" Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago." President Barack Obama, July 19, 2013
As a nation we have not yet fully come to terms with the Trayvon Martin tragedy and the travesty of the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial. Every nationwide public opinion poll has shown a severe delta between the feelings of African Americans and those of White Americans about the outcome of this trial. In his speech to the nation, President Obama tried to bridge our divide of racial difference by uttering those now famous words. Yet, for many Americans to fully comprehend these words is to step into another dimension to leap from the perceived American mainstream into the precarious world of Black and Brown Americanism in which you are never secure or insulated from the unpredictable and deleterious effects of racial profiling and racial discrimination. To live in a world where you can be suddenly be "de-americanized" with all rights secured by our constitution suddenly suspended because of the color of your skin. A world of intense uncertainty in which a mere innocent walk to a store to buy skittles and a can of tea can end up in the forfeit of your life by a street vigilante.
Yet implicated in the tragedy of the death of Trayvon Martin is a state law, that like the death penalty itself, justifies the taking of another's life for the macho principle of Stand Your Ground, often another form of state sanctioned revenge. Combined with the toxicity of American racism and disproportionate use against men of color these Stand Your Ground laws have become another license to kill. Many of us engaged in the cause of abolition of the death penalty are motivated by our belief in the wrong of state leveraged death as a penalty. Many of us are equally appalled by the clear racial inequality in the imposition of the death penalty. For these same reasons, we should be incensed by laws that relegate to any individual the right to kill instead of withdrawing or avoiding a conflict. The President and Attorney General were right to call for the repeal of Stand Your Ground laws in the 24 states in which they exist.
Sadly, racial discrimination in the criminal justice system is so pervasive that President Obama was also forced to ponder "that if a white male teen was involved in the same kind of scenario, that, from top to bottom, both the outcome and the aftermath might have been different." A racial taint colors the entire system from decisions about arrests, prosecutions, sentencing to incarceration. Just two months ago The New York Times editorial board opined that despite identical use of marijuana that African Americans constituted 3/4's of all arrests that this could only be called "a tool of racial oppression."
Indeed, the contrast of the outcomes in the Florida trials of George Zimmerman, a white Hispanic, who shot and killed the unarmed Trayvon and that of Marissa Alexander, an African American woman who fired a warning shot into the roof of her home at the advance of her abusive husband, demonstrates the racial intent behind who these laws were meant to protect. Whereas George Zimmerman walks free today, Marissa Alexander is serving a 20 year sentence.
We must fight for the total reform of our criminal justice system to eliminate its racial inequities. We must demand the repeal of Stand Your Ground laws. And we must not rest until all forms of state legitimated death are ended!!
Barbara R. Arnwine is president and executive director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. The Lawyers' Committee is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, formed in 1963. For more information, please visit www.lawyerscommittee.org.
Justin Arnwine, communications intern for Lawyers' Committee, contributed to this article.
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