Sunday, May 20, 2012

Trayvon Martin: Articulation or Intersectionality in Control-Freak Societies?

By Dr. Biko Agozino
Professor of Sociology and Director of Africana Studies, Virginia Tech

‘When I heard about the Trayvon Martin case, I thought that the real killer is the media that criminalizes black youth, black men and black people…. No one talks about the media spreading the poison that black people are dangerous to the extent that we do not see people as people but as trouble. Incarceration of the killer is not the solution if we fail to reeducate our people to recognize our common humanity.’ – Mumia Abu-Jamal, Plenary conversation with Angela Davis at the Manning Marable Memorial Conference, St John’s Cathedral, Columbia University, April 2012.

We live in authoritarian societies that are best described as control-freak societies. The control-freak ideology goes beyond the claim to a monopoly of force and violence by the state to include the authoritarianism of ordinary citizens who often internalize what Jacques Derrida (who observed that the word for justice and violence, Gewalt, is the same in German language) called ‘the force of the law’ and take it upon themselves to ‘enforce’ justice with emphasis on a final solution over not only total strangers but also over otherwise beloved family, friends and colleagues. As Mumia implied above, the control-freaks include scholars and journalists who spread the gospel of zero tolerance in otherwise democratic societies where tolerance should be taught more.

The control-freak state cheer-leads the lethal authoritarianism of private individuals and security corporations as ‘natural right’ by reinforcing ancient laws of self-defense that gave people the right to kill others in defense of their private property as if property is more valuable than human life or as if life is only another form of property in a ‘commercial society’: now only a vague ‘feeling’ of being threatened after ‘a series of burglaries’ in a gated community is enough to encourage a vigilante to follow an innocent youth on his way to his father’s residence and gun him down self-righteously. The police appeared to encourage this type of outrage by initially refusing to even arrest and charge the confessed murderer (not killer as the media would have it, he was finally charged with second-degree murder, not with killing) obviously because the life lost was that of a black male homo sacer, a disposable human being, as Zygmunt Bauman put it in Modernity and the Holocaust.

Most commentators on the case of Trayvon Benjamin Martin saw it as a case of the all too familiar fruit (no longer a ‘strange fruit’ with so frequent a recurrence) from the tree of racial profiling but it is much more than racial in character. Stuart Hall will always remind us to look beyond racism in situations like this and understand that it is the result of the articulation on race-class-gender relations in societies structured in dominance. In the US, the preferred theory is that of Kimberley Crenshaw on race-class-gender intersectionality.

The two theories are similar but not identical given that, according to Crenshaw, the intersections of streets or the intersections of circles could be used as metaphors with which to capture race-class-gender intersectionality while Hall prefers to use the analogy of the articulated train or lorry in conjunction with the linguistic concept of giving expression to underscore the fact that the exploitation of cheap black labor in South Africa, for instance, was not simply racist, sexist or classist but an articulation, dis-articulation and re-articulation of all three simultaneously as relations that are never separate, though different.

The analogy of streets or circles intersectionality fails this test of simultaneity because of the assumption that Trayvon Martin may have been walking on the ‘gender’ street (or circle) safely until he came to the point where that street or circle intersected with the ‘race’ and ‘class’ streets or circles whereas the theory of articulation assumes that there is no inch of the street or circle that is not always already racialized, gendered and class-specific; emptiness lies outside the intersectionality. In other words, race-class-gender ‘overlapping’ is closer to the reality of race-class-gender articulation than the mechanical metaphor of the intersection would have us believe.

When George Zimmerman confessed to the murder of Trayvon Martin, he did not go to one police precinct to enjoy the privileges of his masculinity, then to another to celebrate his Hispanic whiteness, before going to a third to perform his respectable middle class-ness in ways that would not hold if it was the truck driver father of Martin that had shot the son of Zimmerman the ex-judge even after the police dispatcher warned him to ‘stand his ground’ and desist from following the youngster. At the very least, a black man who murders an innocent white teenager will be arrested on the spot and asked to save his self-defense excuses for the jury. Respectable white male privilege and an enabling legal environment that devalues poor-black-male lives added insult to this injury. Similarly, when Trayvon was unjustly profiled, his blackness was not seen as threatening on one street before his maleness became an issue on another street and before his walking-rather-than-driving poverty status became an issue on yet another street or at the intersection of all three.

The point here is that authoritarianism is very popular in control-freak societies as is evident in the fact that after a few weeks of appealing for funds online, the confessed murderer raised over $200,000 for his defense and for his ‘personal expenses’ while an online gun shop that offered a shooting target in the image of Trayvon Martin said that the image sold out within two days despite some public outrage. It is this popularity of authoritarianism that encourages families to send their youth to go and kill and be killed in foreign lands just because those in authority asked them to do so and the escalation in street violence frequently correlates with periods of foreign wars and invasions. For instance, the involvement of Norway in the invasion and bombing of the Trayvon Martins in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya probably incited the white-supremacist into massacring 77 people in Oslo and just like Zimmerman, he claimed self-defense for the atrocity. 
This very same bloody control-freak populism encourages parents to brutalize their own children in the name of discipline even when the authoritarian state would hesitate in the cases of babies too young to know any better. Friends and neighbors, lovers, brothers and sisters, employees and employers, students and teachers all buy into this control-freak ideology that is alien to the African philosophy of non-violence which we need to rehabilitate as part of the solution rather than leave it to remain battered and bruised, accursed and ridiculed by imperialist reason.

Angela Davis followed the above epigraphic teaching from Mumia Abu-Jamal during the constantly interrupted 15 minute collect-phone call from a control-freak prison with a highlight of the lesson we can all learn from the South Africa Truth and Reconciliation Commission: A widow was asked by Desmond Tutu if she would ever forgive the police officer who murdered her husband and she responded that she would only forgive him if he will do three things: identify the ground where the corpse was burnt so that she could gather it and bury her husband; accept to become her son; and come and visit her family regularly to understand that the person he killed was a valued human being. On hearing this, the killer collapsed and fainted. Angela concluded by advising against the atomization of Trayvon Martin.

What Mumia and Angela suggest above is that the African philosophy of non-violence which Mahatma Gandhi claimed that he learned from the Zulu during his sojourn in South Africa and which Martin Luther King Junior suggested that he learned from Gandhi, a philosophy that was an essential part of the successful resistance against slavery, colonialism, sexism, class exploitation, and apartheid by people of African descent and their allies and by all those other colored people who adopted this philosophy, should be an essential part of the solution that we seek.

In other words, the injustice done here goes beyond the murdered youth to encompass the murderer who sleeps no more because he has murdered sleep. Racism-sexism-classism as the articulation of injustice is a multiple-edged sword that cuts the aggressor as well as the aggrieved but to different extents. This is probably why a carefully staged apology was volunteered by George Zimmerman to the parents of Trayvon Martin prematurely at the bail bond hearing – a clear indication that he had realized that he ruined his own life too due to the hate and fear that he was raised with when he could have been safer with love in his heart for all. His intolerance is widely condemned by people of all races, classes and genders.

When the Nazis were driven into a genocidal hatred by the control-freak state, little did they know that for each Jew who was killed, at least three Germans would pay with their lives. When the Hutu tried the final solution on their Tutsi brothers and sisters, little did they know that the media broadcasts urging them to kill all the ‘cockroaches’, including the young ones, would result in the Hutus themselves being dehumanized as well and Rwanda has responded mainly with reconciliation and healing rather than the obsession with revenge and Beccarian fantasy of making the punishment fit the crime given that no punishment would ever fit the crime. Responding to the atrocity in Norway, Nils Christie wrote that we should learn to love all and seek to punish less because punitive-mindedness escalates hate and vengeance without being able to heal the original wounds.

In conclusion, while we all must continue to organize for social justice, we should recognize the humanity of the aggressor rather than profile him as a monster. As Mumia suggested in a tone reminiscent of Martin Luther King Jr., we should direct our agitation more at the institutions that normalize the oppression of our people and insist on the transformation of such institutions through the non-violent means of mass protests and ballot measures. We can also challenge the gun lobby with the jurisprudence of big tobacco: when you make a defective product that kills thousands of people annually, the manufacturers and the gun-lobby should be made to pay some reparations to the bereaved.

Since (black) people are increasingly afraid to walk along their own streets, close-circuit television cameras should be installed on streets in neighborhoods that vote to have them and the images should be accessible through a public television channel where we can all see that it is dubious that a dead child banged the head of the aggressor against the sidewalk before being executed in cold blood (CCTV could show that his alleged wounds were self-inflicted after the killing).

Finally, the drug laws that amplify the fear of young black males should be abolished immediately while we use education to get our young people to say no to drugs and use the healthcare system to minimize harm so that no one is going to shoot another poor Black or Hispanic male youth on the pretext that he looked as if he was on drugs and the control-freak justice system would not be allowed to over-incarcerate poor young men on the suspicion that they possessed small quantities of drugs and thereby expel them from school, deny them job opportunities, exclude them from public housing and deny them the right to vote even after serving their sentences  as Michelle Alexander documented in The New Jim Crow.

President Barack Obama has shown courage in coming out in an election season by ending the war in Iraq and by supporting same-sex marriage for citizens who prefer that; it is about time he came out for ending the war on drugs that has escalated the violence on our streets and homes while contaminating otherwise law-abiding youth by sending them to prison where they are likely to be recruited by violent drug gangs. If Trayvon Martin was not suspended from school for alleged marihuana residues found in his school bag, perhaps he would be at home in his mother’s black community of Miami Gardens rather than be found in the red-neck garrison community of his father’s girlfriend in Sanford where he may have been sent by his mother on the mistaken assumption that it might be safer than the black neighborhood. The police autopsy report revealed that he had THC in his blood and urine but we are not told what substances George Zimmerman had in his system to make him so paranoid about a harmless youth on that fateful day.

Let us force the politicians to decriminalize drugs and control guns by sustaining the mass protest that Trayvon Martin’s murder and attempted impunity eventually inspired. Let us take the Occupy Movement beyond Wall Street and Occupy the Prison Industrial Complex with marches, pickets and teach-ins until funding is made available to teach love and tolerance in all schools and until the political prisoners are freed along with the drugs war prisoners. President Obama took a step in this direction by reducing the crack-powder cocaine disparity from 100:1 to 10:1; we need to make him see the logic of his South American colleagues who are calling for an end to the war on drugs that has resulted in the death of 50,000 Mexicans in the few years that they had a drug-war lord for president while implicating US officials in the scandalous shooting of two pregnant women and two men on a boat that was wrongly suspected of transporting drugs in Honduras recently. Only the increased democratization of the entire world via decolonization from imperialist reason in accordance with what Ron Eglash called African Fractals - the fact of the interconnectedness of humanity - would result in more peace and love as Hal Pepinsky argued in The Geometry of Violence and Democracy and as I did in Counter-Colonial Criminology: A Critique of Imperialist Reason.

Dr Agozino is the Chair of the Social Policy Committee of the Association of Black Sociologists.