Now Is Another Opportunity to Reimagine Justice

I spent late Saturday night (while my neighbors were belting out Oasis’s “Wonderwall” to bad guitar accompaniment) watching Twitter and Facebook. The Zimmerman verdict (not guilty of either manslaughter or murder II) was out, and folks were outraged.

“Not everything about race, dumbasses!” one person said.

“Our justice system is broken!” said another.

“No one in their right mind could say the prosecution proved beyond a doubt that Zimmerman didn’t fear for his life. That’s the letter of the law!” said a third.

“Another black kid is dead, and Don West is crowing happily,” raged another.

Whether or not Zimmerman made assumptions based on race, or had a racial motive in killing Trayvon Martin (I can’t say), this trial did have racial importance to me. It’s very rare for the death of a child of color to get national attention on this level. For violence between two self-identifying people of color to make national news for this long, for people to give a damn about it for longer than the 15-second clip on the local morning news? I saw this as a (fucking tragic) opportunity to see people show some compassion for a dead (black) kid, and to get to be a little internally conflicted in their feelings about Zimmerman.

As for the outcome of the trial, that’s complicated for me. I don’t like our punitive justice system. I don’t wish prison on anybody. I wish for rehabilitation and healing. I wish that we could acknowledge that a crime was committed without the next question being, “How will they pay/suffer for that crime?”

Because Zimmerman will, undoubtedly, be punished. They won’t go to jail, but how is this person going to be able to live in peace? People are likely to torment them for a very, very long time for the death of that child. They’re going to get death threats. They’re going to receive supporting letters from hate groups they may want no part in (how revolting is that?). They’re likely to be beat up and harassed.

None of this will bring Trayvon back, which people almost certainly acknowledge. (I hope…) It also, however, doesn’t promote anyone’s healing and health. I know absolutely nothing about Zimmerman’s state of mind, but is violent communication and action how we really think people learn right from wrong? How people are convinced of our viewpoints? I also cannot step into the head of parents who have lost their child. Will this emotional violence on the part of others help them heal?

Worse yet, I doubt that we as individuals will say at some point, “Okay, he’s suffered enough; our desire for punishment has been met.” I’ve seen a lot of people weight how much damage they individually have inflicted more highly than the sum total of everyone’s retribution.

As usual with these sorts of cases (and as often doesn’t happen, even in my social media circles), I want to see dialog about how we can reimagine a justice system that actually meets our needs.

If “our justice system is broken”, then how do you want to see it change, even if that preference is still for punitive action?

If “the letter of the law” was upheld, is that okay? Is that a system you have trust in, a set of laws you feel reflect your values?

If “not everything is about race”, how did this case resonate with you, and how can we make that more discussed?

If “Don West is crowing happily” despite the death of a kid, what does that say about our society at-large, in how we perceive success and victory?

Whether we can radically and practically change our justice system or not, I’m learning that if we can’t even conceive of parts of a better system, then we haven’t really examined our needs. Instead, we’re mired in reactivity, swinging in the breeze to every impetus that comes our way.