By Jabari Asim • Illustrations by Brian StaufferWhen Black people first set foot in the territory now known as the United States, they stepped onto contested ground. Before there was a legal term for what they were, before the law carefully circumscribed their hearts and loins, each of their footfalls was subject to contention. How many strides until the end of their world? How far could their limbs take them? To the edge of the plantation? To the back door of the big house? Centuries before Trayvon Martin took his last steps in a gated community in Sanford, Fla., his ancestors confronted similar boundaries. Gated neighborhoods? Try gated states. By the 1860s, several of them, including Illinois, lndiana, Iowa and Oregon, prohibited Black people from traveling anywhere without proof of permission.
What's going on there, George?I'm with the neighborhood watch. We've had some burglaries and vandalisms lately.
This gentleman was walking in the neighborhood I've seen before on. trash days, going around picking up trash. I don't know what his deal is.Is he White, Black or Hispanic?
Black.Wherever such laws or customs prevailed, bands of dutiful Americans took on the task of enforcing them. Slave patrols, the forerunners of police cruisers and neighborhood watch squads, first emerged in South Carolina around 1704.
The patrols were based on earlier efforts in Barbados, where the "Act for the Better ordering and governing of Negroes" empowered all whites with the right to stop and investigate Black people who, left to their own devices, were considered likely to steal or run away. .In the view of patrollers, all Negroes were as dishonorable as thieves. Consequently, they were to be apprehended and punished for moving or walking about without permission. In modem terms, patrollers were expected to be on the lookout for Black people who were "up to no good."
In his book An Imperfect God, historian Henry Wiencek writes of enslaved men and women who risked the wrath of such patrols by slipping away after sundown to visit loved ones on neighboring plantations. This habit was called "night walking"."Romance accounted for some night walking," Wiencek notes, "but there were more serious purposes as well." These included visits to take care of sick children and elderly relatives. One overseer observed, "The separation of families seems like death to them."
Nineteenth-century Black people wrestled with a dilemma in which "everything they clid was wrong," according to W.E.B. DuBois. "If they cowered on the plantation, they loved slavery," he observed. "If they ran away, they were loafers." When everything they did was wrong, even something as innocuous as breathing could be cause for harassment or death. As Trayvon Martin discovered, 21st-century racial maladies often pose the same trap."This guy looks like he's up to no good, or he's on drugs or something. It's raining and he's just walking around, looking about," George Zimmerman reported during his 911 call on February 26, 2012, moments before he gunned Martin down in cold blood. Zimmerman's easeful assumption of authority is both significant and historically resonant, but no more so than the notion that a Black man simply walking - in his own neighborhood, no less - is automatically suspect.
Zimmerman's eagerness to take matters into his own hands reflects an implicit mandate that White citizens are as responsible for their safety as police officers are. Inheritors of a Patroller Complex deriving from those early acts for the better ordering of Negroes, they are, in effect, deputized to investigate anyone (read "Black people") who seem out of place. When law enforcement officials speak to civilian groups, they seldom hesitate to reinforce this understanding. Following a highly publicized murder in Washington D.C., in July 2006, Andy Solberg, then-acting commander of the city's Second District, instructed a group of Georgetown residents to report anything suspicious - such as, say, the presence of African-Americans. "This is not a racial thing to say that Black people are unusual in Georgetown," he said. "This is a fact of life."Solberg's language was only slightly more diplomatic than that of Sheriff Harry Lee, a notorious lawman who conducted an intrusive surveillance campaign against young Black people in Jefferson Parish, La., in the 1980s. "If there are some young Blacks driving a car late at night in a predominantly White neighborhood, they will be stopped," Lee promised . "There's a pretty good chance they're up to no good."
Pipeline + Prison = Cheap LaborAt least Lee's mythical troublemakers were driving a car; Solberg's scenario suggests that Black people needn't do much more to deserve scrutiny than be seen standing on a corner or, to borrow Zimmerman's phrase, walking around and looking about. The idea that African Americans can commit a crime simply by existing is more than just a deeply entrenched racist misconception; it is also an idea rooted in capitalism's need for a cheap, exploitable labor force. These two cancerous strands came together in the philosophy of prosperous landowners such as George Washington, who cast his practice of working slaves to death as a humanitarian gesture. Without constant work, he argued, they would be "ruined by idleness." Those strands can be tracked, as easily as a trail of spilled Skittles, to a modern prison industrial complex that runs on equal parts racism and greed.
In the seventeenth-century, forced labor was still something of an equal-opportunity injustice. States such as Connecticut and Florida arranged their prosecution and parole dockets according to planting schedules so that Whites incarcerated in debtors' prisons could be conscripted to help with the harvest. They found themselves paying off their debt to society by toiling like slaves. The industry became less diverse after the Southern Rebellion, when Emancipation proved highly inconvenient for ambitious Confederate planters eager to shake off the dust of their inglorious defeat. Black Codes emerged, making criminal offenses of vagrancy, loitering and public drunkenness.There are two suspicious characters at the gate of my neighborhood and I've never seen them before. I have no idea what they're doing: They're just hanging out, loitering.
Okay, Mr. Zimmennan, Can you describe the two individuals?Two African American males. They look uh, I know one is in a white Impala.
How old do they look to you?Hmm, mid- to late twenties, early thirties.
With the help of cooperative judges, Black men and women unfortunate enough to be caught moving around, looking about or even standing still in the wrong place at the wrong time were hauled back to the same fields where they previously sweated. (To get an idea of the durability of these underhanded practices, compare Black Code offenses with grounds for suspicion established during New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's stop-and-frisk reign of error. They included "furtive movements," "fits a relevant description" and wearing "clothes commonly used in a crime.") Southern law officers, taking full advantage of the Thirteenth Amendment's timely loophole allowing compulsory labor "as a punishment for crime," set out to tum as many newly freed Black people into criminals as they could. States and counties filled their depleted coffers by convicting those they swept from the streets and leasing them to farmers and businessmen. Prison populations swelled, foreshadowing the incarceration disparities we see today - and a generation of "convicts" was sentenced to hard labor planting and harvesting crops, doing the most dangerous factory tasks, digging in mines, logging timber and building railroads - ultimately laying the groundwork for the South's resurgent infrastructure.Douglas Blackmon described the process in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Slavery By Another Name: "It was a form of bondage distinctly different from that of the antebellum South in that for most men, and the relatively few women drawn in, this slavery did not last a lifetime and did not automatically extend from one generation to the next. But it was nonetheless slavery - a system in which armies of free men, guilty of no crimes and entitled by law to freedom, were compelled to labor without compensation, were repeatedly bought and sold, and were forced to do the bidding of White masters through the regular application of extraordinary physical coercion."
Pipeline + Prison = ProfitConvict leasing, begun soon after the Southern Rebellion was crushed, officially ended in 1928 when Alabama terminated its program. Unofficially, states continued it under different guises. For example, in the state where Trayvon Martin breathed his last, prison officials added license plate, laundry and shirt factories after it ended convict leasing. The practice continues today as a mainstay of private prisons, whose owners reap huge financial profits by using their inmates as low-wage and unpaid laborers. Companies such as Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and Geo Group owe their success to the American Legislative Exchange: Council (ALEC), which they in turn sponsor through financial contributions. ALEC's work includes creating the template for the Prison Industries Act, state legislation enabling the employment of inmate labor across the country. Just as southern legislatures created Black Codes to establish a captive labor force, ALEC has abetted modern lawmakers' attempts to push through "three strikes" laws, mandatory minimums for non-violent drug offenders, "truth-in-sentencing'' laws, and anti-immigration measures designed to keep African Americans and Latinos off the streets and behind bars where, presumably, they'll be most useful. New agreements between state governments and private prisons can also include guaranteed minimum occupancy rates (see CCA’s purchase of Ohio's Lake Erie Correctional Institution in January 2012, for example), making "tough on crime" laws even more critical for profiteers of captive labor.
The Sunshine StateFew states have followed ALEC's guidebooks more zealously than Florida, home of 48 slate prisons, 7 private prisons and 41 prison work programs. Black people make up 32 percent of the state's prison population, according to the Florida Dept. of Corrections, while making up around 16 percent of the state's entire population. In addition, at least one out of every five Black people in Florida is disenfranchised resulting from a felony conviction.
Unsurprisingly, Florida is the birthplace of Stand Your Ground (SYG), a law that most people weren't aware of until it was invoked - repeatedly - following Martin's violent death. With the help of National Rifle Association lobbyist Marion Zimmer, Florida launched the law in 2005, empowering residents to use force to defend themselves against a perceived threat. Critics of such measures condemn them as Black Codes given a fresh coat of paint but their complaints have mostly gone unheeded. Since 2005, ALEC and the NRA have helped more than 20 states add versions of the law to their own statutes. With SYG in mind on that rainy February night, the police permitted Zimmerman to do what law and custom made sure Martin could not: they Jet him walk.Does he live in the neighborhood or is he just out walking?
I don't know. It's the first time I've ever seen him."A conversation about brutality and identity goes right to the body," the author and legal scholar David Dante Troutt has observed. The body, he goes on to argue, becomes "the currency of control." Consequently any discussion of Black bodies, at least regarding their sojourn in America, must also include the idea of ownership. For Black people to claim possession of their bodies, they must also declare themselves persons, capable of agency, language and independent thought. Perhaps unsurprisingly, that humanizing impulse remains partly indigestible in a nation whose economic foundation depended on the idea that Black people were not humans to be respected but property to be maintained. Property cannot be maintained if it dares to move about freely and - even worse - resists being apprehended.
Body SnatchersSolomon Northup's encounter with this dehumanizing process provides a useful example. His 1853 memoir, Twelve Years A Slave, relates his first moments after body snatchers captured him in Washington, D.C. and subsequently sold him into slavery. Awaking in darkness and in chains, he reached into his pockets "as far as the fetters would allow" and made another troubling discovery. "I had not only been robbed of liberty," he later recalled, but "my money and free papers were gone!"
Edward P. Jones portrays an ordeal no less horrifying for being fictional. In his novel The Known World, Augustus Townsend, a free Black man, must sit helplessly in his mule-drawn wagon while a hostile White man takes Augustus' dearly purchased free papers and stuffs them into his own mouth. Augustus' wife is waiting for him at home, not far away. She might as well be in Africa as Augustus watches a White man devour his freedom.As if speaking for all Black people similarly abused, Solomon Northup bemoans his fate as a free American "who had wronged no man, nor violated any law" only to be "dealt with thus inhumanly."
Northup's experience and Jones's novel illustrate how even nominally free Black people were nonetheless captives, vulnerable to the caprice and power of men of questionable integrity whom authorities endowed with the power to determine life and death. The state's peculiar permissiveness deputized half-wits to wreck lives with the kindly approval of the state. George Zimmerman's power to fire his Licensed handgun at an unarmed teen and strike him dead with impunity lengthens a tradition of dubious deputizing that began in the slavery era and continued after Emancipation.As Sally Hadden points out in Slave Patrols: Law and Violence in Virginia and the Carolinas, during Reconstruction lawmen and Klansmen adopted enforcement methods initially designed to monitor the enslaved. Together they turned patrolling into "a highly effective but still legal means of racial oppression."
Three factors combined to create a deadly environment for the newly emancipated: 1) battle-hardened White men with military training, 2) widespread fear of imaginary rampaging Blacks hell bent for revenge and White women, and 3) a marrow- deep belief that blackness and freedom are irreconcilable. From this strange brew the posse tradition emerged, extending the might of the Jaw lo volunteers who operated both with and without official sanction, depending on the circumstances and popular sentiment.
Bullies With Badges
"Posses, which were cheap, quick and ruthlessly effective, provided welcome assistance to law officers," William Fitzhugh Brundage observed in his history of lynching in the New South. "Hence, posses and the violence they initiated endured in much of the South until at least the 1920s." And beyond. More than 4,700 Black people were lynched between 1882 and 1968, usually at the hands of posses. Perhaps the most haunting demonstration of posse violence took place on March 7, 1965, a day now remembered as Bloody Sunday. Long before Sheriff Joe Arpaio and self-anointed "militiamen" began to troll Arizona's dusty perimeter for elusive Latinos, Sheriff Jim Clark conducted a similar campaign of terror against the Black people of Dallas County, Ala. Under his boisterously racist command, a posse of mounted Alabama state troopers and "volunteer officers" brutalized a group of peaceful protesters on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. While the protesters were unarmed, the posse was prepared for war. Their weapons included clubs as big as baseball bats, guns, bull whips and at least one rubber hose wrapped with barbed wire.Tear gas, too. Mustn' t forget that: C-4, a particularly toxic form of the gas, designed to induce crippling nausea.
John Lewis and Hosea Williams led the marchers. Fifty feet from the bottom of the bridge, a police major ordered them to stop and reverse direction. He gave them two minutes to comply."We couldn't go forward. We couldn't go back," Lewis remembered. "There was only one option left that I could see."
The men chose to kneel and pray. They passed the word but had hardly moved when the major issued his fateful order:"Troopers! Advance!"
The mob of armed lawmen surged forward in an awesome wave of malevolence, clubs and whips in motion. They descended on their defenseless opponents and, in a tradition as old as the country itself, commenced to dispensing justice American-style, cracking skulls, crunching bones and flaying the vulnerable flesh of men, women and children."Something about that day in Selma touched a nerve deeper than anything that had come before," Lewis contends. "The sight of them rolling over us like human tanks was something that had never been seen before."
In many such Civil Rights Movement skirmishes, posses rolled over marchers in full view of the federal government. Recalling another showdown in Selma, this one in 1963, activist historian Howard Zinn witnessed federal officials refusing to intervene on behalf of more than 300 Black people waiting to register outside the county courthouse. Surrounded by blue-helmeted troopers brandishing guns and. cattle prods, some of the prospective voters had been standing in line for five hours or more.Zinn writes, "I spoke to the senior Justice Department attorney: 'Is there any reason why a representative of the Justice Department can't go over and talk to the state troopers and say these people are entitled to food and water?' He was perturbed by the question. There was a long pause. Then he said, 'I won' t do it.' He paused again. 'I believe they do have the right to receive food and water. But I won't do it.'"
John Conyers, a young attorney from Detroit who later became a congressman, was also on the scene. "Those cops could have massacred all those three hundred Negroes on line," he said to Zinn, "and still nothing would have been done."Deputy Dawg
Nearly 50 years after Selma, Conyers' charge still resounds. The Southern fried behavior of government, via Stand Your Ground laws and juries that wink at wayward vigilantes, suggests that violence against unarmed Black Americans continues to take place with the consent of the state - and by extension, the governed.My name is George and I live at the Retreat at Twin Lakes subdivision. I'm part of the neighborhood watch.
The American vigilante is an offshoot of the posse, a stalwart guardian of community virtue so moved by threats to his home and hearth that he must take matters into his own hands. Impatient with the pace of cosmic justice and his neighbors' heartwarming faith in holy reckoning, he knows his quarry is quick on his feet, too swift and evasive for plodding squad cars and donut-swollen patrolmen. It takes a real man to do a man's job and who is more up to it than him? Deputy Dawg straps up and.hits the streets.Name: Kel-Tec 9mm PF-9
Caliber: 9 mm
Length: 6 inches
Height: 4.3 inches
Width: 0.9 inches
Barrel length: 3 inches
Weight, fully loaded: 18 ounces
Trigger pull: 5 pounds
Effective range: 7 yards
Hard chrome and hollow points, baby, he's ready to roll. This is the Wild West and he needs no stinking badge to prove he's a natural-born bad ass.OK, and this guy is he White, Black, or Hispanic?
He looks Black.There have been far too many break-ins lately, broken windows and "a-holes" trespassing on his peace. On one of his moonstruck patrols, someone will die, sprawled on a lawn, torn up from a bullet designed to expand and disrupt the body's soft insides. A few bleeding hearts might object, but security is seldom achieved without a price. Flyers distributed to residents advise them to call him, not the police, to report suspicious activity. "We must send a message that we will not tolerate this in our community," the flyers declare. Not here. Not on his watch.
Are you following him?Yes.
Okay, we don't need you to do that.Before Trayvon Benjamin Martin was evicted from his body, before the open-eyed husk of him cooled and stiffened on a grassy lot in Sanford, Fla., he was a child. The son of Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin, he was clearly loved and is sorely missed. He had no criminal record. Like Solomon Northup, he had wronged no man, nor violated any law.
If not for his parents' persistence, he'd be like so many others, buried without inquiry and presumed to have died while up to no good. By the approach of Zimmerman' s trial, the response in Black communities across the country suggested that Martin was poised to become a martyr and a catalyst, joining historical figures such as Sam Hose and Emmett Till.Death and Dishonor
Sam Hose, a Black Georgia laborer whose confrontation with a White man ended in the White man's death, was tortured to death by a lynch mob in 1899. After the mob ritually dismembered Hose's body (W.E.B. DuBois later described the murder as a crucifixion), they arrayed his knuckles and toes in a butcher shop window to intimidate Black people and titillate thrill-seeking Whites. For DuBois, learning about the displayed body parts amounted to "a red ray which could not be ignored." He turned from a life of quiet scholarship to a long and extraordinary career as a public activist and intellectual, shaping the emergence of the NAACP and organizing Black people throughout tht! African diaspora. Whereas Hose's horrific death is mostly remembered for its impact on DuBois' trajectory, Emmett Till's killing resonated via a photo circulated in Jet magazine, for many years the nation's most popular magazine among African American readers. Till, a Black teenager, was murdered in Mississippi in 1955. His executioners shot him multiple times, bashed his head in and tied a cotton gin fan to his neck with barbed wire before tossing his body in the Tallahassee River. Jet's publication of the photo in which Till' s face has been brutalized with such frenzy that it is barely recognizable as a face, added critical momentum to the burgeoning civil rights movement. Rosa Parks pointed to Till' s murder as an incentive behind her refusal to give up her seat on a public bus, an act of defiance that launched the Montgomery Bus Boycott. "I thought of Emmett Till, and when the bus driver ordered me to move to the back, I just couldn't move," she said.For many newly politicized Americans of color, Trayvon' s killing became a galvanizing force in much the same way that the image of Till' s battered corpse helped stir Parks and thousands of others to action. News reports by Black journalists Trymaine Lee, Charles Blow and others received vital distribution on Facebook, Twitter and other sites. Social media campaigns followed immediately afterward, spawning marches on statehouses where SYG is in effect, along with online petitions calling for charges against Zimmerman.
Like many of the most effective protest campaigns of bygone eras, organized Black outrage, channeled through groups such as the NAACP, ColorOfChange.org and Dream Defenders, received critical assistance from equally motivated allies outside African American communities. YouTube videos and blog posts from White, Latino and Asian Americans professing their support lifted spirits and influenced citizens who might otherwise have turned a blind eye.But even as Martin moved toward an unforeseen prominence as a symbol of hls nation's enduring inequities, he was also becoming something of a national joke. His parents, appearing before their countrymen as paragons of dignified suffering, had to watch as their child, who had been merely a junior in high school, was sacrificed on the altar of American psychosis. The ind ignities he suffered for the sins of his nation have been widely circulated on the Internet, the modern equivalent of the shop window that proved so pivotal to DuBois' repurposing. Like the knuckles of Sam Hose, Facebook and Tumblr photos of young White males posing as dead Trayvon, sprawled amid Skittles and cans of iced tea, both demonstrated the depravities of the vanishing majority and raised the ire of otherwise complacent observers. Assaults on Martin's reputation flourished amid sick jokes on Twitter, including a nauseating flurry from Todd Kincannon, former executive director of the South Carolina Republican Party:
"Will karma find me as quick as it did Trayvon? Oh wait I made it past my 18th birthday. So I guess the answer is no."Hey what's the difference between Trayvon Martin and a dead baby? They're both dead, but Pepsi doesn't taste like Trayvon."
In addition to the caricatures and demonizing, an aggressive disinformation campaign substituted the image of Trayvon with that of another Black boy, shirtless and aggressively posturing. Another deception followed in the form of a viral screed that inserted in Martin's place a picture of Jayceon Terrell Taylor, a muscular thirty-something rap star who performs as The Game. Said one earnest citizen who posted the photo of The Game on his FB page, "I am not trying to say this was a good shooting. 1 am not trying to say this kid deserved to die. I am saying the media in the USA is controlled by liberals who twist and distort what you see and hear in order for you to see things their way."The motives of Greg Cimeno, 22, and William Filene, 25, are less clear.
The Floridians celebrated Halloween by dressing as Zimmerman and Martin, respectively. Cimeno wore a "Neighborhood Watch T-shirt, and Filene, wearing a blackface mask and a blood-spattered hoodie, proudly showed off their costumes via social media. On a widely circulated photo, Cimeno pretends to shoot Filene in the head.Other Americans wore similar get-ups, evidence of the quasi-erotic thrill that blackface and the ritual reenactment of violent Black death apparently provides. Whereas White Georgians - men, women and children - gathered by the thousands to bear joyous witness to the butchering of Sam Hose, countless voyeurs can endlessly revel in the virtual killing of Trayvon Martin, secure in the anonymous glow of their cellphones and computer screens. Seeking to profit from the controversy, an Orlando-based entrepreneur created a shooting target complete with a hooded figure, a package of Skittles and a can of ice tea. He told reporters he sold out his inventory in two days, further proof of the durable link between capital and commoditized blackness.
Following Florida's half-hearted prosecution of Zimmerman, Attorney General Eric Holder discussed the possibility of a civil rights lawsuit at the federal level, an unlikely scenario that, even if it happened, would leave SYG untouched. Months after Zimmerman walked away a free man, the opponents of SYG have yet to achieve a significant reversalStill Confederates After All These Years
In late October, 2013, the Senate held hearings to review SYG laws. With Sybrina Fulton looking on, Texas Rep. Louis Gohmert echoed the Confederate obstinacy of centuries past. "The idea that states are less intelligent or less able to discern their citizens' needs is a mistake of federal proportions," Gohmert said. His argument reduces the occasional loss of Black lives to a regrettable but acceptable inconvenience, a small price to pay for public safety and the sustenance of state's rights. SYG is the Patroller Complex written into law, Confederate in spirit and always invoked with Black people - the ultimate phantom menace - in mind. Elected officials like Gohmert are confidently representative of a consensus among their constituencies, an ethos perhaps most memorably articulated by the bard of the Sunflower state, William Faulkner. "If it came to fighting," he said, "I'd fight for Mississippi against the United States even if it meant going out into the street and shooting Negroes." Zimmerman, on the prowl for night-walking Black people, stalked the Retreat at Twin Lakes according to a similar creed. Oearly Faulkner's defense of armed vigilantism remains fatally relevant today.And what he said about the past not being past? That, too.
The CRISIS, Spring 2014