Remember: a criminal conviction is not justice

HK_Central_Statue_Square_Legislative_Council_Building_n_Themis_sWhen I found out that George Zimmerman had been acquitted of all charges in the death of Trayvon Martin, I had the feeling of having someone reach in and pull my stomach out of my body.

Then I realized something was wrong.

I couldn’t believe that I was the person hoping that Zimmerman would be convicted of murder because I am someone that knows that a criminal conviction is not all that it’s cracked up to be. I am someone who has worked against the expansion of prisons for a significant part of my adult life. I know that when it comes to young black men, prisons are one of the most harmful institutions in their lives, and pretty much all of our lives because they drain our families and communities.

I am not someone who roots for someone to go to prison. Ever. Not even in the murder of my only brother, Eddie.

Many years after my brother’s murder in 1985, two different people were convicted of the crime. The circumstances of my brother’s murder are nothing like Tryavon Martin’s, except that like Trayvon Martin’s murder (and many others) people get preoccupied with whether or not the killing was justified. And that my brother was also killed by a single bullet, fired by someone at close range.

No one has ever been convicted of specifically shooting my brother. Two people have been convicted of being central to the crime (and two more deaths related to my brother’s), and between the two of them, they spent decades in prison. It turned out that that didn’t matter when it comes to dealing with the aftermath of murder.

So then what does matter after murder? That a wonderful young man is dead, never able to have a long full life. That my family needed counseling and assistance and my mother needed an extended break from her job that she did not receive until years later, when her employer told her, “you haven’t really been the same since your son died,” and let her go after almost 20 years.

What mattered is that in our immediate community, people looked for places to be kind. It has mattered every time someone has told us he did not deserved to be killed. (Although over time, I’ve encountered people who have various explanations for why he deserved to die.)

So I know what matters and what doesn’t, yet somehow here I was, horribly sad, that Zimmerman wasn’t convicted of a crime. I felt hollow and manipulated.

Like many people, I have been “trained” to think that a criminal conviction for murder is “justice being served.” But a criminal conviction isn’t justice. Justice is when every mother’s child is valued and every family gets support after a violent death.

Yes, in my mind, that means Trayvon Martin and also George Zimmerman. Both of them, and both their families. The current system requires us to value one of these young men over the other — it requires us to punish Zimmerman to show that Martin was a valued human being.

That absolutely doesn’t mean that Zimmerman gets a pass. He does not deny that he shot Trayvon Martin, and so now he has something to make right. And although I have known some people to find ways to do positive things while they were incarcerated, what Zimmerman has to make right is out here in the world.

Our current system pushes Zimmerman to say, over and over again “I was justified” so that he doesn’t have to go to prison, and that isn’t justice. It doesn’t help us get to the truth of what happened when he could literally lose years of his life in prison for being honest about it. The threat of imprisonment is a driving force in discussions of far too many murders.

Tayvon Martin’s life mattered, and it’s not at all surprising that this court could not re-affirm that. Our current court system cannot reaffirm that for young black men. When it requires us to wish for another young man to go to prison to show that Martin was someone’s precious son, it’s especially broken.

I understand that the women on the jury were not thinking about the flaws of our system when they acquitted him. They were just going through the motions of what our system does when a person is killed — this unreasonable weighing and comparison of the lives and value of two people.

And we need to remember that this system doesn’t work. Guilty or innocent, there is much for us to do to make it better. There will be many opportunities for people to take action that matters — to listen to the grief of the Martin family, to listen to the fears and concerns of other families who have experienced murder (there’s no shortage, remember, of families who have experienced murder). To take on racist policing practices that presume guilt in young people of color, to start talking more about what reasonable responsibility looks like for anyone who leaves their home carrying a gun.

I have a certain dread I feel for all the young black boys and men I know, and their justified fear that we are drawing the outline of a target on them. And all of the parents of black youth, who live with fear for their children. And my sadness, of course, for the parents, family and community of Trayvon Martin, dead at 17.

And I need to remember that this broken jury system is not what tells me that Trayvon Martin and other young boys matter, and that I can’t reasonably hope for the system to show he was a valuable person by punishing George Zimmerman. Instead, I need to focus on what does matter.

We hold the truth of that, of what’s real and what matters, in the way to treat both these families over time, in the way that we set up alternatives that stop directing young black men into this prison pipeline. I need to remember (and to have my allies remind me) that this empty feeling I have when I don’t get the satisfaction of a conviction is just something that I’ve been trained to look for, and I need to remember what I really value. Instead, I need to not be satisfied, and to stay active working to change this system.

I spent over 20 years looking into the grieving eyes of my mother after my brother’s death. The two criminal convictions had provided a fleeting comfort to her, but eventually she realized that the people who were serving time in prison were someone else’s children. That part of her heart, at least, was not completely broken by his murder. And I can only hope for the same for the friends and family of Trayvon Martin, and for all their allies. Don’t let this take away too much of your heart, or the place where you know that everyone, no matter what they’ve done, is still someone else’s child.

A pronouncement from a judge in a system that doesn’t work would’ve just been a fleeting satisfaction, and not what matters. Instead, I have work to do.

11 Replies to “Remember: a criminal conviction is not justice”

  1. I cried when I saw Zimmerman’s mother on the stand and wondered what was happening to me. I had chosen sides already so why was I crying for her–she must be lying, right? I saw this becoming the trial of Trayvon. So much is wrong, Kathleen! I’m broken too but lifted to know we work for the same things. You say it so much better than I ever could. And you speak from an achingly authentic place. Prison did not change my cousins for the better, when as young Chicanos they were “put away for their own good.” It tore many lives apart and in fact, there was never any justice for them either. Their ‘victims’ were the properties they damaged by being part of a gang that like to tag and brag. And they came out of prison lonely men who were unable to connect with anyone who had not also been in prison. Yes, there’s a lot of work to do, mi Amiga. Paz, amor, poder.

  2. Yes, Elena, that whole, “if you care about the murder victim then you’ll want to see their killer punished” thing doesn’t work for me. I’ve also seen too many people’s lives ruined by this prison system. What shall we do about it, you and I?

    Paz, amor, poder!

  3. Kathleen – thank you! So sorry about your brother. You are awesome. Your work is important.

  4. Well said. Thank you for your honesty and willingness to share an extremely important take-away following this tragedy. Shine on.

  5. Dear Kathleen,
    I was sent your blog post through the Inside Out Prison Education Program network. I am moved by your ability to hold life dear, both Trayvon Martin’s and George Zimmerman’s. What Zimmerman did was wrong, and now it is his burden and our’s to “atone” for Trayvon’s murder. Restorative justice might have been a much better road to justice in this case–as in so many others. It might have taught Zimmerman and all of us who witness this process ways to address the racism that infuses our psyches and our institutions. Thank you for resisting the manipulation to find justice through imprisonment. –Ann

  6. Well I don’t think either of them were squeaky clean. But at the end of the day, the one guy won.

  7. Ann, you’re right to point out that there’s work for all of us to do in this, and it’s not just pointing at this one man who has done something heinous.

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