Justice for Trayvon Martin: Why Punishing His Killer Isn't Enough

“Until the killing of black men, black mothers' sons, becomes as important to the rest of the country as the killing of a white mother's son—we who believe in freedom cannot rest until this happens.” —Ella Baker

Ella Baker spoke those words in 1964, but nearly 50 years later, as George Zimmerman walks free after killing Trayvon Martin, her call is still sadly, urgently relevant.

But justice and freedom will continue to elude us so long as we have a legal system that cares more about broken laws than it does about harm done to people, families, and communities.

So where, when, and how can that harm actually be addressed?  Because without that, it’s only a matter of time until the next unarmed, young Black man is brutally killed.

Name the Racism that Shapes Our “Justice” System

It’s not just a sad coincidence that “Fruitvale Station,” the movie about Oscar Grant, a young, unarmed Black man murdered by a white BART policeman (who a sentence of just two years for the killing), was released on the same weekend as the Trayvon Martin verdict.  

Ta-Nehisi Coates points out in The Atlantic, “Trayvon Martin is not a miscarriage of American justice, but American justice itself. This is not our system malfunctioning. It is our system working as intended.”

Our “justice” system doesn’t deliver justice.  It enforces laws.  It is a legal system that creates and perpetuates the kind of structural racism and devaluing of black lives that lead to killings like Trayvon’s, Oscar Grant’s, and so many other unarmed, young Black men

"The person who is really the threat here is the home owner who has been so well socialized by the thinking of white supremacy, of capitalism, of patriarchy that he can no longer respond rationally.  White supremacy has taught him that all people of color are threats irrespective of their behavior. Capitalism has taught him that, at all costs, his property can and must be protected. Patriarchy has taught him that his masculinity has to be proved by the willingness to conquer fear through aggression; that it would be unmanly to ask questions before taking action.”   —bell hooks, All About Love: New Visions (1999)

Whether consciously or not, George Zimmerman behavior and mindset echoed the Slave Codes and later Black Codes instituted in the South before and after the Civil War, which were highly focused on restricting the movements of Blacks whether free or enslaved. 

These Black Codes may no longer be the letter of the law, but the Trayvon Martin case shows the spirit of these laws is still embedded in our society and in our legal system.

And it’s not only in the courtroom.  More Black men are in prison, probation, or on parole than were enslaved prior to the Civil War, and the one place in the US where slavery is still legal is in prisons.  

We can’t just legislate our way out of a culture that devalues black life and criminalizes blackness.  Black Codes, after all, were implemented in spite of constitutionally mandated equality.

As a society, we need to start looking closely at the actual impact of our legal system—not just its stated intentions—if we are to create a system where the words “liberty and justice for all” are a meaningful reality for all people. 

Focus on Harm Done, Not Laws Broken

George Zimmerman may have “no further business before the court,” but amends still need to be made for Trayvon’s death. 

In our current legal system, there are no meaningful spaces or processes for this kind of accountability.  Instead, a retributive justice system like ours offers only blame, punishment, and reinforcement of power hierarchies.  

Individuals, families, and communities must fight tooth and nail for even a small shred of justice.  Far too many never get even that, as the Ella Baker Center team has seen time and again in our Books Not Bars work.

By contrast, a restorative justice approach puts the focus back on the harm done, how amends will be made, and how to limit or prevent harm in the future.  This approach also respects the voices and perspectives of those involved in the conflict, rather than tearing them down on the witness stand or after death.

While restorative justice is perhaps best known for its use in school discipline as an alternative to the school-to-prison pipeline, its use is spreading for other types of cases.  

Strangely enough, the first use of restorative justice for a murder case happened in Florida in 2011.  

Yet even in this case, where the victim’s family pushed hard for the use of restorative justice, the legal system still defaulted back to a focus on punishment.  Still, it’s a hopeful sign that even in the most difficult and painful cases, we can move away from simply locking people up and throwing away the key towards restitution and healing.

Response posted by downtown Oakland's Awaken Cafe.  Photo credit: Cortt Dunlap

What Would “Trayvon’s Law” Be?

The NAACP and others have called for the Department of Justice to file civil rights charges against George Zimmerman, and that needs to happen. (Join over a million people and sign the petition if you haven’t already.)

Real justice for Trayvon, however, would go far beyond punishing his killer.  

Real justice for Trayvon would be a society where not one more Black youth is killed for the crime of “walking while Black.”  

Where the lives of individuals, families, and communities of color are actually valued.  

Where college is a more likely outcome for young Black men than prison, poverty, or death.  

Where families like Trayvon’s play a lead role in creating the laws and systems that impact them.  

That’s what we’re working for here at the Ella Baker Center.  If you, too, are one of those who believe in freedom, join us in making it more than just a dream or a word on an old piece of parchment, and instead a living, breathing reality for all.

Other Perspectives on the Trayvon Martin Case

What changes do you think are most needed in our legal system?  How can we take on white supremacy and structural racism?  What other perspectives on the Trayvon Martin case would you add?  Please share in the comments below.  

Lead image credit: "Trayvon Martin" from Ricardo Levins Morales Art Studio