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Op-Ed: Justice Isn't For All in America - Blacks, Women Treated Unfairly by the Judicial System

Op-Ed: Justice Isn't For All in America - Blacks, Women Treated Unfairly by the Judicial System

I was among those who took to Twitter Saturday night to voice my feelings when the verdict came in on the trial of George Zimmerman. Shocked, stunned, angry, sad. Pick an adjective and it likely applied to the whirlwind of emotions swirling in me and all over Twitter among those who supported Trayvon Martin’s family.

I was among those who took to Twitter Saturday night to voice my feelings when the verdict came in on the trial of George Zimmerman. Shocked, stunned, angry, sad. Pick an adjective and it likely applied to the whirlwind of emotions swirling in me and all over Twitter among those who supported Trayvon Martin’s family.

For hours America talked about their feelings–raw, blistering emotions on both sides. ABC news reported on the Twitter explosion on the national newscast Sunday night: tens of thousands of tweets in the first hours after the verdict. But by mid-day Sunday, a half million people had posted about Trayvon Martin, Zimmerman and the undercurrent that has attached to this case and to its aftermath: race.

What hasn’t been addressed is the gender aspect of this crime. Women almost never shoot strangers in America. Those crimes are the purview of men. That gender issue does matter, as I came to understand Saturday night and since.

I posted a few dozen tweets about how disturbed and disbelieving I was about the verdict. I said if Zimmerman hadn’t followed Martin, the teen would still be alive. I said I thought the jury was wrong and the prosecution weak from the start–the start being when they allowed six instead of 12 jurors and all women instead of a gender-mixed group.

I was one of 50,000 people who tweeted Martin’s parents, for whom I feel tremendous, gut-churning empathy. I posted information on the NAACP petition site, to open a Department of Justice investigation, which may be addressed this week.

I also posted a photo of Zimmerman’s gun, the one with which he killed Martin, which he will now get back. His concealed weapon permit will not be revoked. He could kill again–in "self-defense." His family has said he’s been threatened.

Twitter can be a wonderful place to connect with people when tragedy strikes. It can also be like the Wild West, it’s own rogue state out in cyber space. While a myriad of people retweeted and favorited me, there were some Zimmerman supporters who were ferocious in their support for him–and their responses were ugly and violent, reflective of how this case has been. One tweet demanded that I "get raped you feminist cunt" while another, from a man with Zimmerman’s smiling photo as his avatar, combined that sentiment with racism:

The reason I lead with the Twitter response is because it’s such a cross-section of America. Unlike Facebook, Twitter isn’t by invitation only: You can read whatever anyone says, for good or ill. Twitter is the great equalizer.

It’s also a very sexist and often racist place to hang out, which is why there were Zimmerman supporters aplenty after the verdict, not just those of us supporting Trayvon Martin.

For 17 months we have seen the T-shirts and hoodies, the posters and signs: We Are All Trayvon Martin.

But is that actually true? Can anyone who isn’t black say this, even as a staunch ally? I think not. Because there is no question that the judicial system is skewed in America.

Saturday night I read an angry tweet from an African-American man posed to the Twittersphere that demanded, "Refute your whiteness."

I wasn’t exactly sure what that request meant, so I didn’t respond, although others did.

An increasingly testy exchange between me and a Zimmerman supporter, a young white woman, had her demanding that I address my racism–against white people–ended in her telling me to "go burn a flag" and "vote for your racist masters, Dumbass." A different Zimmerman supporter–a young Latino man–was enraged by my support for Trayvon Martin, insisting Martin was a "thug" and that young black men were "the majority of criminals.” Another Latino man wanted me to explain to him how Zimmerman could be racist if he was Latino.

Yet another exchange with a liberal white guy ended in his calling me arrogant and self-righteous, then un-following me because I put the blame for the verdict on the prosecution, where I believe it belongs, and not on the entire South.

Twitter reflects how America brings the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman story back to race again and again.

People in the North think the South is racist, as if racism doesn’t cross the Mason-Dixon line.

People leaning left supported conviction for Zimmerman and referred to him repeatedly as white, even though his mother is a Peruvian immigrant, and relatively dark-skinned, so he is, like our President, bi-racial. He’s not white. We can’t deny Zimmerman’s mother’s race or his own, even if it makes it easier to fit our black/white racial construct and divide.

People leaning right supported Zimmerman and paid for his defense with fundraisers. Conservative pundit Ann Coulter, who has written columns in support of Zimmerman, tweeted "Hallelujah!" after the verdict. A few hours earlier she had tweeted that she would "riot in the streets" if he were found guilty.

And as always, African-Americans were left feeling the judicial system had failed them: #NoJustice remains a hashtag, trending since Saturday night.

A name that wasn’t trending, but which kept coming up during the Twitter frenzy was one I raised in my third or fourth tweet: Marissa Alexander.

While those of us who are not young black men may not all be Trayvon Martin, despite the signs and T-shirts we carry and wear, those of us who are not straight white guys could absolutely be Marissa Alexander–particularly those of us who are female.

In May 2012, Alexander was sentenced to 20 years in prison for firing a gun in her Florida home. Alexander, who is African-American, invoked the same "Stand Your Ground" law that was invoked by Zimmerman’s defense. Alexander asserted she was firing a warning shot against her husband, who had a history of abuse. The bullet went through the wall where her children were, however, and the prosecution asserted that the recklessness of her actions might have killed a child. Florida also has strict weapons-violations sentencing–20 years for discharging a weapon.

Angela Corey, the State Attorney in Florida’s Fourth Judicial Circuit Court, oversaw
the prosecution of Zimmerman, and also tried the case against Alexander. She defended the sentencing of Alexander at the time.

But what about now? Alexander didn’t kill anyone. She didn’t try to kill anyone. Her bullet didn’t go into a child. Zimmerman’s not only went into a teenager, it killed him.

Alexander was in her home: the very definition of Stand Your Ground.

Zimmerman got out of his car, despite a strong suggestion from the police dispatcher when Zimmerman called 911 that he stay put, and followed Martin, resulting in what Zimmerman claimed was a violent struggle that ended in Martin being shot to death.

The jury in the Zimmerman trial acquitted him based on the argument of self-defense. But in Alexander’s case that was ignored. Yet Alexander had a far more reasonable fear for her life than did Zimmerman.

According to the Department of Justice (DoJ), nearly 25 percent of women suffer abuse by an intimate partner. One in four. Women comprise 85 percent of intimate partner murder victims and nearly half of all female murder victims were killed by an intimate partner.

That makes Alexander’s case the norm.

Conversely, cross-racial killings are rare. According to the DoJ, 93 percent of black murder victims are killed by other blacks. The numbers are nearly the same for whites: 85 percent of white murder victims are murdered by other whites.

That interracial aspect makes the Martin case rare. Contrary to racist conventional wisdom and some of those men who tweeted me, interracial crime is rare. Which makes the criminalizing of Martin at a trial where he was the victim all the more appalling–and blatantly racist.

But what about the gender aspect of violent crime? The majority of violent crimes are committed by men. So why is Zimmerman free and Alexander in prison for 20 years when he killed an unarmed teen and she injured no one?

Alexander is a black woman.

Overall, women receive harsher sentences than men for similar crimes, as do African-Americans. Yet African-Americans are disproportionately the victims of violent crimes, albeit crimes committed by other African-Americans.

Where the Trayvon Martin murder is indeed the norm is because black victims of violent crime, irrespective of the race of the perpetrator, receive less redress than do violent crimes where the victim is white. Study after study has revealed this to be true. The statistics simply do not lie.

All those white people on Twitter talking about the prevalence of black-on-white crime? They are wrong. The percentage of interracial crime is small. Yet all those African-Americans on Twitter talking resignedly about how this outcome is not surprising? Sadly, they are right.

Zimmerman’s attorneys were able to argue self-defense effectively because of the misperception that crime is the purview of young black males. The prosecution should have addressed this issue openly and made race part of it’s prosecution of Zimmerman. Because it was–and we have the 911 tapes to prove this–Zimmerman’s fears of young black males that made him suspicious of Martin. He profiled Martin–to death.

Conversely, Alexander’s defense should have argued that black women are disproportionately victims of violent crime and that she had every right–and every reason–to use the Stand Your Ground law to protect herself in her own home from a known abuser.

Alexander’s imprisonment makes Zimmerman’s acquittal all the more enraging. As a black woman, she’s been victimized by the gender-and race-biased judicial system, whereas Zimmerman has benefited from it. These two cases make clear how easily an LGBT person–of color or not–could become the accused rather than the victim in a case like Alexander’s.

And left with no justice all: 17-year-old Trayvon Martin -- whose "crime" was being black. Zimmerman’s trial did end in a guilty verdict: The American system of justice is guilty–of racism and sexism. A verdict like that leaves us all at risk and makes blind justice a wish, rather than a reality.


Victoria A. Brownworth is a Pulitzer Prize nominated journalist. The first out lesbian to have a column in a daily newspaper, she has won the Society of Professional Journalism Award, the NLGJA Award, Lambda Literary Award among others. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun and the Nation, as well as other national publications. She is a frequent contributor to the Advocate and SheWired and a blogger at Huffington Post.

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