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“Up to No Good”: The Racial Profiling of Trayvon Martin and Abdulrahman Awlaki

Racial profiling is the same whether the victim is located in a neighborhood in Sanford, Florida, or an open air cafe in Yemen.

Racial profiling is the same whether the victim is located in a neighborhood in Sanford, Florida, or an open air cafe in Yemen.

Since the killing of Trayvon Martin and the exoneration of George Zimmerman, racial profiling and its role in shaping popular attitudes about race in the United States has occupied much of the national discourse. Thousands across the country have flooded the streets to protest what they rightly interpret as a miscarriage of justice perpetrated by a criminal justice system that finds little to no value in black life.

At the same time these protests are unfolding, a less publicized trial is taking place in Washington DC. Nasser Awlaki, with the legal support of the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Constitutional Rights, has sued former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, William McRaven, Joseph Votel and David Petraeus for the extrajudicial killing of his 16-year-old grandson Abdulrahman Awlaki via drone strike. Abdulrahman Awlaki was a US citizen born in Denver, Colorado, who was killed in a US drone strike in November of 2011 while sitting at an open air cafe in southern Yemen. Two weeks prior to his murder, Awlaki’s father, Anwar Awlaki, was also killed in a drone strike in Yemen. Both killings were declared “unlawful” by the ACLU in their 17-page legal complaint. The plaintiffs charge Panetta and his associates with violating the Fourth and Fifth Amendment rights of Abdulrahman Awlaki, his father, and another American killed by drones, Samir Khan.

The mainstream media has barely covered the Awlaki court case and has totally missed the striking similarities between the racial profiling that underlies the Obama administration’s drone program and Zimmerman’s racial profiling. But a careful examination of the drone policy reveals that it advances a form of racial profiling that is just as insidious as that practiced by George Zimmerman, differing substantially only in the scale of the violence inflicted.

Central to any act of profiling is the assumption that the person targeted possesses innate features that predispose him or her to commit criminal acts. Writing in The New York Times about President Obama’s “kill list,” Jo Becker and Scott Shane explain that policy planners see those targeted in drone attacks as individuals who are “probably up to no good.” The assertion, without evidence, that an individual is “probably up to no good” is the epitome of racial profiling. So is the administration’s claim that all military-age males in a strike zone are combatants, making any young man living in areas where we are using drones a fair target for assassination. Demonizing the victims allows these atrocities to continue and makes the killing seem acceptable.

This same demonization played a role in the killing of Trayvon Martin, exemplified by Zimmerman’s complaint that “they always get away,” as he stalked his target shortly before executing him. In both cases – the Zimmerman profiling of Martin and the Obama administration’s profiling of drone targets – the victim is assumed guilty based simply on their identity and not evidence. In fact, guilt under the drone program goes considerably beyond an assumption. In a grotesque violation of international law, the Obama administration has embraced the notion of posthumous findings of innocence.

Under this notion, anyone killed in a drone attack is automatically deemed a militant unless explicit evidence emerges to posthumously prove his innocence. Imagine if the same standard were applied in the Zimmerman case. Even here there are similarities to the Zimmerman case, because a large portion of the Zimmerman trial entailed the character assassination of Martin as someone suspect, a “thug” or criminal .

Efforts to smear the identity of the victim also played a role in the Abdulrahman Awlaki killing. Immediately after the killing was made public, government officials falsely claimed Abdulrahman was 21 years old (a “military-aged male,” in State Department terminology). His grandfather made public his birth certificate proving that he was a 16-year-old American born in 1995. Others said the strike intended to kill an Egyptian terror suspect by the name of Ibrahim al-Banna, and Abdulrahaman was simply a bystander. While former White House press secretary Robert Gibbs callously rationalized the murder by saying Abdulrahman “should of had a more responsible father,” Attorney General Eric Holder confirmed the kill in May, saying the teenager “was not specifically targeted.”

Drone pilots often see their victims in the same way Sabrina Martin said the jurors saw her deceased son Trayvon Martin: as less than a human being. After human targets are obliterated, some pilots are said to refer to the grisly remains as “bug splats.” London-based human rights lawyer Jennifer Robinson said bug splat is a term deliberately employed as a “psychological tactic to dehumanize targets so operatives overcome their inhibition to kill; and so the public remains apathetic and unmoved to act.”

Meanwhile, the White House and the State Department have contributed to this climate of apathy by portraying these lethal actions as “precise” and “surgical” despite empirical data gathered on drone strikes by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism that paint a radically different picture. A secret document recently obtained and published by the bureau exposes the internal assessment of the Pakistani government on drone strikes between January 2006 and October 2009. The assessment found, “Of 746 people listed as killed in the drone strikes . . . at least 147 of the dead are clearly stated to be civilian victims, 94 of those are said to be children.” Despite this assessment and a long list of names to identify the victims, not one major press outlet has decided to publish them.

Names also went unpublished after another notorious strike was carried out in Pakistan on a local council meeting called a loya jirga on March 17, 2011. In this bombing, Pakistanis say, 42 people were killed, many of them respected elders in the community. The purpose of the meeting was to negotiate the terms of a mining project being implemented in the area.

But a New York Times piece on the deadly strike said American officials sharply disputed Pakistan’s account of the strikes and the civilian deaths, contending that all the people killed were insurgents. “These people weren’t gathering for a bake sale,” an American official said. “They were terrorists.”

These indefensible assaults on human life and dignity can only proceed in a climate of hatred, fear and ignorance. In the case of Zimmerman killing Trayvon Martin, the hatred and ignorance that motivated the attack is transparent.

Activist and author Michelle Alexander condemned what she called the “Zimmerman mindset” in a recent Time magazine cover story. Alexander describes how Zimmerman’s hostility toward Trayvon is consistent with systemic norms that oppress black people as a whole or, as she writes, “our criminal-justice system has for decades been infected with a mind-set that views black boys and men in particular as a problem to be dealt with, managed and controlled. This mind-set has fueled a brutal war on drugs, a get-tough movement and a prison-building boom unprecedented in world history.”

The pernicious ideology that underlies the “Zimmerman mindset” can also be found in American foreign policy. Both rely on the baseless assumption that marginalized groups – disproportionately people of color – should not be granted the same presumption of innocence afforded to the more privileged, or as Attorney General Holder put it in his remarkably brazen justification of extrajudicial assassinations: “Due process is not the same as judicial process”.

Unless the victims of these supremacist doctrines are granted the same rights as others, there will be more Zimmermans to end the lives of more Trayvons, and more drone pilots to end the lives of Abdulrahmans. But there is nothing inevitable about this outcome. Such horrors can be overcome with massive public action that holds government officials accountable, and lone vigilantes like Zimmerman accountable and a moral maturity that sees the victims of racial profiling as the same whether they be in a neighborhood in Sanford, Florida, or an open air cafe in Yemen.

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