Once you’re labeled a felon, the old forms of discrimination – employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, denial of educational opportunity, denial of food stamps and other public benefits, and exclusion from jury service – are suddenly legal. As a criminal, you have scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow. We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.
Black bodies are highly politicised: they cannot help but be. In the US (and here in Australia, too), black bodies are a lasting reminder of a multitude of slaveries. ‘All that was contained within those bodies,’ Patricia Hill Collins writes. ‘Labour, sexuality and reproduction were objectified and turned into commodities that were traded in the marketplace.’
That explains the apparent lack of rationality of the justice system, its extraordinary inconsistency. Take the case of Marissa Alexander. She was prosecuted at the same time as George Zimmerman and in the same state. She was sentenced to 20 years for firing a warning shot into the air at an abusive husband, because of mandatory-minimum sentencing. She was not eligible to a Stand Your Ground defence, the judge said, because she could have left the house, but instead she left the house and got a gun.
Mandatory-minimum sentencing; the Stand Your Ground defence: these are part of the same legal logic that tries Bradley Manning, that declare soldiers killing journalists in the street legal, that let refugees die at sea. Our laws are largely about protecting borders and nation states, with out justice systems part of the pathology of capitalism: rewarding some, discriminating against many, and eliminating others from societal participation. America’s treatment of African Americans, for instance, parallels its treatment of Iraqis and Afghans. (And if we are shocked by this trial and acquittal, imagine what we would learn if a decade-worth of incidents in Afghanistan were brought to trial?)
‘For those of us left among the marginalized and oppress[ed],’ wrote Mychal Denzel Smith in The Nation after the verdict:
be they black boys buying Skittles in Florida; women raising their voices against virulent anti-abortion measures in Texas, Ohio or North Carolina; prisoners going hungry in California; innocent men awaiting execution in Georgia; little girls lying asleep in Detroit; or transwomen who defend themselves and end up locked behind bars in Minnesota; the time is now to commit to the revolutionary project of living our lives out loud. Our rage is valuable, whether we anticipate its coming or not.
It’s a great piece, but I don’t think this problem belongs only to the marginalised. As bell hooks reminds us, ‘All our silences in the face of racist assault are acts of complicity’. We need people angry and willing to fight, and we need all of us.
Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.
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