After Zimmerman: Moving Our Justice System Off 'Autopilot'


“Not guilty on all counts.”

When that verdict was read in the Trayvon Martin case, like most African Americans, I was simultaneously numbed and devastated. Once again, our criminal justice system has sent a clear message to citizens of color that it's OK for us to be killed at the end of a pistol.

To express my deep concern, to support the healing process, and to call for immediate change, like many other New Yorkers, I spent the duration of the weekend participating in non-violent rallies across New York City.

On Sunday afternoon, I stood in Union Square where, in 96-degree-temperature, thousands of New Yorkers chanted in unison “We-are-Trayvon-Martin…We-are-Trayvon-Martin.”

But sadly, it could just as easily have been, “We are Amadou Diallo … “We are Sean Bell” … “We are Patrick Dorismond” … or any of the hundreds of young un-armed blacks who are killed each year nationwide and who never get justice.

After the electrifying and energy-filled Union Square rally, a couple of my fellow demonstrators and I decided to grab water at a trendy café across the street where it was all too clear: “no one was Trayvon Martin.”

It seemed that these leisurely diners, like most of post-racial America, had accepted the verdict of the racially fraught case and moved on—perhaps never stopping to think twice about it or its far reaching implications.

Even our President's comments, while acknowledging that his hypothetical son could have been Trayvon Martin, were ambiguous, unemotional and lacking any substantive analysis of the clear systemic problems in America's criminal justice system.

As Trayvon Martin's case highlights, now is the time for all Americans to demand a wholesale review of the role of our entire criminal justice system, from policing to prosecution, and from corrections to reentry.

We must ask hard questions.

Does our system truly safeguard the rule of law? Is legislation like the Stand Your Ground Law—enacted in many states like Florida, Texas, Mississippi and others— equal in its interpretation and application?

Justice in America has become a juggernaut that seemingly runs on autopilot, consuming in its wake mostly black, brown and poor people—as victims and perpetrators—with little evidence of fairness in application of the law or opportunity for rehabilitation.

The jolt from the Trayvon Martin verdict should serve to remind us that the system is a dynamic construct of man-made ideology, rules and direction—and therefore subject to reform.

We should also understand that people living in households with incomes below $7,500 are more than three times more likely to be robbed than those with incomes above $75,000, and that those at the lowest income level are victims of aggravated assault at the rate of 13 per 1,000, compared with 3 per 1,000 for those who make over $75,000.

In fact, the US Bureau of Justice Statistics' National Crime Victimization report clearly shows that those who are young, black, male, and poor are disproportionately likely to be crime victims. However, this demographic has been repeatedly omitted from the discussion about criminal justice policy.

Instead, policing, incarceration and punishment intrude in our lives, families and communities at a much higher frequency than other Americans.

If we are to truly honor the memory of Trayvon Martin, we must first ask ourselves why the majority of America is uninterested in reforming a system that repeatedly targets and systematically annihilates countless young men of color around the nation.

To recommend that the injustice done to Trayvon, his family and the justice-seeking citizens of America should be addressed with a nationwide campaign to overturn the laws that allow vigilantism is the equivalent of recommending that we cure cancer by prescribing Tylenol.

This is not about one single component of the system that needs fixing. Rather this is about a diabolical, well-oiled system that works all too well.

Glenn E. Martin is Vice President of Development and Public Affairs at The Fortune Society. He welcomes comments from readers.

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