Trayvon Martin, The New Jim Crow, and Occupy
The tragic death of Trayvon Martin, stalked and killed while walking home by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch man has generated a stunning response. Numerous protests and vigils have been held all over the country. High school students have walked out of schools and politicians have worn hoodies in a show of solidarity on the floor of the House of Representatives. Social media has exploded with concern. Although foreshadowed by the response to the imminent execution of Troy Davis in September of last year, this wave of protests is basically a new feature of the American landscape. For now, the movement is narrowly focused on justice for Trayvon, and, slightly more expansively, challenging the criminalization of young black men in hoodies. But it holds the potential to turn into a movement to upend what author, Michelle Alexander, has described as the New Jim Crow, a system of racial control with mass incarceration, militarized policing, and the erosion of citizen and economic rights for felons at its heart. Movements often begin with narrow demands and transform into more radical critique.
To succeed, this movement will also need to align itself with the concerns for economic justice and the reining in of the 1% raised by the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement. Before going any further, I want to be absolutely clear that this does not mean that a movement against the New Jim Crow should in any way be subordinated to OWS or related movements. Rather, however the movement defines itself organizationally, the question of economic inequality cannot be disregarded or marginalized. The multi-faceted racism that ended Trayvon Martin’s life both feeds off of extreme economic inequality, and in turn strengthens that inequality.
In fact, there is a significant error in Alexander’s generally brilliant book, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” that speaks directly to this concern. Describing the state of Black America as the New Jim Crow was about to be launched in the early eighties, Alexander claims well paying jobs were disappearing from cities because of “technological change” and “globalization.” But these terms disguise the role of policy decisions, including union busting, high interest rates, and deregulation of the financial sector, in turning U.S. business away from manufacturing and towards finance. These decisions accelerated the concentration of wealth at the top of society, and destroyed the livelihood of those at the bottom, and, as the decades have wore on, the middle as well. If wealth and power are not redistributed downward, the only real option is to start expanding policing and incarceration, since poor people will turn to criminal behavior to survive. This is what happened. Already existing racism proved highly useful in both societal and state-based efforts to sort out who is to be considered a criminal in need of expanded surveillance or incarceration. The criminality at the top of American society that OWS and others have denounced is complemented by enhanced policing at the bottom. Indeed, the “enhanced policing” OWS has itself faced is related to the practices developed in the context of the New Jim Crow. If a movement to contest the New Jim Crow does pick up steam, it will undoubtedly face similar repression.
This may sound like an abstract point compared to rhetoric around hoodies, but it is not. It is worth recalling that Trayvon Martin was killed in a gated community, a privatized, high-security landscape. The killer George Zimmerman saw himself as assisting the police. Rich Benjamin, writing in The New York Times, is practically the only commenter I’ve seen try to capture this dynamic: ” The rise of “secure,” gated communities, private cops, private roads, private parks, private schools, private playgrounds — private, private, private —exacerbates biased treatment against the young, the colored and the presumably poor.” In conditions of extreme inequality, it becomes harder and harder to imagine shared interests of people at different points of the class spectrum. Instead, everyone tries to buy as much security as they can afford, further reducing the demand for public, inclusive solutions. It should, however, be added that under these conditions public agencies also intensify this dynamic. The police failed Trayvon, as did the school system which suspended him for ten days for possessing a bag with traces of marijuana.
Boots Riley, the Oakland-based rapper who has emerged as perhaps the most lucid voice speaking from within the Occupy movement, also made some salient points on Facebook. Challenging the way young black men are demonized not only in white America, but also within the black community, he clarifies the source of much violence:
The source of the violence is this system. Culture is derived from necessity. The truth is that because, in this system, there HAS to be poverty… People have a right to survive. So, people get involved in the Illegal Economy- the most popular being to sell dope. Most business under Capitalism is regulated. There are contracts, courts, and zoning laws to allow these businesses to function. Obviously, not so with dope. You can’t go to court and say “Your honor, sir- he was SUPPOSED to sell me a whole key of coke- but it was really only a quarter!” You can’t go to the zoning commission and object to another dope business jumping up on your same block. However, business must still be regulated. The way to enforce regulations in an illegal economy is through force or threat of force. Violence.
The linkage between violence and the larger economic system has largely been lost in the “stop the violence” protests that some have defensively pointed to when asked why those protesting around Trayvon Martin don’t also protest black-on-black violence. Riley instead advocates for a militant direct action movement focused on meeting material needs, virtually identical to the direction he advocates for Occupy. I would only add that the violence Riley explains helps fuel the demand for more prisons and police. Prisons, in turn, help fuel violence, providing an atmosphere where violence is honed as a survival skill, and transforming people into ex-felons when they are released, more or less permanently expelled from the legal labor market. It is a vicious cycle.
Contesting the New Jim Crow and Occupy should be seen as complementary struggles. Occupy seeks to undo the power of the 1%. Opposition to the New Jim Crow undoes the racial division and incarceration that makes the unity of the 99% such a difficult proposition. Matt Taibbi captures something of the dynamic: “journalists like myself have undersold the white-collar corruption story in recent years by ignoring its flip side. We have two definitely connected phenomena, often treated as separate and unconnected: a growing lawlessness in the financial sector, and an expanding, repressive, increasingly lunatic police apparatus trained at the poor, and especially the nonwhite poor.”" Occupy is shorthand for struggle against the lawlessness described in the first half, while Trayvon indicates the initiation, or, more accurately, the taking to a higher level, of fighting back against the second part. The key will be to effectively fuse these two struggles.
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