US Politics and the Economy

Stand Your Ground and Beyond

The whole criminal justice system is arrayed against Blacks

By Glen Ford

In 1926, Langston Hughes asked the question, “What happens to a dream deferred?” The poem, originally titled “Harlem,” presciently warned of an explosion among the Black masses, an event that followed nine years later, in Harlem, the first of the modern urban Black rebellions. Hughes was describing a crisis of legitimacy, in which African Americans despaired of a system that promised far more than it delivered.

Another such crisis reared in 1963, says Dr. Anthony Monteiro, professor of African American studies at Temple University, when the “Birmingham movement represented a great alienation of the majority of Black people from the system, itself, and therefore something had to give.” The 1963 March on Washington demanded, and eventually got, a Voting Rights Act and a host of democratic reforms that made some aspects of “the dream” accessible to large segments of Black America.

Fifty years later, in the wake of the Zimmerman verdict, according to Monteiro, “the relationship of the Black Nation to the American establishment is a tenuous one, in which a majority of Black people have deep questions about our relationship to the system, itself”—a crisis of legitimacy. But, this time, a decaying capitalist system offers nothing to ameliorate the Black condition. It has already shot its wad by delivering what was, for many Blacks, the greatest prize that the Wall Street plutocracy can offer: a Black presidency. Yet, the “technically Black” man in the White House, as historian Paul Street describes Barack Obama, will do nothing but affirm that he feels the pain of his African American constituents, since “a jury has spoken.”

The broad masses of Black people see clearly—with horror—that the system, itself, has spoken, and that the verdict reflects the unreconstructed worldview of white America, two-thirds of whom view Trayvon Martin’s killing as justifiable—which means, quite simply, that any Black life can justifiably be taken. How can we live with these people? This existential question has confronted every generation since there has been such a thing as African Americans, and once again assumes its place of primacy in the Black consciousness.

The Zimmerman jury rendered a verdict on America, one that confirms Malcolm X’s 1964 assessment: “I don’t see any American dream. I see an American nightmare!” The spread of Stand Your Ground laws—murder-with-impunity legislation—to nearly half the states of the Union signals that a new Confederacy has risen in which “coon hunting” is always in season. Mass Black incarceration, the collective white response to the Black Freedom Movement of the Sixties, has proven insufficient to satisfy mass white passions to expunge Black people from the national landscape—to somehow, even at this late stage in America’s demographic development, reestablish the United States as a White Man’s Country.

Before the Zimmerman verdict, and the favorable mass white response, it was possible for the accommodationists of the Black Misleadership Class to practice the useless politics of “ceaselessly commemorating the victories of the Sixties,” as BAR’s (Black Agenda Report) Bruce Dixon describes them. Now they must hustle to weather the system’s crisis of legitimacy by diverting Black rage down avenues that do not threaten their own relationships with Power.

Stand Your Ground laws are the easy target. The current crop of so-called “Shoot First” legislation first took root in Florida, a project of the National Rifle Association (NRA) and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), in 2005—two years before Barack Obama announced his candidacy for president. This is noteworthy, since pundits of both races attempt to link the laws to white fear of a Black man in the White House. Such an analysis removes Stand Your Ground from the two generations-long national criminal justice offensive against Black people. Things have not been “getting better” for African Americans under the U.S. criminal justice system, as Barack Obama claims. Rather, police state oppression has intensified, especially for poorer Blacks.

It should never be forgotten that nearly half the Congressional Black Caucus supported the 1986 drug law that established a 100:1 sentencing ratio for crack versus powdered cocaine. The Black Misleadership Class of accommodationists and deal makers have failed to honor even the vestiges of the old, intra-Black social compact, by which they were allowed to speak for The Race while indulging in their individual strivings as long as they looked out for the interests of the rest of us. They can be expected to perform no better, in the current crisis. This month’s 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, overseen by Al Sharpton and the NAACP, will mix celebration of past victories with apologies for Obama, who has presided over economic catastrophe for African Americans and completed the erasure of any semblance of due process and the rule of law for everyone.

The young people of Dream Defenders, presently occupying Florida’s governor’s office, understand that Stand Your Ground laws are part of the larger problem. “The media is not telling the full story,” said Steven Pargett, a Dream Defender spokesperson, in Tallahassee. He says the teach-in is working on “a full legislative package to challenge the criminalization of our generation,” including the school to prison pipeline.

That’s a start. The central problem with the American criminal justice system is that white supremacist assumptions are deeply embedded in its operations and deliberations. The presumption of innocence is no match for pervasive assumptions of collective Black guilt, which are manifest at every stage of the system, beginning with police hyper-surveillance of Black communities—the intake valve that leads inexorably to mass Black incarceration and the extrajudicial murder of Blacks on the streets, mainly by cops but occasionally by George Zimmermans.

The Age of Mass Black Incarceration, now entering its third generation, has spawned successive layers of repressive laws, police practices, and prosecutorial and judicial behavior that have effectively eviscerated Black people’s Constitutional rights. Our communities are Constitution-free zones, and the stigma of guilt attaches to each of our persons. White electorates reward those who put Black people—as a group—on perpetual lockdown.

It must be stressed that this reign of criminal justice terror has taken place in the absence of any Black mass movement worthy of the name. I believe it has occurred precisely because there is no such movement—that the forces of white supremacy have been emboldened by Black passivity.

It is, of course, necessary to challenge Stand Your Ground Laws, but this must be just one front in the war against the legitimacy of a criminal justice system that is fundamentally hostile to the Black presence in the United States. What is required is a mass movement that does not accept the verdict of white people; that speaks loudly in the language of the street: Get up off of us!

If white fear of Blacks is justification for an oppressive criminal justice system, then let’s give them something to really be afraid of. The response could not possibly be worse than the whipping we have taken so passively, for the last 40 years.

Black Agenda Report, August 7, 2013