What I meant to write when I sat down at my computer this morning was a post about our second trip to the Maré favela here in Rio de Janeiro (You can read about our first visit to the favela here.), but all I can think about is Trayvon Martin and what his family must be feeling this morning. Many people are writing quite eloquently about their sense of despair, powerlessness, and anger about the acquittal of George Zimmerman. My favorite piece so far was posted by Frank Leonard on the Huffington Post.
As both the child of a currently incarcerated man and as someone who spends a lot of time seeing the damage that prisons do to people, I never feel like rejoicing when I hear news of another person being sentenced to a prison term. That said, I also believe very deeply in the notion that governments should attempt to mete out fair and equitable justice, that every human life should be protected by the law, and that those who take a life should be called upon by the state to take responsibility for their actions, face the consequences, and make efforts towards atonement. The Florida court and jury that acquitted George Zimmerman failed to ardently pursue justice, and they have failed not just Trayvon Martin’s family and loved ones but our entire nation. If Trayvon Martin’s life is not worthy of even a conviction for manslaughter, then we cannot really claim to value any individual life in the United States. Fundamentally, a person died, and there is no dispute about who shot him. The fact that Zimmerman was not even convicted of manslaughter legalistically defines Trayvon Martin as less than human.
But, of course, we do value some lives and not others. The specter of racism clouds every judicial process I have yet witnessed in my travels to prisons around the world. All of the women we met in the theatre workshop at the prison here in Rio last week were phenotypically Black. (I realize that the terminology and understandings of race are significantly different in Brazil than they are in the U.S., and I make no claim to being able to parse this subtly. I merely observe that whether these women self-identify as Black or not, every single incarcerated woman in the Teatro na Prisão workshop we witnessed would be phenotypically coded as Black or mixed race in the U.S.) When I performed my one-woman play in a women’s prison in Canada in 2011, my friend who had taken me to the prison told me afterwards not to be fooled by the fact that I did not see any First Nations women in the prison; she reported that most of them were in solitary confinement. In the small group of incarcerated women I met in an Irish prison in Dublin in 2005, I encountered two Black Panamanian women and a high number of other foreigners, mostly Eastern Europeans. Of course, in prisons across the U.S. we disproportionately lock up Blacks, Latina/os, Native Americans, the poor, and the undereducated.
None of this is news, and perhaps that’s why it hurts so much. We continue to see the glaring inequalities in the ways in which we meet out justice, and so little changes across time and even various systems of government that it’s hard to stay hopeful. I ceased believing in the righteousness or infallibility of any nation’s criminal justice system decades ago, yet justice remains a goal and a value that we must unceasingly pursue. The lives of young people like Trayvon Martin are worth defending, and we cannot let this latest blow to human dignity, social justice, and individual freedom stop us in the interminable but necessary struggle to create the kind of world in which we would want all people to live–one in which the sight of a Black child in a hoodie would not inspire such fear that homicidal force would be anyone’s gut reaction.
My heart today is with Trayvon Martin’s family and friends, with one of my former students who said on Twitter that this verdict once again displayed the worth of his Black body, with the Black man I met in Louisiana who is serving ninety-nine years for stealing a toaster because of that state’s equivalent of the Three Strikes Law, with all who mourn for justice and those who are brave enough to continue to hope for something different in our future.