Monday, July 15, 2013

Zimmerman, guns and Obama's racial politics

Since I periodically mention the value of utopian thinking in terms of understanding politics, I thought I should call attention to this piece by Michael Dawson: What’s next for the black left? The future of a movement after Occupy and Obama Salon 07/07/2013, an excerpt from his book Blacks In and Out of the Left (2013). He describes his version of utopian political thinking this way:

We need a pragmatic utopianism—one that starts where we are, but imagines where we want to be. Pragmatic utopianism is not new to black radical- ism. King’s work, and that of the civil rights movement more generally, was based on the utopian imagining of a much different America—one they were repeatedly told was impossible to obtain—combined with the hardheaded political realism that generated the strategies and tactics necessary to achieve their goals. Indeed, it was the combination of utopian imagining of a better world and political realism that led King to Memphis in support of black sanitation workers. The Memphis campaign, and even more so the Poor People’s Campaign that he was about to launch, was designed to explicitly take on what Mosley called the "voracious maw of capitalism" in order to achieve economic justice for all, and in the process build the interracial unity that Guinier correctly observed has been difficult to achieve.
His article is a little long on jargon, i.e., "black radical organizations need to be nimble, innovative, willing to experiment, and flexible." Those are qualities corporate PR departments routinely claims for their companies. They have little meaning outside of specific organizations and tasks.

I do find his framing of the "black public sphere" intriguing:

The black public sphere, what I have called the black counterpublic, must be rebuilt from the bottom up, and quickly. We need to learn from some of the more technologically innovative forces within the progressive movement to use technology as a way to help people in neighborhoods meet and talk face-to-face, have these smaller groups link to each other’s discussion, and give people at the local level an online set of tools to help them organize themselves. The black public sphere has historically been central to the multiple social movements that have emerged out of black civil society, movements that in turn transformed America for the better. The black public sphere, as King and many others have said, has also been the site of trenchant, effective and influential critiques of democracy in America, as well as the instrument through which African Americans have been able, sometimes effectively, to influence political debate within the country as a whole. That is why it must be rebuilt. [my emphasis]
I came across Dawson's article via Chancey DeVega's Is the (Black) Left Fighting Today's War of Austerity and Neoliberalism With Yesterday's Political Weapons and Tactics? WARN 07/12/2013. He sees it as addressing what he and Dawson (who he calls "one of the United States' most senior black political scientists") perceive as an important political crossroads. DeVega:

The election of Barack Obama represents the nadir of Black Politics and the Black Freedom Struggle. A black man may be President of the United States, but the symbolic meaning of his tenure is dwarfed by his practical inability (and unwillingness) to advance policies which serve the unique and specific challenges faced by people of color--economically, socially, and politically--in the United States. [my emphasis]
And he poses the question, "What would Black Politics look like on the ground if it were able to adapt in the post civil rights era to the realities of colorblind racism, Austerity, and neoliberalism?"

DeVega notes of African-Americans and the Obama Presidency, "an enthusiastic group of constituents are given little if anything of material substance for their support of the country's first Black President."

The Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case will present a new test of Obama's handling of racial hot-button issues. On the one hand, his previous record from Jeremiah Wright to Henry Louis Gates Jr. to Shirley Sherrod suggests that he will bend over backward to avoid having his Administration become a direct participant in the Martin/Zimmerman case by allowing his Justice Department to prosecute Zimmerman.

Inviting George Zimmerman to have a beer at the White House with Trayvon Martin's family isn't likely to work to finesse the issue.

Obama's statement on the Zimmerman verdict (07/14/2013) was classic bipartisan, postracial, National Pastor Obama talk:

The death of Trayvon Martin was a tragedy. Not just for his family, or for any one community, but for America. I know this case has elicited strong passions. And in the wake of the verdict, I know those passions may be running even higher. But we are a nation of laws, and a jury has spoken. I now ask every American to respect the call for calm reflection from two parents who lost their young son. And as we do, we should ask ourselves if we're doing all we can to widen the circle of compassion and understanding in our own communities. We should ask ourselves if we’re doing all we can to stem the tide of gun violence that claims too many lives across this country on a daily basis. We should ask ourselves, as individuals and as a society, how we can prevent future tragedies like this. As citizens, that's a job for all of us. That's the way to honor Trayvon Martin. [my emphasis]
No one who buys into George Zimmerman's self-portrayal as the Real Victim here gives a flying flip about asking themselves "as individuals and as a society, how we can prevent future tragedies like this." They already have the answer: "N*****s should just stay out of our neighborhoods."

The President could and should have used the opportunity to acknowledge the reality of the difference in the lived experience of black men and women in America, including a kid like Trayvon who had just turned 17, and those of white Americans. That might actually have actually contributed something to reflection on race and violence. The definition of blackness as criminality is a deep-seated problem in American society. And the proliferation of small arms and Stand Your Ground laws is an open invitation for racial violence and murder for the George Zimmermans of the world. Obama did mention in passing "the tide of gun violence." But after a not-so-enthusiastic and failed effort to get a national firearms registration bill passed, I will be amazed if Obama comes within 100 miles of any new legislative effort to restrain gun proliferation in the US.

Walter Shapiro has a perceptive description of how Obama comes off when he's not serious about dealing with an issue (Guns and Gut Feelings The American Prospect 07/08/2013):

Sometimes in politics, good intentions are not enough. Even though the president often radiates all the passion of some-assembly-required instructions from Ikea, the dead children at Sandy Hook Elementary School obviously scarred Obama's soul. But nearly seven months after Newtown, perhaps we should sadly conclude that this time is not different and that the president accomplished little that is lasting with his intense advocacy of gun control. [my emphasis]
As he says there, Shapiro gives Obama credit for engaging seriously with the gun proliferation issue after the Newtown massacre. But he doesn't expect it to continue:

A second-term president only gets to go to the nation on behalf of a limited number of causes before his administration gives way to lame-duck exhaustion. After Newtown, Obama uncharacteristically went with his heart rather than his head. But without a coherent strategy, without a different approach to curbing gun violence, he has little to show for his laudable efforts. And that is the second tragedy of Newtown.
Obama's return to stale-platitude mode in his weekend reference to "the tide of gun violence" - a "tide" that is actually a deliberate proliferation strategy by the firearms industry that makes money on it - is an indication that his post-Newtown passion on the issue has faded back to his previous posture of radiating "all the passion of some-assembly-required instructions from Ikea." That was has mood in addressing the near-assassination of Congresswoman Gaby Giffords. It was the tone of his statement on the Zimmerman case.

Based on his record, I'm expecting his politics of caution to override all other considerations in this case. But the Justice Department did immediately announce it is continuing to investigate the Trayvon Martin shooting for possible federal charges. In theory, this will be a non-political review. But given his Look Forward Not Backward policy on declining to prosecute torture crimes from the Cheney-Bush Administration, I don't believe the Justice Department would prosecute this case unless it met with Obama's political approval.

But the involvement of old-line civil right organizations like the NAACP and the National Urban League in calling for a federal investigation. In the Statement from Marc H. Morial, President and CEO of the National Urban League, on the Trayvon Martin Trial Verdict (accessed 07/15/2013), Morial says:

... the National Urban League and Urban League Movement, along with the NAACP, National Action Network, the Black Women’s Roundtable and others, are joining to collectively ask the Department of Justice to pursue a federal criminal civil rights investigation. Our forward efforts will be to encourage the DOJ to proceed in conducting a thorough investigation of whether any federal laws were violated by George Zimmerman in connection with the death of Trayvon Martin, including the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act.

From the very beginning of this case, if not for Ben Crump and the local community’s call to the civil rights leadership, this matter would have been swept under the rug. Our collective efforts stopped that from occurring last year. Today, we continue to send a strong message of solidarity with Trayvon's parents and with his family. But we also want to send another message - this is not the end.
This is an issue that if Obama had just brushed it off completely could have encouraged some unwelcome criticism from the African-American community that would resonate far beyond what cranky academics and grumpy bloggers might be saying. It might even encourage more widespread and vocal reflection along the lines of Chauncey DeVega's, "A black man may be President of the United States, but the symbolic meaning of his tenure is dwarfed by his practical inability (and unwillingness) to advance policies which serve the unique and specific challenges faced by people of color--economically, socially, and politically--in the United States."

Aside from the politics, though, there is the substance of the case. I don't know a lot about what goes into a Justice Department review of a case like this. As the state trial showed, getting reasonable doubt with the available evidence is no small hurdle. When you go armed and ready to shoot to follow someone and the unarmed person being followed winds up dead, shot at close range with the stalker's gun, I don't think the shooter should get off with no penalty as Zimmerman has so far. If you're going to take that responsibility on yourself, you need to be prepared to deal with it in a fully responsible way.

That's why we have trials. The evidence has to be presented and judged. As I think I've made clear in my posts on the incident, I think there is a lot to be learned from this about how white racism affects the justice system and how it makes it too easy for whites (or non-black Hispanics, if you prefer to consider Zimmerman non-white) to kill blacks and get away with it. The Stand Your Ground laws are an example of this and exacerbate the problem.

But every trial is its own individual event. And, even from my admittedly limited viewpoint, it looks like anything but an open-and-shut case. The jurors in Florida didn't have to hash over their verdict for days. A defense attorney has a number of points to work with to establish reasonable doubt, even without the permissive self-defense and Stand Your Ground standards under Florida law.

The Martin family attorney compared Trayvon's death to other infamous race-related killings (Richard Luscombe, George Zimmerman acquitted in Trayvon Martin case Guardian 07/13/2013):

Benjamin Crump, lawyer for the Martin family, expressed thanks to supporters and prosecutors. Visibly shaken by the verdict, he said: "To everybody who put their hoodies up, to everybody who said 'I am Trayvon', his family express their heartfelt gratitude for helping them these past 17 months."

Crump said that the daughter of the late civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr, Dr Bernice King, had sent him a message that read: "Today is a defining moment for the status of my father's dream. Whatever the Zimmerman verdict is, in the words of my father we must conduct ourselves on higher plane of dignity and discipline."

He added: "Trayvon Martin will forever remain in the annals of history next to Medgar Evers an[d] Emmett Till as symbols for the fight for equal justice for all." He finished his remarks with an appeal for calm. "For Trayvon to remain in peace, we must all be peaceful," he said.
I don't have a problem with those references. Yet those two men's and a boy's deaths are worth considering. Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King, Jr., were gunned down from a distance by shooters with rifles who clearly targeted them for death. Emmett Till was a 14-year-old kid (his birthday had been the month before he was murdered) who was taken from his relatives' house at night by white goons and murdered.

There was no remotely plausible issue of self-defense for those killers. In the also infamous case of the Rodney King beating, after having TASERed him twice, police beat him repeatedly with their clubs after he was down on the ground, unarmed, in a public spectacle that was fortunately caught on camera. As the Famous American Trials website from the University of Missouri-Kansas City recounts the incident, "three officers strike King over fifty times with metal batons before finally handcuffing him." The cops' argument that they thought he was endangering them was plainly ludicrous, even though a Simi Valley jury obviously decided to let him walk. In that case, the successful federal prosecution over denial of civil rights had good prospects for conviction and was dealing with an obvious miscarriage of justice.

As unsympathetic as George Zimmerman is and as much as I hate to see him walk on criminal charges, even the most professional, unbiased review by the Justice Department might well decide they don't have a good enough case to make the attempt. And it's hard to imagine that the Justice Department will regard the Zimmerman trial as much of a miscarriage of justice as that of the officers who beat Rodney King. Or the "Mississippi Burning" trial that produced this immortal photo of defendants Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price and Sheriff Lawrence Rainey at their arraignment in 1967 not being especially worried about the possibility of conviction, as their smirking supporters look on:

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