Monday, July 15, 2013

George Zimmerman, Trayvon Martin, and the trouble with Terry stops

Stops and frisks

Posted by Chris Haire on Mon, Jul 15, 2013 at 12:47 PM

click to enlarge A stop-and-frisk rally in New York City - FLICKR.COM/J-NO
  • flickr.com/j-no
  • A stop-and-frisk rally in New York City
Once again, another racially charged case has come to an end, and once again, the verdict divides the nation.

But in the case of George Zimmerman, the split isn't as starkly divided along racial lines as it has been in the past. This time at least, many whites appear to be just as angry about the verdict as blacks.

Regardless, we as a people are using the death of Trayvon Martin to once again examine race relations in America. And as in the case of numerous cases before it — from Rodney King to O.J. Simpson to the Duke lacrosse team — the Zimmerman case is a piss poor departure point to explore the tensions between black and white and the injustices and fear that still remains. 

Make no mistake, George Zimmerman's actions led to Trayvon Martin's death, and these actions were inspired solely by the fears that welled up inside the neighborhood cowboy when he saw a hooded black teen strolling through his neighborhood and his overactive wannabe cop imagination turned a 17-year-old boy into a menacing thug.

The don't-call-me-a-racist racists among us — including several of this site's most fervent commenters — certainly believe that Zimmerman had plenty of reason to be afraid. Martin fit the profile, after all, of their most dreaded nightmare, the one that has haunted white racists for decades — the young black buck. But the truth of the matter is, Trayvon Martin may have played a role in his own death by engaging in a physical altercation with Zimmerman, one that the 17-year-old possibly instigated.

When it all comes down to it, George Zimmerman's Barney Fife fantasy may have directly led to the death of an innocent young man, but Trayvon Martin could have easily been operating under his own fantasy — the I-can-beat-anyone's-ass delusion held by many young men. Both Zimmerman and Martin could have felt that their lives were in danger and both may have acted in a manner to protect themselves — however misguided they were and however blind to the way in which each action could escalate the situation until it reached its bloody conclusion.

As with nearly all cases of this particular stripe, the dividing lines were drawn the first time anyone heard about the tragic death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. Exactly where we stand on this matter was determined within the first few seconds that we learned that George Zimmerman had killed Martin, and absolutely nothing after that point mattered. We knew who was to blame, and we knew who was innocent. For most, the trial didn't change that, and no amount of race-relation navel gazing will either. 

If we want to truly examine our racial woes — from racial profiling to the often unfounded fear of young black men and the culture of violence that has been embraced by certain segments of the African-American lower class — it's far better if we turn our attention to one of the favorite tools of the War on Drugs, the controversial Terry stop.

Terry stops, a.k.a. stop-and-frisks, routinely give police cause to search black men for no other reason than that they are black men in black — read: crime-plagued — neighborhoods. Not a week goes by at the City Paper, where the Blotter doesn't include at least one report of a person being confronted by police even though they have committed no crime. That the person may have a joint or some coke in their pocket is irrelevant. If an officer has no reason to believe a citizen has committed a crime other than the fact that he is walking down the street or hanging out on a corner in a particular neighborhood, then the officer in question should not be allowed to stop and frisk the subject, but that's not how it is. The police are looking for criminals and they won't stop until they find one, even if he isn't committing a crime that they are aware of.

Think of it like this: We know that drugs are a big part of the College of Charleston scene. It has been for decades. In fact, CofC has gained a reputation as being the go-to South Carolina college for co-ed cokeheads and would-be blowhards. You know this. The cops know this. So why aren't they routinely conducting Terry stops on CofC students once they are off campus. At any given time, the police are bound to nab their fair share of lawbreakers. But that's not what law enforcement officers do. 

The issue we need to address here is why do we allow police to routinely stop-and-frisk an entire segment of the population with little to no cause and why do they ignore the criminal acts of another population. Because we as a society have turned a blind eye to the sins of the Terry stop, men like George Zimmerman not only view every young black man in a hoodie as a criminal, they feel emboldened to confront them and take the law into their own hands.

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