Equal Rights

Miscarriage of Justice? The Zimmerman Verdict

The old saying comparing opinions to the human anatomy is true. Everybody does have one. And when verdicts are handed down, as in the George Zimmerman case, the opinions fly. These trials create mirror-like reactions. Had the judgement been reversed so would have been the responses. There would still be an outcry.

One need only look at the O. J. Simpson trial to recall a miscarriage of justice. In the Zimmerman case, the jurors are being denounced as racist because he killed a young black man. In the Simpson trial, they were accused of pandering because Simpson, himself, is a black man.

We might do well to step back from the actual trials and verdicts and look at the broader picture. If any truth is to emerge from this case, it is tragically simple: The justice system in modern America is broken. At least the jury element. At least in Florida. And yet…

This goes way beyond Florida. It just seems that Florida has a perverse desire for headlines, which seems odd given its specific racist history. Mind you, I am not trying to say that George Zimmerman should have been found guilty of murder. The prosecution overreached in its initial charges, necessitating the late addition of a manslaughter charge. That prosecutorial decision had to have influenced the jury and raised doubts. Maybe the prosecutors were not so sure of their case and were just grasping at straws.

Nor am I saying that George Zimmerman is innocent. Certainly his intent and motives are questionable, if not despicable. He was told by a 911 operator to cease his pursuit and let the proper authorities handle the situation. But Zimmerman lives in a fantasy world and has long been an incident waiting to happen.

Nor am I passing judgment on Trayvon Martin. He may have been innocent enough, initially. He may have defended himself too vigorously after being accosted. He may have done nothing wrong whatsoever. We certainly know he was unarmed.

What I am saying, is that Florida is the latest--and perhaps worst--example of a justice system incapable of justice. One that is still mired in prejudice, because we, the people, are still mired in prejudice. We pretend that we have put the divisions of the past behind us. After all, we have a black president. But that reality has not buried racism nor healed the racial divide. In fact, at the risk of veering off topic, much of the opposition that President Obama faces in Congress is rooted in racism. There is honest difference of opinion on some policies, but he would not be facing the same obstruction and ad hominem attacks if he were white.

An honest evaluation of the Zimmerman trial must conclude that if Trayvon Martin had been white, Zimmerman would never have followed him in the first place, nor engaged him in a physical confrontation. Consequently, he would not have shot him and there would have been no trial.

The truth is, much of white America is threatened by black men--whether they be 17 our 52, slight or muscular, educated or not. The great paradox of this mentality is that it is delusional, yet very real.

Whether or not Zimmerman was innocent or guilty is almost beside the point. The inequity in the justice system can be demonstrated by looking at another, less publicized Florida trial that concluded two months ago, in May.

Marissa Alexander, a black woman, picked up a gun and fired two warning shots to ward off an abusive husband. She did not fire
at him. She had no intent to kill. He was not wounded. Marissa was clearly in physical, possibly life-threatening, danger. Not only was she arrested and brought to trial, she was convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison.

George Zimmerman provoked his altercation. At least initially, he had no reason to fear, other than what arises from his own racial prejudice. There was no evidence that he was ever in life-threatening danger, even during the scuffle. Yet, after killing Trayvon Martin, he was released by the police and eventually acquitted by a jury.

One often hears whites accuse black people of always claiming racism when things go wrong. That is too easy and simplistic. If blacks in America were accustomed to an equal share of justice, they would never have celebrated the Simpson verdict. If blacks in America were treated as equal persons, there would not have been a Zimmerman trial. If blacks in America were valued and treated like whites, Marissa Alexander would be free today.

I suppose we can continue to delude ourselves. But until we move beyond the ignorance that fuels the racism of people like Zimmerman, we will probably have to suffer more such trials, and justice will remain merely an illusion.
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The Governor Brown Vetoes--a Loss for Justice

Jerry Brown possesses one of the most interesting and certainly the most unusual political histories in the State of California. From a member of the Los Angeles Community College District, to California Secretary of State, to Governor, to Mayor of Oakland, to Attorney General and back again to Governor. Agree with him or not, his career has been characterized by principles of equality and justice. Personally, I have long been one of his supporters.

I admired then, and still do today, his principled stand against the death penalty. His veto of legislation to reinstitute capital punishment, along with his commitment to the environment and to workers’ rights were the kind of risks one expects from a leader; from a man of vision; from a governor committed to equality under the law and justice for all. This was the man who championed the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act, even calling a special session of the legislature to pass the act which he signed into law on May 29, 1975. Fast forward to September, 2012.

The mainstream media has failed to cover one of the most spectacular stories in the state. Governor Jerry Brown is the victim of a Sci-Fi movie. “The Invasion of the Body Snatchers” is no longer just an escape of fiction. That is the only explanation I can concoct for the disappearance of the principled politician who used to inhabit Brown’s corporeal form. After all, the values instilled in him through his Jesuit education proved of inestimable value in his political career--until now.

The Humane Treatment for Farm Workers Act--vetoed. This act would have made it a misdemeanor crime, punishable by jail time and fines, to not provide appropriate water or shade to workers laboring under high conditions. To use a popular expression, that should be “no-brainer.”

The Farm Worker Safety Act--vetoed. This would enabled workers to sue employers who repeatedly violate the law. Such lawsuits are the only guaranteed method of enforcing the state’s heat regulations.

The Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights--vetoed. This act would have included domestic workers in basic labor protections. Such things as overtime pay, meal and rest breaks. And who are these domestic workers? Childcare providers, house cleaners, caregivers for California’s families.

The Trust Act--vetoed. In a society that is struggling to maintain faithfulness to its immigrant roots and seeking ways to keep families, the governor’s veto will enable law enforcement officers to continue their assault on immigrants. More than 80,000 persons have been deported for minor, non-violent offenses. There is a reason that boundary lines separate California from Arizona. We don’t want the likes of governor Brewer and Sheriff Arapaio.

These vetoes are outrageous. What happened to the Jerry Brown who stood for justice and equality? The United Farm Workers put it in perspective: “It’s unacceptable that immigrants and Latinos in California will continue to live in fear of attacks like Arizona’s SB 1070. It’s appalling that 200,000 domestic workers will continue work without rest or meal breaks. It’s outrageous when abuse of a farm animal is taken more seriously than abuse of a farm worker.”

There is a new outcry in the State of California: “Shame on you, Governor Brown.” If it were only a matter of shame, that would be his problem. It is much deeper than that, however. This is a scandal for the entire State of California. It reduces us to the level of Arizona. I wonder if Brown’s next action will be to wag his finger in disrespect at the President of the United States!
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Full Circle: Apartheid Returns to America

The word apartheid was never used in America to describe the era of segregation, nor was it used to describe race relations in general. It is a word sprung from the heart of the Afrikaans language to express a deep-seated prejudice against non-white South Africans, primarily blacks. What many do not know is that the South African system of Apartheid was directly modeled on the American system of segregation.

During its 40-year history, Apartheid came to be vilified as one of the most despicable institutional government policies of the modern world. Even before formally establishing this horrendous system, South Africa created legislation known as “pass laws” to regulate the movement of non-whites. These laws required non-whites to carry passbooks that proved they had a right to travel within certain areas of the country.

Not only an implement to control the movement of non-whites
within an area, these pass laws were also used to keep them completely out from others. For example, Indians were not allowed in the Orange Free State (one of the four provinces that comprised South Africa before the new constitution was established in 1996).

The United States of America became the recipient of a dubious gift from the U.S. Supreme Court in late June. Apartheid has returned to the nest. There is no other conclusion to be drawn from the Court’s decision on the Arizona anti-immigration law (SB 1070).

Given that Apartheid was such a disaster in South Africa, the chick was clever enough to return masquerading under a new name: Arizona v. United States, No. 11-182. Admittedly, it is not as simple or catchy as Apartheid, but it is just as effective.

It is true that the Supreme Court does not incorporate the word Apartheid into its decision. But that is just an insidious affront to the intelligence of U.S. citizens—or an acknowledgement of the lack thereof. It is almost as if they know, or inherently suspect, that their decision is a violation of human rights, dignity and justice.

It has almost become trite and tiring to reference Emma Lazarus’ poem at the foot of the Statue of Liberty whenever immigration comes up for debate. And yet, that poem should be as foundational in American life as the Constitution, itself. For, not unlike the Declaration of Independence, the poem enlists words of profound beauty to enshrine the values that define the new America. Values that underpin the Constitution and make it possible. Indeed, the poem appeals to and calls forth our better selves.

Most people find familiar the lines beginning with, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” They are the great rallying cry, proclaiming to all the world: Here lies a land of freedom and equality. We have always struggled to live up to the challenge. Sometimes we simply refuse to heed the call. Three sentences earlier in the poem, we read about the statue herself: “From her beacon-hand glows worldwide welcome.” That simply is no longer true.

Some might suggest that poetry is not law. Fair enough. But we are not just a nation of law. The constitution was not created in, nor does it exist in, a vacuum. If poetry espouses the values upon which the law is founded, then the law should reflect back those same values. On this point the Supreme Court failed.

The issue at hand is not whether someone entered the United States legally or illegally. If officers can demand papers when they stop someone, then people who are here legally will not be afforded the rights that are legitimately theirs. Let us at least be honest about two things. First, just as in the South Africa of old, the only people who will be questioned will be people of color. Secondly, the United States is no longer a land where everyone is welcome.

As the right wing xenophobes in more and more states seek to turn this national disgrace into law, the courts become the only recourse for a society seeking to regain its moral balance and sanity.

The justices on the Supreme Court swore to uphold the Constitution. Perhaps they should look not just to the letter of the law, but the principles that breathe spirit into the law.
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