Looking Back and Looking Forward: Trayvon & the Quest for Justice

mother child

People who know me know that I am not a particularly emotional person.  I’ve been known to raise my voice in the work context, but more often because I am not being heard than in anger.  Though I have had moments … those could be the subject of another post. Believe me, though, when I say that last night’s verdict was devastating.  Devastating to someone who has spent most than two decades working for justice:  for women, for immigrants, for people of color, for lgbt people, for Native people, for survivors of domestic and sexual violence and stalking, for people with disabilities, for poor people.  But more than that, it was personally devastating because I am the mother of a black son, and the proud aunt of 3 black nephews.

I guess I’m this upset because I unwittingly drank the Kool-Aid.  Some of my friends and colleagues have been saying for weeks, actually, that the trial was already over and that Zimmerman would go free.  I couldn’t believe that.  I simply could not let myself believe it.  To do so would be to negate my son’s simple humanity; his right to exist.  As he often does, Alex asked me this morning, “are you alright, mommy?”  “No,” I answered him … “no, I am not.”    And I began to explain how our judicial  system  failed us yesterday.  In all honesty, though, it’s impossible to explain to a 5 year how awful, how terrible, how unjust and simply inhumane yesterday’s decision was.  I take this decision very personally, not only as the mother of a little black boy, but simply as a mother.  Because I was holding out hope that the women on that jury who were mothers could  see that they shared a common badge of motherhood with Sybrina Fulton.  Could give her some small measure of peace despite the fact that no decision they made would ever give her the one thing she truly wanted.  But I was wrong.  We’ll likely never know what those women saw, or thought or believed, but it is pretty apparent that did not, would not or could not bring themselves to acknowledge that the case was centrally about the murder of someone’s child, someone’s son.  I’m not sure they acknowledged Trayvon’s humanity at all.  What they did do was to ratify the lawless vigilante mentality that is enshrined in a stand your ground law.  They made it ok to kill a young unarmed black boy because you find him threatening and believe that he has no business walking through your neighborhood, even if he lives there.  They made it ok, to stalk and confront these “threats” in the middle of the night, then claim victimhood for yourself when an altercation ensues and you take a human life, even after you’re told to stay in your car.  They made it ok to devalue the life of a kid, who was doing what kids do — coming home from the store after getting a snack, and talking on the phone.

A friend asked if I was okay last night, and I responded that I wasn’t.  I’m still not.  Not only because Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton were denied the simple measure of justice that they deserved, but because I fundamentally do not know what I am supposed to tell my son, and how I am supposed to keep him safe. Don’t get me wrong.  There is quite literally a near formula  for what you tell young black males about how to carry themselves, how to stay out of trouble and show respect for authority, and how low the expectations of the justice system — particularly in the south– are where they are concerned.   But I feel that I won’t have told him enough if that’s all that I share.

I won’t have done my job well until Alex knows that the justice system itself — the system represented by justice blindfolded– is a system that was designed to mistrust him, label him, and to protect others from him.  I will have to tell him about how, when he was two, he let himself out of our townhouse in suburban Virginia.  How I discovered our front door ajar and him nowhere to be seen.  How five minutes later I, saw and flagged down a police officer just as I was about to dial 911.  As it turned, out, she was responding to a call from someone who had found him and taken him to their apartment.  Ultimately, I found myself explaining to a second officer  that I had been getting ready for work while Alex, who I’d left playing in the living room, had let himself out and that, no, it hadn’t happened before. And then “IT” happened.  The “it” that I will have to impress upon Alex over and over until he understands it reflexively.  The very “it” that happened in the Zimmerman trial happened to me as I stood on the sidewalk talking to the policeman.  I, the person who had sought his help, who had thought that he was there to help me, became the suspect.  The suspicious party.  The person on trial.  The policeman suggested that I had been negligent, had let Alex wander away, and added to that that I was not behaving as the many other mothers in similar circumstances with whom he’d interacted had behaved.  I had not only become a bad mother, I had become the anti-mother, someone who had wronged her child, rather than someone who had sought his help.  Given that I was standing in northern Virginia having this tete a tete, you may imagine that the majority of the other moms to whom he referred were white.  And here I was, being told by the people to whom I was looking for assistance that not only had I “allowed” Alex to escape, but that I was failing to react the right way.  Until and unless I can drive home with Alex that this is the skepticism with which people of color generally, and in particular young black men are greeted by law enforcement, I will have failed him.  I note with some irony that women are often taken less seriously when they react hysterically or emotionally, but that I was being viewed suspiciously by the cop precisely because I was not reacting that way.  Until he understands that as in that situation, cops are not there to protect us, but to protect others from us, my job will not be done.  Let me be clear:  I have cops in my family.  My point is not that all cops mistrust, or mistreat, or violate their oaths to the public (a la Rodney King, the LA rampart), but that you have no way of knowing which one you’ll get, so you must meet and treat them with equal parts of suspicion and respect. It’s worth pointing out that the cop in this story was black.  So, if he wasn’t able to see my humanity or to see me as a worried mother despite the fact that I wasn’t falling apart, I’m not sure who would have been better placed to do so.

trayvon emmit

As I said to a friend last night:  “Tonight, we grieve.  Tomorrow, we plot a revolution.”  And tomorrow is upon us, good people, so it is time to rise and make our voices heard so that Trayvon, Emmit Till and the thousands of other Trayvons and Emmits whose names we will never know, will not have died, been profiled, or stopped and frisked in vain.  We do this first by showing up. Show up when Planned Parenthood clinics are being picketed, when Donald Trump is meeting with the RNC , when Arabs and Muslims are being profiled and harassed on planes, or when trans folks are being harassed about which bathroom they use. And be clear:  if you are silent, you are saying you are ok with the status quo.  If you are silent about NC, then you are ok with domestic and sexual violence survivors being at risk if NC’s bigotry costs survivors access to the services that the Violence Against Women Act requires be made available in a non-discriminatory way.

Most importantly, show up by embracing community and acknowledging that if the George Zimmermans of the world have carte blanche to harm Sabryna’s child, then mine is not safe; if LGBT people in NYC are being profiled, then injustice against them is injustice against me;  and if a survivor of violence can be jailed for 20 years for firing a warning shot into a ceiling to defend herself against an abuser against whom she had a protective order, then none of us is safe; if brown people in the southwest can be stopped on suspicion of “looking foreign” then all our rights are at risk; if Arabs and Muslims, and South Asians are being harassed because they are “deemed” to be a threat to security, then no one is secure.   The next thing we do is organize, organize, organize so that the rubber stamps who keep mindlessly enacting these dangerous stand your ground laws gets voted out of office, and someone with an encompassing vision that sees us and embraces our communities gets elected, instead.

As Martin Luther King said, “Injustice anywhere, is a threat to justice everywhere.”  The time for talking the talk is long over.  Where and how will you be counted?  When your children, your nieces, nephews, grandchildren or community ask for your help, what will you say?  When they ask what you did after the Trayvon verdict, what will your answer be?  Stand up and be counted as if our children’s lives depended on it … because they do.


Roe at 41: Abortion, Buffer Zones & Unintended Consequences

PrologueAdded 1.22.14

As we mark the 41st anniversary of Roe v. Wade, a significant amount of court activity has taken place since my most recent post on the subject last summer (July 2013):  From the L.A. Times (1.13.14):  “Without comment, the justices [of the Supreme Court] turned down Arizona’s appeal of a lower-court ruling that blocked a law that would have limited legal abortions to 20 weeks. Last year, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals blocked the law from taking effect on grounds that it conflicted with Roe vs. Wade. … It is the third setback for abortion opponents in this court term. The justices also turned down Oklahoma’s defense of two antiabortion measures. One would have prohibited the use of one drug that is used to induce an abortion in the first weeks of a pregnancy. A second would have required costly ultrasound tests for women seeking an abortion.”

And the beat goes on.  I was in the Court last week for the argument of McCullen v. Coakley, a Massachusetts case re:  the appropriate size for a buffer zone, the area around a repro. health clinic that must be kept clear to enable people to enter and leave without interference.  There was a lot of backing and forthing re: the size of the buffer zone, which is currently 35′.  There was also a significant discussion re:  the free speech rights of pro-life advocates and how they were not shouting protestors and just wished to speak quietly to the women entering the building.  The thing they missed was this:  the places where women go to get abortions performed are not abortion clinics, per se … They are typically Planned Parenthood clinics that provide abortions among a myriad of other services.  According to Planned Parenthood themselves, just 3% of the health services they provide are abortion services.  Meaning that the bulk of the services they provide AND the bulk of the people seeking services from that clinic are not abortion-related.  Is it only people like me who are are lucky enough to have private health insurance who deserve not to be accosted or intercepted as we seek services that, as a statistical matter, are unlikely to be the ones the accosters — the Supreme Court arguments revealed that often the skirmishes that take place at the clinics involve both pro-choice and pro-life folks, alike — are accosting about?  Curiously, there is a major yet hidden class issue afoot.  By its reckoning, Planned Parenthood serves a population 78% of which is comprised of people with incomes at or below 150 percent of the federal poverty level.  I hope, even as I fear it’s true, that women don’t actively avoid seeking routine and preventative care because they don’t want to run a gauntlet that’s completely unrelated to the reason they’re there.  They deserve protection too, don’t you think?



Is it just me, or does this political cartoon capture a very large slice of what or who has been dominating the discussion in our capitols — state and federal — and what’s been making us crazy enough to take to the streets, lately?  I had intended to talk about both guns and abortion in this post, but it seems like every day for the last several weeks, something new has cropped on the repro. rights front.  So part 1 will talk about abortion, and raise some limited issues re:  guns, and in a forthcoming part 2, I will wrap up by looking more closely at what’s happened (or not) on the gun front since the Sandy Hook slayings took place last December.

It seems odd, the country having just celebrated its 237th birthday, that we find ourselves in much the same place that we were nearly 2 1/2 centuries ago:  struggling over how to define and protect  life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.   Less surprising, perhaps, is that the fact that neither of the two issues that have spurred the greatest recent political activities –guns and abortion — are explicitly addressed in our Constitution.

The second amendment is focused on citizen ownership of guns only insofar as it relates to the need for armed citizen militias comprised  to defend the state, and not connected to individual ownership writ large.  Privacy rights in the Constitution found their way onto the scene in the late 19th century when Justice Brandeis spoke of “the right to be left alone.”  Personal privacy issues involving family matters, contraception and reproductive issues had their genesis in a series of cases that began in the 1960’s with Griswold v. Connecticut.   

In recent years, the federal level has been relatively quiet on the abortion/guns issues.  Not because the U.S. Senate didn’t try to pass a gun safety law earlier this year, and not because the House didn’t pass an abortion restriction bill last month.  The problem is that with different parties in control of the two houses of Congress, neither house has been able to pass anything that the other side would be willing to take up, if they’ve passed anything at all.  So, the states have become a hotbed of activity, particularly where one party controls both the statehouse and the governor’s mansion.


Salon magazine has just written an article that describes the ten worst states for women to live in terms of abortion restrictions.  Of those ten states, nine have passed new laws this year to supplement already existing restrictions.  In the 10th state, Oklahoma — already home to a ban on abortions at 20 weeks, requirements of pre-abortion counseling and a required 24 hour waiting period — the newest challenge, preventing abortions induced by medicine as against surgery, has been held up  in litigation for the last two years.  Among the remaining nine, a number have similar goals whether  forcing the closure of clinics by requiring that clinic doctors have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals and/or that clinics have transfer privileges, or regulating the facilities out of existence by requiring costly, though unnecessary changes. North Dakota’s new laws merit special mention as the most sweeping and egregious.  Of the several bills signed into law this year, one criminalizes abortions performed after a fetal heartbeat is detected, as early as six weeks.  Also in the queue is a ballot initiative which will ask voters to decide whether life begins at conception.  And finally, adding to the ten states described in the article, we have Wisconsin.  On July 5th, Wisconsin’s governor signed into law a bill that required that clinic physicians having admitting privileges at a nearby hospital and that also required that women seeking abortions have an ultrasound before having one.   Texas made the list of ten, and has kicked off its second special session with the Texas House passing its restrictive bill on July 10.

Unlike the guns issue, which came back onto the scene 9 months ago after a long period of lying dormant, the abortion issue is not a new one.  More interestingly, even some conservatives think that this latest push against abortion has gone too far on some levels.  Here’s an excerpt of what one Republican state legislator from North Dakota thinks about their latest set of restrictions:  “We have stepped over the line,” said state Rep. Kathy Hawken (R-Fargo) … “They could fund my childcare bill with what we’re going to spend on lawsuits,” she said. … Hawken, a self-proclaimed pro-life Republican, says her colleagues have also rejected measures to increase prenatal care for minors and childcare for single moms, leaving her to question the motives behind the recent legislative push.”  And the governor of North Carolina — listed in the article re:  the ten worst states — has indicated that he will not sign the pending bill that further restricts women’s access to abortion.   Whether he feels like the current bill imposes too many regulations without adequate study, or as this article suggests, he is trying to stay out of the social conservative v. pro-choice fray, the governor’s reaction is striking.  Republicans are pretty noteworthy for their party discipline, and not given to questioning the proverbial party line, particularly in front of the press.

Maybe Rep. Hawken is right to question … perhaps,  it’s a variation on the issues raised by the above cartoon:  whether some of the folks interested in these issues aren’t so much personally committed to the issue as they are politically committed.   Take the example  of Georgia and abortion.  With Republican U.S. Senator Saxby Chambliss retiring, the four candidates vying to replace him are battling for the endorsement of groups like The National Right to Life Committee and Georgia Right to Life.  Two of the three U.S. House of Representative candidates in the race voted for the House bill I wrote about last month, and a third candidate a former GA secretary of state expressed support for it as well.   The 4th candidate, the other House member,  opposed the bill because it had exceptions for rape and incest.  His opposition appears to have netted him the endorsement of Georgia Right to Life, and brought with it, the potential to pull the Georgia race farther to the right.  Races like this one give rise to a problematic level of political paralysis.  I met with a staffer last week who explained why his Republican boss was unlikely to take a public position on the issue we were talking about.  His boss was in a district where coming out one way or the other on the issue could cause someone to challenge his seat and the challenge would most likely come from the right.  Surely we’d prefer working with his boss to a “tea partier,” who would be the likely successor if he boss took a public position on the bill we discussed.

Unfortunately, what we appear to be reaping at the federal level — in the process, giving rise to a Congress that is on track to be the least productive in history — are the fruits of congressional redistricting.  As the New York Times pointed out last year, “since redistricting gives many members of Congress less competitive, more politically homogeneous districts, it is often cited as one of the factors exacerbating political polarization.”

A quick look at the chart that accompanied the NYT article tells the redistricting tale:  in states where Republicans were in charge of the redistricting process, they won an outsized number of seats relative to their total vote share.   The same was true for Democrats in states where they controlled the redistricting process.   The rub, however, is this:  Republicans controlled the redistricting process in four times as many states as Democrats did. Meh?  Check out the graph, and read on, please.

From NYT – 12.14.12: Parties Redraw the House Vote

The moral of the chart is pretty straightforward:  when states are redistricted by commissions (presumably bi-partisan ones),  R’s and D’s are elected in a manner and number that’s pretty close to the percentage of votes each party receives. Not so for partisan redistricting processes.  An additional factor (and subject of a future post) is the impact of the Supreme Court’s most recent voting rights decision.

The chart’s cautionary tale for Republicans, who controlled a much larger proportion of the redistricting in 2012,  is  “when the gods want to punish you, they answer your prayers.”  While R’s were able to draw a goodly number of safe districts, and thereby strengthen their goal of holding onto the majority in the House for several election cycles, the results seem decidedly mixed where R. incumbents are concerned, and disastrous where the prospects for a productive Congress that works toward bi-partisan ends are concerned.  In the Georgia senate race I mentioned previously, the R. field is being pulled to the right, which in a state with a rising minority population, could open the door for a moderate D. challenger.  Worse yet, if you’re perceived to be an endangered species known as a moderate Republican,  is the fact that groups like the Club for Growth are already targeting for defeat next year, R’s in safe districts who they don’t consider to be conservative enough.   See who they’ve pinned a bull’s eye on here.   Here’s the thing:  I have my own increasingly short list of moderate R’s on the House side, and the ones listed on the website as being targeted, AREN’T ON IT.  Norm Ornstein called one of the folks on the list “very conservative.”  So what we’re looking at is folks being singled out and subjected to some ideological litmus test for trying to carrying out the work of “we, the people,” by being willing to “compromise to get something done.”

And we thought we knew something about the unbearable unendingness of gridlock.  Fasten your seatbelts folks … and run, do not walk, toward any sane people or institutions working on redistricting reform.  Try these folks, and these as well, for starters.   To learn more about the recent Voting Rights Act decision by the Supreme Court, start here.  It’s the only way to bring sanity back to our legislatures and put the gynoticians out of business once, and for all!


Footnote added on July 13th.

As ever, the relentless tide of those who would roll back our freedoms continues pushing forward.  Since I published this blog on Thursday, the North Carolina House has amended a Senate abortion bill enough so that the governor has said he would sign it.  As for Texas, crazy just keeps getting crazier:  a pro-choice woman speaking at a hearing on the Texas Senate bill was cut off and dragged from the chamber.  Texas:  where they shut you down for telling the truth.  Here are some excerpts of what she didn’t get to say to the majority R Texas Senate:  “What I would say to all of the Republicans on the Senate Health & Human Services Committee is that I understand why you are so careless with our health care,” Slamen said. “You see, all of your constituency lies east of I-35, where the five clinics remaining after that bill gets passed will be. None of your constituents are west of I-35, so I guess their lives and families just don’t matter to you.”  and more importantly, “Women with two and three jobs, the 20 percent of women who might be living in the rural communities of Texas who can’t get to the capitol, caregivers, they can’t get to the hearings and stand up for their rights, and it’s obvious that all the Republicans on that committee don’t care about the right to their health care either. So someone had to say something.”

And finally because crazy can always get crazier in Texas, comes this news about the goings on at the Texas Statehouse this week:  Although the process was eventually reversed, tampons and maxi pads were being confiscated from those entering the Texas capitol to watch the abortion debated.  Concealed weapons, however, were being allowed in, as per usual.   Late last night, the Texas Senate enacted the bill that was derailed by Sen. Wendy Davis’ filibuster in the previous special session.  Expect it to be challenged in court by Planned Parenthood and others.  Reflect on what N. Dakota Rep. Hawken raises above.  How many truly pro-life bills:  ones focused on childcare, and early education and a living wage for a start, could be funded with the money being used to defend these unconstitutional attempts to restrict women’s choices?


What the ???

Cheers:  To the protesters of North Carolina who, in objecting to the rightward and downward slide of their legislators, have established “Moral Mondays,” where they head to the state capitol and protest.  Over 700 have been arrested.  For some insight into what else has been happening there beyond abortion, check out this NYT editorial.

Jeers:  After its failed bid to pass a farm bill last month — I talked about that here — the House is bringing the bill back for a vote today.  The problem is that they have severed the provisions relating to the SNAP Program, and are addressing only the farm-related provisions leaving the SNAP Program vulnerable to further attacks from the party that views providing food assistance to people, many of whom are working, as a problem.

Cheers/Jeers:  Kudos to the D.C. City Council for standing up against threats from Walmart to pull out of an agreement to build 3 stores in the city if the Council passed a bill requiring that Walmart pay its employees a living wage.   The bill now awaits action by the mayor.  I mention immediately above that a significant number of SNAP recipients are working.  Walmart has an increasingly poor reputation for not paying its employees enough or scheduling them to work enough hours to qualify them for company benefits.  Many of these employees work, yet rely on state and/or federal benefits to supplement their paychecks. Walmrt is without a doubt, without shame.