America’s ugly history of vigilante justice

These executions date back to the 1800s.Trayvon is hardly the only recent victim whose murderer has gone unpunished

Topics: AlterNet, Race, Trayvon Martin,

America's ugly history of vigilante justiceDemonstrators hold signs during a march to the front of the Sanford Police Department for Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, March 31, 2012 (Credit: Reuters/Lucas Jackson)
This article originally appeared on AlterNet.

At the Million Hoodie March, the name of Trayvon Martin was the first name on everyone’s lips. But as the behoodied masses of mourners spilled into the streets of lower Manhattan, I heard other names, too, which joined Martin’s in a litany of murdered children. As the names were spoken, sung, chanted and echoed through the city streets, the assembled remembered a history that was supposed to have been long forgotten.

AlterNetAmong the marchers, an elder woman could be heard crying, over and over, to any who would listen: “I’m tired! I’m tired! I’m just so tired!” For this woman and others I spoke to, the story of Trayvon Martin’s murder remained freighted, not only with the weight of the Martins’ unspeakable loss, but with the weight of a history too often left unspoken: above all, the long history of legalized murder extending from Judge Lynch all the way to George Zimmerman.

Extrajudicial “justice” came into its own in this country with the posse comitatus, the slave patrol and the Fugitive Slave Laws of the 19th century. It continued into the 20th with the lynch mob, the Vigilance Committee, the Citizens’ Council and the Klan. And it lives on today in the citizens’ patrol, the Minuteman militia, the Patriot movement — and your local precinct. For white-on-black violence has historically found willing perpetrators in police departments like Sanford, Fla.’s, as much as in private “neighborhood watches” like Zimmerman’s.



This is a history of violence we have yet to truly reckon with. It is a history that teaches us, not only that violence begets violence, but that legalized violence on the part of the state begets extralegal violence on the part of private citizens — violence, above all, against those marked by race, religion, or presumed place of origin as illegal, criminal, or “out of place.”

Immigrants, too, have been targeted for extrajudicial execution, from the murder of 9-year old Brisenia Flores at her home in Arizona in 2009 to the fatal beating of Shaima Alawadi, an Iraqi-American mother of five, in a suburb of San Diego just last month. Since 9/11, waves of anti-immigrant violence have coincided with waves of raids and round-ups by federal, state, and local agencies. Such hate crimes have been concentrated in counties (like Suffolk, N.Y., and Maricopa, Ariz.) where law enforcement has been known to engage in rampant racial profiling.

Every surge in white-on-black and white-on-brown violence has followed a series of signs and signals, of winks and nods from lawmakers, law enforcement, and legal practitioners. The most obvious are the “Castle Laws” and “stand your ground” statutes, which legalize the use of lethal force by private citizens. Less obvious, but equally insidious, is the reign of impunity for police officers who shoot to kill. And those who seek some measure of justice find the police as unwilling to investigate white vigilantes as they are to hold their own officers to account.

The line between law enforcement and lawlessness has been blurred in the streets of our towns and cities. Take the case of 18-year old Ramarley Graham, who was executed, unarmed and in his own home, by members of the NYPD’s Street Narcotics Enforcement Unit in the Bronx on Feb. 2, 2012. Or take the case of 22-year-old Rekia Boyd, who was shot dead in Chicago on March 22 by an off-duty police officer who claimed to be “standing his ground,” like Zimmerman. Neither Graham’s killer nor Boyd’s has been charged with any crime at this time. Compare this treatment to that meted out to black police officer Howard Morgan, facing up to 80 years in prison after being shot 28 times by fellow officers and living to tell the tale.

When cases do go to court, it is the justice system that is invariably indicted. The officers who fired 50 shots into 23-year-old Sean Bell on his wedding day in 2006 were acquitted of all charges in 2008. Officer Johannes Mehserle, who pumped a bullet into the back of 22-year-old Oscar Grant on an Oakland subway platform in 2009, was released after serving half of a two-year sentence. Similarly paltry charges await the Detroit policeman who, with reality TV crew in tow, gunned down 7-year-old Aiyana Stanley-Jones in her sleep in 2010.

Here, then, lie the origins of vigilante violence in our times: a reign of impunity wherein the rule of law applies only to the ruled and the “tough on crime” crowd condones the very crime they purport to be fighting. This reign of impunity lends a veneer of legality to the private use of deadly force, bestows an aura of legitimacy on vigilante violence, and sanctions the paramilitary sensibility that has led so many white Americans to take up arms against their fellow Americans.

The recent record of the justice system testifies all too eloquently to the priorities that continue to guide its judgments: the priority of white life over black life, indeed of white property over black life, and of the liberties of white citizens over the rights of everyone else. Small wonder, then, that it is black youth who are disproportionately stopped, frisked, arrested, prosecuted, incarcerated — and, increasingly, executed, with or without a trial.

In the wake of Trayvon Martin’s murder, many Americans are awakening to the reality that, nearly 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, 50 years after the March on Washington, and three years after the inauguration of the first black president, our past is hardly past. In the voices of the slain and in the voices of the living, it cries out for a reckoning.

Michael Gould-Wartofsky is the author of new book THE OCCUPIERS: The Making of the 99 Percent Movement, just released by Oxford Press. He is a PhD candidate in Sociology at New York University, and holds a BA in Government from Harvard University. Gould-Wartofsky was one of the first social scientists on the ground at Occupy Wall Street on Sept 17, 2011, beginning his inquiry then and continuing uninterrupted ever since. He has written for The Nation, Monthly Review, Salon, and Mother Jones.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 14
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Pilot"

    One of our first exposures to uncomfortable “Girls” sex comes early, in the pilot episode, when Hannah and Adam “get feisty” (a phrase Hannah hates) on the couch. The pair is about to go at it doggy-style when Adam nearly inserts his penis in “the wrong hole,” and after Hannah corrects him, she awkwardly explains her lack of desire to have anal sex in too many words. “Hey, let’s play the quiet game,” Adam says, thrusting. And so the romance begins.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Elijah, "It's About Time"

    In an act of “betrayal” that messes up each of their relationships with Hannah, Marnie and Elijah open Season 2 with some more couch sex, which is almost unbearable to watch. Elijah, who is trying to explore the “hetero side” of his bisexuality, can’t maintain his erection, and the entire affair ends in very uncomfortable silence.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Charlie, "Vagina Panic"

    Poor Charlie. While he and Marnie have their fair share of uncomfortable sex over the course of their relationship, one of the saddest moments (aside from Marnie breaking up with him during intercourse) is when Marnie encourages him to penetrate her from behind so she doesn’t have to look at him. “This feels so good,” Charlie says. “We have to go slow.” Poor sucker.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and camp friend Matt, "Hannah's Diary"

    We’d be remiss not to mention Shoshanna’s effort to lose her virginity to an old camp friend, who tells her how “weird” it is that he “loves to eat pussy” moments before she admits she’s never “done it” before. At least it paves the way for the uncomfortable sex we later get to watch her have with Ray?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Hard Being Easy"

    On the heels of trying (unsuccessfully) to determine the status of her early relationship with Adam, Hannah walks by her future boyfriend’s bedroom to find him masturbating alone, in one of the strangest scenes of the first season. As Adam jerks off and refuses to let Hannah participate beyond telling him how much she likes watching, we see some serious (and odd) character development ... which ends with Hannah taking a hundred-dollar bill from Adam’s wallet, for cab fare and pizza (as well as her services).

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Booth Jonathan, "Bad Friend"

    Oh, Booth Jonathan -- the little man who “knows how to do things.” After he turns Marnie on enough to make her masturbate in the bathroom at the gallery where she works, Booth finally seals the deal in a mortifying and nearly painful to watch sex scene that tells us pretty much everything we need to know about how much Marnie is willing to fake it.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Tad and Loreen, "The Return"

    The only sex scene in the series not to feature one of the main characters, Hannah’s parents’ showertime anniversary celebration is easily one of the most cringe-worthy moments of the show’s first season. Even Hannah’s mother, Loreen, observes how embarrassing the situation is, which ends with her husband, Tad, slipping out of the shower and falling naked and unconscious on the bathroom floor.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and the pharmacist, "The Return"

    Tad and Loreen aren’t the only ones to get some during Hannah’s first season trip home to Michigan. The show’s protagonist finds herself in bed with a former high school classmate, who doesn’t exactly enjoy it when Hannah puts one of her fingers near his anus. “I’m tight like a baby, right?” Hannah asks at one point. Time to press pause.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Role-Play"

    While it’s not quite a full-on, all-out sex scene, Hannah and Adam’s attempt at role play in Season 3 is certainly an intimate encounter to behold (or not). Hannah dons a blond wig and gets a little too into her role, giving a melodramatic performance that ends with a passerby punching Adam in the face. So there’s that.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and Ray, "Together"

    As Shoshanna and Ray near the end of their relationship, we can see their sexual chemistry getting worse and worse. It’s no more evident than when Ray is penetrating a clothed and visibly horrified Shoshanna from behind, who ends the encounter by asking if her partner will just “get out of me.”

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Frank, "Video Games"

    Hannah, Jessa’s 19-year-old stepbrother, a graveyard and too much chatting. Need we say more about how uncomfortable this sex is to watch?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Desi, "Iowa"

    Who gets her butt motorboated? Is this a real thing? Aside from the questionable logistics and reality of Marnie and Desi’s analingus scene, there’s also the awkward moment when Marnie confuses her partner’s declaration of love for licking her butthole with love for her. Oh, Marnie.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Vagina Panic"

    There is too much in this scene to dissect: fantasies of an 11-year-old girl with a Cabbage Patch lunchbox, excessive references to that little girl as a “slut” and Adam ripping off a condom to ejaculate on Hannah’s chest. No wonder it ends with Hannah saying she almost came.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>