Sunday, February 16, 2014

Interrogating Ground/s and Justice

By Theodora Danylevich

“From Rodney King to Trayvon Martin, from the birth of the racial republic to its late modern bio-political landscape, difficult dialogues and actions are necessary for progress— however evanescent, however staggered, and however long—to materialize.”
-- Neil Roberts, in his introduction to a special-issue Trayvon Martin symposium in Theory and Event (vol. 15, issue 3, 2012),

Wednesday February 5th would have been Trayvon Martin’s nineteenth birthday. On the evening of Wednesday January 29th, hosted by the American Studies department, the Critical Race Theory reading group held its first roundtable discussion, “On Whose Ground? Exploring the Trayvon Martin drama and the complex interplay of race and rights in America.” Sadness, anger, but not really very much shock so much as disappointment were the generally shared feelings with regard to the Zimmerman/Martin ruling that prompted the organization of this event, which was also framed by the question, “where do we go from here?” The roundtable was moderated by our department’s Dr. Jennifer James, and included as panelists Dr. Tony Lopez (English), Dr. Jennifer Christine Nash (American Studies), and Lyndsay Davis, a PhD Candidate in American Studies.

Image by  Favianna Rodriguez

Unpacking “stand your ground” laws:

Dr. Tony Lopez’s comments on the material and spatial elements that both allowed Zimmerman to get away with murder, and made Martin fundamentally unsafe set us up to consider the way in which “stand your ground” laws, especially as they are interpreted in Florida, shed light on some perhaps surprising contradictions in the ways that “public” and “private” come to signify with regard to spaces (and subjects). Both Dr. Jennifer Nash and Tony Lopez’s analyses pointed to “stand your ground” laws as a colonial technology. That is to say, a consideration of the raced and gendered bias and injustice built into the distribution of designations of “public” and “private,” and how they stand up in a court of law suggests that the “contradictions” are yet altogether logical when seen as part of a c/overtly recursive racist-colonial patriarchal structuring of the nation. Subjects that are commodified (slaves, wives) slip between private and public domains, particularly in the process of exchange. In a parallel motion, particularly in the context of excessively permissive “stand your ground” laws (where “home” extends to “home-like” spaces), questions of state power versus state actor lead to a blurring of the line between state and citizen; and by extension, between property and citizen. [As I write this synopsis/interpretation, I’m having trouble being certain that I’m laying this out properly. Comments invited.] In the context of the Zimmerman/Martin case, technological extensions of these discursive power structures include the gun, the “home-like” gated community, and the “home-like” car.

Questioning “justice,” and the fetishization of intent:

While nobody in the Zimmerman/Martin case has spent time in prison, in the context of the prison-industrial complex as a neoliberal placeholder for the commodification of subjects into state property, a young black man – particularly in a black hoody – is, as Jennifer James put it, always and only perceived to be on his way in or out of prison. Regarding a desire for justice, and the role of prison in this equation, Lindsay Davis, who works in and on prison abolition, posed the question: If one supports an agenda of prison abolition, how are we then to arrive at “justice” in the Zimmerman/Martin case, if not by imprisoning Zimmerman?

An undergraduate student brought up the slippery question of motivation or “intent” in the context of the case. This led to a very helpful explanation of what Tony Lopez called a fetishization of intent, which we should be wary of as something that the media loves to do but which is, in the final analysis, beside the point. Fetishizing intent in fact colludes with the underlying structural problems at work by creating a sensational distraction, and giving the public a target for cathexis. Tony referenced the film Fruitvale Station as an aesthetic critical response to such ideas about intention in the many scenes of Oscar Grant’s everyday life.

To further develop the problem of fetishizing intent, Dr. Melanie McAlister from American Studies noted that the vilification of Zimmerman as the exemplary horrible racist can lead to a covering-over of everyday racism, where small or unconsciously performed acts of racism can even become justified or self-justifying because, “look, how awful! I’m not like him (Zimmerman)!” This brings us back to the problem of how to achieve “justice,” then, if we are (a) seeking prison abolition and (b) seeking to avoid a covering-over of diffuse and pervasive modes of structural racism by indicting the exemplary instances of cases of lethal racist violence.

Image from :

Where do we go from here?

The question “where do we go from here?” feels at once strange and pressing. Strange because the time and place that “here” points to seems somehow so historically and legally overdetermined. Also pressing because this past year, which marked the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington not only gave us the Zimmerman/Martin ruling, but also the similarly structured and handled murders of Renisha McBride and Jonathan Ferrel, all of which bring into starkly ironic relief questions as to the nation’s progress on questions of racial and economic justice over the last half-century.

Also of importance to this question is the space and role of the academy, as a place where teaching and writing about racial violence can happen, and also a place that needs more, in terms of emotional support, and space for grief. Circling back to the feelings that prompted this roundtable, Jennifer James pointed out that we live in a culture that knows very well how to make a spectacle of suffering, but does not have ways that create space for grief, which makes the problem of having space for black grief overwhelming, because it would require so much.

If there were the beginnings of an answer to the “where do we go from here” question, it would seem that it lies with teaching about, generating awareness of, and most importantly, holding space for probing conversations that move us away from the “fetishization of intent” and toward an awareness of the embarrassing complicity with structural racism that we might participate in if we do not interrogate the terms of the rulings and assessments that our culture dishes out for us: to the point of the title of the roundtable, “On Whose Ground?”

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