When a jury finds a man not guilty for the wilful shooting of a 17 year old boy armed with some sweets and a can of pop, alarm bells need to start ringing. This is not the stuff of fairy tales, but the real outcome of the trial of George Zimmerman for the murder of Trayvon Martin. Rather than a unique example of justice undone, the Zimmerman trial epitomises a justice system which views young black people not as children, but felons waiting to happen. Who wants to be black kid in America today?
The Case of Trayvon Martin
Please take a few minutes to watch the video above, which captures the mentality of racial profiling. This mentality led George Zimmerman, on seeing a young black man walking the streets of his gated community, to call the police immediately, stating he was following a ‘real suspicious looking guy…like he’s on drugs or something…something’s wrong with him…he’s got something in his hands’. Unfortunately, a young black man these days is inherently worthy of suspicion in the eyes of many.
On the 26th February last year, Zimmerman caught sight of Trayvon Martin )pictured above) walking back from the convenience store. Martin was headed to the house of his father’s fiancé in a gated community called the Retreat at Twin Lakes, Florida. He had popped out to buy some sweets and a soft drink and was carrying these home.
Zimmerman called the police stating he was following a ‘real suspicious looking guy…like he’s on drugs or something…something’s wrong with him…he’s got something in his hands’. He went on to state “Fucking punks. These assholes, they always get away.”
It is clear from Zimmerman’s 911 call that he believed he was in pursuit of a dangerous felon, likely responsible for burglaries in the area. Yet, he jumped to this conclusion himself. He was in fact following a 17 year old boy with some sweets and a can of pop. Zimmerman was armed with a 9mm Glock pistol.
Soon after the call, Zimmerman pursued Trayvon Martin, contrary to the advice of the police who were on their way, Martin resisted and Zimmerman shot him dead. As Gary Younge’s stirring Comment Is Free article states:
“Who screamed. Who was stronger. Who called whom what and when and why are all details to warm the heart of a cable news producer with 24 hours to fill. Strip them all away and the truth remains that Martin’s heart would still be beating if Zimmerman had not chased him down and shot him.
There is no doubt about who the aggressor was here. It appears that the only reason the two interacted at all, physically or otherwise, is that Zimmerman believed it was his civic duty to apprehend an innocent teenager who caused suspicion by his existence alone.”
Yet Zimmerman has been acquitted of this crime and was free to leave the courtroom today. To add insult to injury, under Florida law he will have his murder weapon returned to him…just in case he feels like mowing down any other teenagers that ‘trip him out’.
The fact that Zimmerman was acquitted was less of a shock for those following the case who witnessed how reluctant the authorities were that there would be a case in the first place. Florida has a ‘stand your ground’ policy which states that a person can use deadly force if s/he ‘reasonably believes’ their life to be in danger. Yet, as Younge points out, it was Trayvon Martin who was forced to stand his ground, as he was tackled by Zimmerman – a stranger with a gun – while he walked home with his iced tea and skittles. Despite this, Zimmerman was allowed to walk, pleading self-defence.
It is an outrage. But while the US Justice System fails to classify men who kill black teens as criminals, the fundamentally racist structure of American society is busy turning black teens into the very criminals Zimmerman and his ilk believe them to be.
The School to Prison Pipeline
The US has the highest incarceration rate in the world. This means a higher percentage of US citizens pass through the prison system, than any other country on the planet. For most countries with comparable demographics to the US, there will be 100 prisoners per every 100,000 population. In the US, the rate is five times this at 500 per 100,000. But black men in the US are incarcerated at an eye watering rate of 3,074 per 100,000. This is not because black men are somehow genetically more pre-disposed to crime, but thanks in large part to the school to prison pipeline. The average state prisoner has a 10th grade education (aged 15), and about 70% have not completed high school. The US Education System delivers disadvantaged children over to prisons for profit.
The American Civil Liberties Union described the School to Prison pipeline of the US Education System thusly:
“A disturbing national trend wherein children are funneled out of public schools and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems. Many of these children have learning disabilities or histories of poverty, abuse or neglect, and would benefit from additional educational and counseling services. Instead, they are isolated, punished and pushed out. “Zero-tolerance” policies criminalize minor infractions of school rules, while high-stakes testing programs encourage educators to push out low-performing students to improve their schools’ overall test scores. Students of color are especially vulnerable to push-out trends and the discriminatory application of discipline.”
The School to Prison pipeline starts with underfunded public schools. The schools are generally overcrowded and lack funding for qualified teachers, counsellors, special educational needs resources and even textbooks. The children are clear from the get-go that their education is not being invested in – and these schools are normally in disadvantaged areas in the first place. There is no hope, no aspiration, no encouragement, no learning.
The implementation of ‘zero tolerance’ policies in schools have turned minor infractions into criminal offences. This saw suspensions treble between 1974 and 2001 – rising from 1.7m to 3.1m, and disproportionately impacting children of colour.
A combination of major under resourcing and fear of school based shootings has seen an influx of police in schools. Instead of teachers, many US schools now have ‘School Resource Officers’ patrolling the hallways, criminalising standard misbehaviour. Again, children of colour were disproportionately represented in the statistics – making up 70% of school arrests made. So, what were these children arrested for?
In Fairfax County, six year old Salecia Johnson was handcuffed, charged with beating and placed in a holding cell for throwing a tantrum.
In Texas, twelve year old Sarah Bustamantes was arrested for spraying herself with perfume in a bid to stop bullies picking on her and saying she was smelly.
In Albuquerque, a 13 year old boy was handcuffed and hauled off to juvenile detention for burping in class.
A high school student had her arm broken by a school security guard after she left crumbs on the floor after dropping some birthday cake in the cafeteria. She was then arrested for littering.
A seven year old student with special educational needs was pepper sprayed in the face by a police officer in school, for climbing onto a bookshelf.
In 2010, the state of Texas alone issued 300,000 ‘Class C Misdemeanour’ tickets to US school children as young as six – resulting in fines, community service and even prison time.
Where children should be being educated about positive and negative behaviours, they are being criminalised as young as six years old. Their educations are being suspended or ended due to these punishments and they are gifted to the prison system.
The truth is, disadvantaged children in the US have become a source of profit for the private prison industry. Over the past four decades that private prisons were rolled out across the US, there has been a simultaneous explosion in crime. Did US citizens suddenly become more criminal? No. Poverty was criminalised, and it made its way all the way into the school system.
“CCA has made profits from, and at times contributed to, the expansion of tough-on-crime and anti-immigrant policies that have driven prison expansion. Now a multi-billion dollar corporation, CCA manages more than 65 correctional and detention facilities with a capacity of more than 90,000 beds in 19 states and the District of Columbia. The company’s revenue in 2012 exceeded more than $1.7 billion.
While the company has become a multi-billion dollar corporation, it has also become exceedingly controversial, with a record of prisoner abuse, poor pay and benefits to employees, scandals, escapes, riots, and lawsuits marking its history. Faith denominations, civil rights groups, criminal justice reform organizations, and immigrant rights advocates have repeatedly argued that adding the profit motive to the prison and immigrant detention systems provides perverse incentives to keep incarceration rates high.
To mark the company’s milestone anniversary, Grassroots Leadership and the Public Safety and Justice Campaign have sought to highlight why there is nothing to celebrate about 30 years of for-profit incarceration. This report highlights just some of the shameful incidents that litter CCA’s history.
As well as unearthing notable scandals and violations that have taken place over the company’s last three decades, this report charts several other key areas in which CCA has left a dubious legacy. From controversial economic and political ties to operational cost-cutting and depressing labor practices, CCA’s drastic efforts to maximize profits only serve to demonstrate the fundamental reasons why the for-profit prison industry is at odds with the goals of reducing incarceration rates and raising correctional standards.
This report highlights only 30 incidents in the company’s history, but could have been much more expansive. We hope it lends a critical eye to the role of for-profit prison firms in criminal justice and immigration policies, and serves as a starting point for community members and organizations seeking to learn about the for-profit private prison industry.”
A Hopeless Situation?
So, what hope for young black America? Their school system is built to transfer them into a private sector prison profit at the earliest opportunity. Their justice system allows people who shoot and kill their peers to walk free. Who would want to be a poor black kid in the US today?
Well, some people are doing something about it. The American Civil Liberties Union are working to break the school to prison pipeline – but others are getting involved too. Former Federal and State prison inmates have come together in Fayetteville, North Carolina to host a summer camp called ‘Torchlight’ to keep young people engaged with their own educations, even if the state is working against them. Schools Boards in Colorado, Philadelphia and Chicago have seen great results from stepping back from ‘zero tolerance’ policies and implementing common sense discipline policies. Maryland went even further and banned zero tolerance in the state altogether, and set itself s target of 69% fewer suspensions a year which it promptly met.
People are fighting for the futures of these children, but corporate America is using its power, money and influence to snuff their futures out for the sake of a profit. Who will win? Well, that’s up to all of us.
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