Tuesday, March 14, 2017
The Presumed Innocence of Racial Vigilantes
Jamie Longazel, Nikita Srivastava, and Ruth Thompson-Miller
The incident that recently sparked protests in Anaheim, California allegedly began when Kevin Ferguson, an off-duty Los Angeles police officer, confronted a young girl about cutting through his lawn on her way home from school. According to a witness, a 13-year-old Chicano boy stood up for his friend, telling the man “I’m going to sue you.” The man apparently misheard him, thinking he said, “I’m going to shoot you.”
Onlookers filmed the entire encounter, which appears to show the man grabbing the young boy by his sweatshirt and dragging him across a lawn. The boy remained in the man’s grasp for several minutes. On a few occasions, the boy’s friends attempted to free him by shoving the man. One such shove propelled him, with the boy still firmly in his grasp, over a shrub. When he got back on his feet, it appears as though Ferguson pulled a handgun from his waistband and fired a shot. This sent the relatively large group of youth who had gathered fleeing in fright.
While we can certainly categorize this case as yet another instance of police violence captured on video, the details evoke memories of one incident in particular: the murder of Trayvon Martin.
George Zimmerman killed the seventeen-year-old Martin, who was Black, almost exactly five years prior, setting off protests and a national conversation about race and police / vigilante violence that remains robust. Thankfully, the 13-year-old boy in Anaheim escaped unharmed. Yet, like Martin, he found himself accosted by a grown man with a quasi-judicial, vigilante orientation after engaging in the otherwise routine act of walking home from school.
We have been analyzing the closing argument that George Zimmerman’s attorney, Mark O’Mara, delivered to the jury leading up to his acquittal, and our findings shed light on the racist ideology underlying cases like this.
Attention to deeply-rooted racism, we contend, helps explain both why this happens and why convictions are so elusive when it does. (Although Ferguson’s actions are currently under investigation, it is notable that police took only the boy and one of his peers into custody following the incident; and as of this writing, Ferguson still has his job and is not facing charges).
Sociologist Joe Feagin’s concept of the white racial frame captures what we mean by deeply-rooted racism. Rather than surface-level discussions of things like prejudice, bias, or stereotyping, Feagin suggests that in order to understand the constant recurrence of racist events, we must view racism as a systemic problem.
One component of the white racial frame is its depiction of people of color as subhuman and dangerously animalistic. According to Feagin, “among the outrageous stereotypes and images common in the white racial frame today is the old view of black Americans as being linked to apes and monkeys… black Americans are still often unconsciously or half-consciously, [viewed] by whites as animal-like and not fully human” (pg. 102).
He references numerous examples throughout U.S. history where whites frame people of color as “savages” and “treacherous.” “[In the] eighteenth century,” Feagin writes, “colonists framed Indians as animals—’beasts of prey’... or as ‘animals vulgarly called Indians’” (p. 61).
Applied here, the white racial frame depicts the very existence of young bodies of color as threatening. When addressing the jury in Florida v. George Zimmerman, O’Mara linked Martin to the wider pattern of black criminality that the white racial frame assumes is ever-present, pointing out that Martin “just so happened to match the description of the most wanted criminals” in an area where people convicted of burglary “happened to be black.”
Elsewhere in his closing statement, O’Mara uses animalistic imagery to describe Martin, making Zimmerman, by contrast, appear desperate for safety, and, indeed, heroic given that he managed to prevail. He described Martin’s activity the evening of his death using phrases like “lurking” and “lying.” His argument concludes even more callously, with a rejection of the notion that Martin was an innocent youth and an insistence on his savage dangerousness. “How many times was it said Trayvon Martin was not armed,” O’Mara rhetorically asked, as he picked up a block of cement and carried it in front of the jury...
That’s cement. That is sidewalk, and that is not an unarmed teenager with nothing but Skittles trying to get home… [Martin] used the availability of dangerous items from his fists to the concrete to cause great bodily injury. Not just there for self-defense, but there to cause great bodily injury to George Zimmerman… Any suggestion by the state... that [cement] cannot cause great bodily injury is disgusting.
In contrast, this framing depicts whites as the potential victims of such perceived threats, and, importantly, as not as liable for any subsequent violence they inflict when they “fend them off.”
O’Mara described Zimmerman as a noble man who simply wanted to do good for his community. Zimmerman, he said, “did want to be a cop. He also wanted to be a prosecutor. He wanted to be a lawyer. And he wanted to continue his education and he wanted to help his community… yes, he wanted to be involved.”
Notice how this frame makes Zimmerman’s use of a firearm to kill Trayvon Martin appear justified, in sharp contrast to the savagery of the teenager’s reliance on “dangerous items… to cause great bodily injury.” “In fact, George Zimmerman was armed with a firearm,” O’Mara admitted, “We know he had the right to have it.” In this telling, Zimmerman was not an adult who murdered a child, he seems to imply, but rather someone bravely protecting his neighborhood from predators.
Part of what makes this frame so powerful is that it is so entrenched in our culture, representing far more than an instance of bias mistakenly rising to the surface. The white racial frame is a “vantage point,” with its assumptions widely accepted as “common sense.” Accordingly, it would not be a stretch to assume that O’Mara’s presentation influenced the jury – comprised of all white women – who found Zimmerman not guilty.
We still do not know all the details surrounding the Anaheim case, but from the video that has been circulating, there appear to be several graphic and disturbing similarities. Like Zimmerman, the unnamed cop was extra-judicially protecting “white space” – his neighborhood / property.
Both perpetrators seemingly viewed the boys as predators with little, if any, evidence to validate their fears. Granted, we don’t know what the LAPD officer actually heard and there is no use speculating on his motives, but we can nevertheless ask whether he would have so easily mistaken “sue” for “shoot” had the “intruder” not been a young person of color.
Ferguson’s particular actions are also telling: He, in effect, traps the boy as if he were an unwanted rodent and then, in an apparent display of dominance, fires his gun to scare off the boy’s peers. (“My son shot his gun because they’ve got about 15 people,” the officer’s father, who arrived on the scene and called 911, can be heard saying on the video).
These cases are even more egregious when we consider that these are grown men involved in physical altercations with children. (Twelve-year-old Tamir Rice, who police shot and killed in Cleveland, also comes to mind here.) “I’m only like 13,” the Anaheim boy says at one point in the video, pleading for mercy. The bag of Skittles Martin was carrying at the time of his death likewise became a powerful reminder that he was just a kid.
Yet with racism so deeply rooted, their youth offers no protection from racialized vigilantism. And the legal system fails to hold such men accountable again and again. (Absent charge, the LA Times reports that the boy’s family has filed a civil suit, alleging “that Officer Kevin Ferguson violated the boy’s civil rights and caused the plaintiff emotional distress. It also claims that Ferguson assaulted and falsely imprisoned the boy.”)
Cases such as these demonstrate that policy proposals like increased training for police officers or requirements that officers wear body cameras are insufficient solutions. What we really need is the courage to admit that the problem runs far deeper than that. There are, and long have been, entitled white men all over the country – police officers and otherwise – who see it as within their purview, if not as their obligation, to “protect” themselves and their communities from threats that exist only in their minds. Meanwhile, boys of color struggle to get home from school or to go out for a snack without putting their lives on the line.
Jamie Longazel is an Assistant Professor of Sociology and a Human Rights Center Research Associate at the University of Dayton and the author of Undocumented Fears: Immigration and the Politics of Divide and Conquer in Hazleton, Pennsylvania.
Nikita Srivastava is a law student at the University of Cincinnati College of Law. She has Bachelor’s Degrees in Criminal Justice Studies and Political Science from the University of Dayton, and is currently a Fellow at the Ohio Innocence Project.
Ruth Thompson-Miller is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Dayton and the co-author (with Joe Feagin and Leslie Picca) of Jim Crow’s Legacy: The Lasting Impact of Segregation.