Beyond Case Justice: Reimagining Remedies for the 21st Century in the Wake of the Zimmerman Verdict

“They call it due process and some people are overdue… Somebody said ‘brother-man gonna break a window, gonna steal a hubcap, gonna smoke a joint, brother man gonna go to jail.’ The man who tried to steal America is not in jail… And America was ‘shocked.’ America leads the world in shocks. Unfortunately, America does not lead the world in deciphering the cause of shock…”

We Beg Your Pardon (Pardon Our Analysis) by Gil Scott-Heron

No matter how many times I live through moments like these, it never gets any easier. Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant, John T. Williams, Henry Glover, Juan Herera, Amadou Diallo, Iman Morales, Eleanor Bumpers, Vincent Chin, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, Denise McNair, Emmett Till… There are so many more names to recall. There are so many names I don’t know. And they number into the millions, over centuries as we are reminded over and over again that for people of color in this country, our lives are cheap.

I think my friend Dennis said it best when he observed that Trayvon was convicted of his own murder.

My heart goes out to Trayvon’s family and all of us who are feeling the trauma and pain in this moment. It is wrong. It is an atrocity. There’s no way this verdict would have gone down if Trayvon was white. The legal argument that led to this verdict, which is centuries old, could not exist without de facto acceptance of racism as legitimate motive and Blackness itself as life threatening.

With each of these cases, we find ourselves in a kind of shock. As in how could the country that brought you slavery, the Alamo, small pox blankets and waterboarding do such a thing? Again? Many of us believe there is a “real” America, which is noble and great and if only we could take her “back” and let her be as she was intended, everything would be alright.

I’m betting that that’s going to work about as well as any other abusive relationship. It’s time for a change.

Let’s face it. The Zimmerman trial was essentially an opportunity to lay more legal groundwork to advance vigilantism. This is a standard ‘go to’ move in the white supremacy handbook. The vigilante state is particularly important when the “majority” becomes a “minority” as a way to hold power without the pretense of democracy. Unlike Malcolm X in his famous 1964 speech The Ballot or the Bullet, white supremacy works to hold down the ballot and the bullet. It is not an “either or” proposition.

What is most important, however, is the structural analysis and strategy that undergirds their work. Much of our work – in stark contrast – is focused at the level of individual casework. And it’s just not enough.Yes, we should support efforts to bring Zimmerman up on civil rights charges and boycott the companies that fund groups like ALEC that are responsible for the law that made his acquittal possible. We also need a DOJ investigation and suit to address the blatantly racist patterns in the application of stand your ground type laws and extrajudicial killings in general. We must also be more adept at leveraging human rights tools at our disposal to take our efforts beyond the limited framework of the Constitution and reimagine remedies at a macro-systemic level including, yes, even reparations.

Of course, there is work to do to build the kind of shared values, people power and authentic solidarity that this kind of transformation requires. And there are thousands of organizers working to make it happen.

Let’s hope that this latest wakeup call will inspire us to work smarter and build the kind of compelling, structural transformation movement that ensures we are never caught sleeping again.