Where will we find justice for Trayvon Martin?

& Peacebuilding, Restorative Justice.

David Anderson Hooker

The following is an invited guest post by my friend, colleague and fellow Morehouse College grad, David Anderson Hooker.

Update July 18, 2013:  An interview with David following the Zimmerman trial can be heard here:

I have good news and bad news for the family and supporters of Trayvon Martin: The ‘justice’ you seek is not in the system from which you seek it!  If this sounds like a Jedi mind trick, I apologize.  I hope though that it will at least cause some to stop and think.

The bad news first: The ‘justice’ you seek is not in the system from which you seek it! In the late 1970’s and 80’s Black psychologist Bobby E. Wright coined a phrase – “Mentacide: The systematic destruction of a group of people’s minds with the ultimate aim being the complete extirpation of the race.”   The prime example Wright offered of the workings of Mentacide was when African American parents would send their children to the public schools with curricula that at best neglected and at worst denigrated their entire heritage. Then the parents would complain about the impact on children’s’ self-esteem.

Similarly today, the fact that the family and supporters of the family of Trayvon Martin are looking for relief to a justice system that has historically discriminated against African Americans seems naïve and idealistic, if not fully wrongheaded.  But I think the greatest disappointment will come from the hope that the judicial system could actually provide justice.

The reason the so-called justice system is not the answer in this instance and so many others is because the system asks the wrong questions.  Judicial justice asks: What law was broken?  Who is responsible?  What punishment do they deserve?

Traipsing down this rabbit hole will end up with twisted explanations of how it is ever acceptable to kill an unarmed person, let alone an innocent teenager.  It is not clear whether a law was broken – though I fully concede that George Zimmerman should at the very least have been arrested while someone answered that question.  What happens if the answer to that question is that no laws were broken?  If that’s the case, then no punishment will be required.  And that leaves us all without answers.

The better questions to ask are the typical questions of restorative justice:  What HARM was done?  What will it take to put it right?  Who has the obligation to make it right?  What process would be most effective to involve everyone who has a stake in making it right?  This approach doesn’t excuse what by all indications was the senseless killing of a young Black man.  Rather what it does is acknowledge that this killing and the official response have created many breaches that need to be repaired.

The family has experienced a loss; this needs to be addressed.

George Zimmerman’s life has been irreparably altered – he will both want to make amends and he will need to find ways of healing from the irrational ‘negrophobia’ that likely initiated this fatal sequence.

The image and respect for every aspect of the law enforcement community has been downgraded.  In order to work most effectively, law enforcement needs to have the MERITED trust of their community.  You can’t ask for the community’s cooperation to prosecute wrongdoing when it seems that law enforcement is willing to selectively prosecute.

The sense of community is damaged.  I am not familiar with the racial and class climate in Sanford, Florida but I can’t imagine that this in any way improves it.  Likely any divisions in the community fueled by racially and ethnically-charged mistrust have hardened.  In order for civil society to flourish, trust must be established or restored.

So here’s the good news: The ‘justice’ you seek is not in the system from which you seek it!

Justice is the establishment of right relationships.  In this case, justice would include improving the sense of safety – not insecurity bred by implicit bias, but actual safety for people walking the streets; assurance that law enforcement is about justice and not JUST US; and creation of laws that favor people over property and that don’t give privilege or place to actions based in racism – by shooters, sheriffs, Assistant State’s Attorneys or anyone else.

While it is essential that we continue to demand accountability for the actors including the shooter, the sheriff and the Assistant State’s Attorneys, the sense of balance and vindication is more likely to take a long time to establish.  This will require dialogue and discussion, including the following:

  • Having the Zimmermans and other members of that community hear from Trayvon’s families about the hopes and dreams dashed by this senseless death.
  • Hearing from George Zimmerman and others who describe the life experiences that have resulted in an irrational fear of young Black men.
  • Allowing law enforcement and media to participate in dialogue to recognize that they play a significant role in creating and perpetuating the irrational fear.
  • Examining the legal permission to act on irrationality that is granted by the  “stand your ground” policy.

This will require restitution and reshaping of both laws and practice.  This will require asking different questions.  This will require a full community effort – and possibly result in an actual sense of community.

Restoration is possible and the good news is this:  you don’t have to wait for the current justice system to act to begin to establish the justice you seek.

David Anderson Hooker (J.D. M.Div.) is a lawyer, minister and mediator. For more than 25 years he has worked with communities in the US and throughout the world to host difficult conversations including post-war and post-riot reconciliation, environmental justice and restoratively transforming historical harm and injustice. He is also former Assistant Attorney General for the State of Georgia and an Associate Professor at the Center for Justice & Peacebuilding, Eastern Mennonite University.

15 Responses to “Where will we find justice for Trayvon Martin?”

  1. Dee Ann Newell

    Thank you so much for these understandings. This piece needs to be widely disseminated to off the rj perspective and have everyone use this lens to view the tragic loss of life. I am lucky to receive this blog. Peace, Dee Ann Newell

  2. Rev. Ken Collier

    Thanks David. I’ve been thinking about this ever since I learned of Trayvon’s death. The struggle does go on, eh?

  3. Agnes Furey

    Thank you so much. This is the most helpful and hopeful response I’ve seen. Peace.

  4. Ervin Stutzman

    Thanks, David. This is an eloquent response to a tragic death. I hope someone follows through with your suggestions to help bring the healing that is needed.

  5. Stephen Johnson

    I have been wondering what the best response was to this sad event and I think your presentation of RJ as a healing process for this case is great.

    There is unlikely to be justice in this case from the court system however not because of any race bias but because the self defense law (Stand Your Ground(SYG)) grants the last man (woman) standing a excuse for murder.

    We need to be careful if we are truly interested in restoration that we don’t immediatetly assume that Zimmerman, the police, the State of FL bahaved the way they did because of Trayvon’s race. There has certainly been much speculation but little in the way of facts to prove this. My understanding is that the State Attorney’s Office told the Sanford Police not to arrest Zimmerman because it did not feel there was enough evidense to convict because of the way the law was written.

    That said I still agree that RJ provides probably the best tool to bring peace to all involved and I appreciate the excellent response.

  6. Odessa Hooker

    This response shows wise discernment regarding a senseless killing. As a mediator, should you volunteer to mediate a healing response for all parties? And, what about an appeal to a higher power: could prayer provide a opening action in the matter?
    Do you think the authorities of Sanford, FL would offer to underwrite restorative justice sessions for the involved parties? That action would initiate healing for the whole community.

  7. Dr. Murray Riggins

    Thanks David. I appreciate your insight and perspective. However, I can’t help but wonder if I flipped the script would the same events play out.

    What do you think would happen if a black man “stood his ground” while pursuing a white teenager wearing a hoodie walking in the neighborhood – apparently appearing out of place; and shot to death this unarmed white teenager. Do you think this adult black man would be arrested?

  8. Charito Calvachi-Mateyko

    Yes, somebody from the restorative community needed to speak up and I am glad that person is you, David. To contemplate the possibility of restorative justice in this case takes people to envision how “justice” could have another meaning rather than just punishment. It takes to envision that this beautiful word “justice” can and should also mean healing the wounds of crime.

    Now, Odessa, with your enthusiasm, please, see that restorative justice goes to the roots of the what happen using profound and respectful dialogue. This is not mediation. This is not about who gets what. This is about who we are when conflict and crime hits home.

  9. Edward White

    We will find justice for Travon and too many others like him when we realize we do not live in a free America if anyone is subject to what Travon experienced.

    When enough people truly want America to be like we boast that it is, a majority will step forward and demand the repeal of permissive gun laws and the utterly stupid “stand your ground” laws.

    Unfortunately nothing seems to shock us anymore. Look at Virgonia Tech a couple of yearsd ago.Too many Anericans still dream of the wild west days and think we are still living in them.To them a return to shootouts would solve all problems.

  10. Nathaly Acuna

    David,

    You have offered wonderful insight to this horrific case that has now become such a huge part of the criminal justice system and the way in which people see it. As if justice hasnt been something that people have always felt they have had to fight for, this really does more damage to a system that already seems broken. This case really seems to emphasize the fact that race and color still play a major role in our society and thus leads people to commit such violent and terrifing acts without fully thinking of the consequences or who they’re hurting in the process. Altough we cant necessarily pin point the reasons behind the actions, there isnt much left to the imagination but to assume this being the worst motive.

  11. Bill Goldberg

    David.

    Thank you for the thoughts and insight.

    My one thought is related to the further oddity of a Hispanic man not being prejudiced against. I have seen or heard many people say that were the situation an African-American man killing a white man or another African-American man (or a Hispanic man?), the shooter would have been in jail while this was “sorted out”. But George Zimmerman is not a white man.

    My guess is that if it were a Hispanic man killing a white man (or another Hispanic man?), the Hispanic man would also be sitting in jail while the police sorted this out.

    And if it was a white man killing an African-American man or a Hispanic man (or probably even another white man if the killer was of an equal or higher socia-economic level), the white man who did the killing would remain free until it was sorted out.

    So this situation not only includes an injustice against African-Americans, but almost an indifference to the race of the killer because the victim was African-American and the killer was not African-American. And an indifference to the possible tensions between Hispanics and African-Americans (I have seen nothing on this possibility, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there).

    The web of structural injustice in this situation is as sad as it is complicated and confusing with the overall summary not being “white people are privileged”, but “non-white people are suspect” . . . or more strongly “non-white people are assumed to be guilty”. That is what I find the most sad and I am not sure how society can change that.

    While your ideas about justice after the fact are what is needed now to right the relationships in the current situation, my question is this:

    “How can we stop the next [fill in race of killer] from killing the next [fill in race of non-white murder victim]?”

  12. Latrina Green

    I believe that restorative justice is the way to go, but it will take some special people to accept that route, when they feel they have been let down by a system that took over a month to make an arrest. I, for one, have experienced a slow moving criminal justice system that did not sentence fair and seemed to have a disregard for the loss of life that our family experienced. If my grandmother were still alive, she would say, “Baby, just let the Lord handle it.” This was her thought when her youngest son was murdered. In 1983, before anyone knew of restorative justice, my grandmother had dealt with her hurt and had forgiven the man, and others who were involved, in my uncle’s death.

    I think if everyone; Trayvon Martin’s family, George Zimmerman and his family, law enforcement, the media, the community and other active participants could come together to incorporate dialogue, and for negotiation and problem solving. In this case, the situation is so heated and complicated, it may be difficult to get everyone, who is involved, to remain focused on the reason they are participating. I hope for everyone involved, they will be able to sit down and use restorative justice as the means to come to some understanding, even if it is just to hear those few words, “I’m sorry that I have caused your family so much pain.”

  13. Batina Platt

    David,
    I’m glad to have read your blog on the Trayvon Davis case. It’s very clear that the media plays a significant role on the hype of this case. Yes we have all become aware of the killing of this teenage boy was senseless and it’s evident that the problem was not Trayvon, but a more serious problem that is exists, racism. I’m pretty sure that whatever fear that George Zimmerman encountered from Trayvon could have certainly been rectified with annoying other than taking his life. At this point Zimmerman has been arrested and charged with the killing of Trayvon, but Im still not sure if he’ll ever be convicted. If in fact the media didn’t make such a major fuss about Trayvon being killed, this would have been a case where a murderer was allowed to live his life freely after taken another person’s. We need to get to the root of the problem in American which is, racism still exists. If there isn’t ever a solution to this problem, then there are going to be plenty more cases that occurs just like this one. Only difference, they all won’t become publicly known.
    I hope that from this case that we all as Americans learn that we cant just take another person’s life who isn’t a physical threat, and understand that the real victim is the one who acts out of ignorance from their own lack of reasoning.

  14. Joanne Kehayas

    I would like to respond to Bill Goldberg’s final question, the one about prevention of future crime. Although the obvious answer would most likely be to find a way to change societal attitudes about different races, I took the question to mean more “What can Resorative Justice do to reduce future crime?”

    I would like to point out that if a process under the banner of Restorative Justice were to accomplish the goal of healing the victims (in this case the victim’s family and community), then there would be fewer hurting victims. Many perpetrators are, in fact, victims of previous wrongdoings that have not been healed. Helping to heal hurting victims may in this way, reduce at least a proportion of future crime.

  15. Dale R. Landry

    David wonderful review and comments. As a RJ/CJ practitioner and member of the Florida State Conference NAACP Executive Committee, there are individuals at the decision making level within Sanford city government that are aware of and are considering introducing a restorative justice based response in the healing process. As you may be aware, a few years back the National NAACP adopted restorative justice philosophy and have reaffirmed it in more recent years as being essential in re-entry efforts and zero-tolerance approaches within communities. It is in this vein that some of us that are in dialogue with Sanford leadership are recommending a restorative approach as they plan on rebuilding the community.

    Just wanted to let you know, RJ and CJ are being considered and thankfully there are advisors in Sanford with a background in RJ that are shaping the healing response.