Challenging Racial Profiling: Trayvon Martin, Occupy Wall Street, and Social Justice


The Trayvon Martin case is currently being tried in the media, with op-eds galore which begin by decrying a rush to judgment, then express their own judgment through their presentation of the facts. The police department is trying to justify its failure to charge George Zimmerman with any crime by releasing selective information about the killer and his victim, while Zimmerman’s family and attorney are alleging that Martin attacked the shooter – a story that is not borne out by witness and video evidence which show Zimmerman unharmed.

The polarization of public opinion and the family’s demands for justice has laid bare the role of endemic racial profiling in the case. Zimmerman had channeled the gated-community imaginary connecting neighborhood burglaries with groups of youth in hoodies and so automatically found Martin suspicious. After the shooting, narcotics and not homicide officers were sent to the scene; the officers initially accepted Zimmerman’s story at face value since the victim was a black youth in a hoodie, and routine homicide evidence was not collected.

The lead detective on the case, Chris Serino, did not believe Zimmerman’s story, but was overruled by the police chief and state district attorney because of their interpretation of Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law. Jonathan Capehart pointed out in the Washington Post that: “Serino didn’t believe Zimmerman’s version of events and recommended a manslaughter charge. But he was overruled. And according to a report from Joy-Ann Reid of the Grio yesterday, the decision came from atop the law enforcement food chain: the state attorney. A source with knowledge of the investigation into the shooting of Trayvon Martin tells the Grio that it was then Sanford police chief Bill Lee, along with Capt. Robert O’Connor, the investigations supervisor, who made the decision to release George Zimmerman on the night of February 26th, after consulting with State Attorney Norman Wolfinger – in person.”

The Sanford police have a history of systemic racial discrimination, which led to Lee’s appointment six months ago to clean up the force. Lee himself was forced to step down in the aftermath of public reaction to his refusal to charge Zimmerman. Interviewing NAACP president Ben Jealous about Lee’s ouster, Amy Goodwin of “Democracy Now” asked: “what happened after Trayvon was killed, when he’s laying on the ground, and the police come, and George Zimmerman is standing over him, as witnesses describe, the police didn’t drug or alcohol test George Zimmerman. They drug and alcohol tested the corpse of Trayvon. … Then his body was taken to the morgue, where it sat unidentified for—it laid unidentified for two days, when the police had his cell phone, could easily have identified who he was. He was talking to his girlfriend as this was all taking place.”

Jealous replied: “This is why this chief has to go, because the reality is that if you’re a chief, and your officers come – are called to a scene where a man has killed a boy, and no arrest is made, no evidence is gathered – no attempt to, you know, check the hands of the shooter for powder burns or anything else, powder residue, to gather the clothing of the killer for DNA evidence or anything else, or to otherwise gather evidence from that scene – and then no one attempts to contact this boy’s parents, to track them down, to pick up the cell phone and call the last number and say, ‘Who does this belong to?’ and then no one arrests the shooter and begins an investigation, and weeks go by, and a sense of safety that was already tenuous in this community – you were called here to rebuild – erodes more and more and more, there’s a certain point when there’s nothing that you as that chief can do to fix it, and you’ve just got to go.”

The rapid spread of protests in support of Martin’s family throughout the U.S. highlights the widespread use of racial profiling in major cities. “Stop and frisk” tactics have led to stepped-up police harassment and criminalization of black and Latino youth in New York, in particular. In an echo of the protests around Trayvon Martin’s killing, The LA Times reports, “marchers in New York City held a demonstration to demand the arrest of a New York police officer for fatally shooting an unarmed teenager after chasing him into his family’s apartment. The march Thursday night in the Bronx, where 18-year-old Ramarley Graham lived, was the latest rally in what protesters say will be a relentless campaign on behalf of the teenager. ‘We will get justice, because I’m not going to stop. A mother never lays down,’ Graham’s mother, Constance Malcolm, told the crowd.”

Ryan Devereaux in The Guardian notes that the NYPD is now facing a federal class action over the expansion of its stop-and-frisk program into public housing. “The plaintiffs include several mothers and their teenage children. They claim the program regularly leads to unwarranted stops, harassment and trespassing arrests in their own buildings and the buildings of their friends and family. … NYPD data indicates that between 2006 and 2010, the department made 329,446 stops based on suspicion of trespassing, representing 12% of all stops. Out the total number of stops 7.5% have led to arrests. In 2010 the 10 precincts with the most arrests [predominantly African American and Latino communities] accounted for nearly as many stops as the remaining 66 precincts combined.”

The Guardian was the only major newspaper to report Wednesday’s successful Occupy protest against fare increases on the New York Metro, which the movement has connected with police criminalization of youth. “An Occupy Wall Street-affiliated group has claimed responsibility for chaining open more than 20 subway gates in New York City, in an action intended to highlight issues surrounding the public transit system. … Chains and padlocks were used to hold emergency gates open on the F, L, R, Q, 3, and 6 lines. Signs resembling Metro Transit Authority notices were posted on the subway walls that read ‘Free Entry, No Fare. Please Enter Through The Service Gate’, while activists above ground urged passengers to ride for free. … [Occupy supporter José] Martín said one of the motivations for Wednesday’s action was to highlight the number of minorities arrested for fare evasion. ‘One of the driving motivations was the criminalization of black and brown youth through the NYPD quota system,’ he explained. ‘A lot of Occupiers have been going to jail for the last six months and finding themselves in jail cells with black and Latino youth who are often there for nothing more than fare evasion, thrown in cages for such a tiny violation and then often forced to lose their job or get in trouble in school’.”

Police racial profiling of black and Latino citizens is a political strategy aimed at containing the consequences of increasing social polarization, but an accumulation of abuses has eroded the ties between police and communities. It’s what underlies many unlawful police killings of individuals, young and old. Another aspect of this strategy is to suppress expressions of political protest outside the official two-party system, such as the Occupy movement. The growing public anger at the police in the Trayvon Martin case signifies that communities across the nation no longer accept them as protectors of public safety and are demanding justice.

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Filed under African Americans, occupy wall street, police presence, police raid, political analysis, poverty, Trayvon Martin, We are the 99 percent

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