From Sanford to the SHU: White Supremacy and Criminality in an Age of Mass Incarceration

by Andrew Lee

SCENE 1: Sanford, Florida. February 26th, 2012.

It’s raining as dusk falls in Sanford. Seventeen-year old Trayvon Martin is walking home from the convenience store through his father’s fiancee’s gated community. He’s talking to his girlfriend on his cell phone as he notices an SUV slowly following him. Inside is George Zimmerman, aspiring police officer and neighborhood watch member. Zimmerman suspects that Martin, a young black man, is casing the houses in the neighborhood to rob them. He’s also on his phone, talking to a dispatcher with the Sanford police department. They make eye contact. Zimmerman leaves his car to pursue Martin. When the police arrive five minutes later, Zimmerman is standing over Martin’s lifeless body, Martin dead from a gunshot to the heart. Only after weeks of protest will the state press homicide charges against Zimmerman.

SCENE 2: Pelican Bay SHU short corridor, California. Late June, 2013.

The Secure Housing Unit of Pelican Bay state prison houses people the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation considers the worst of the worst. Prisoners are kept in 12’x8′ cells for 23 hours a day for years on end. The only way to get out of the SHU is by “debriefing,” i.e. snitching to the guards about the supposed gang status of other prisoners. William, a Solano State Prison inmate, writes:

“The SHU is where you’re alone when you do something bad or not, basically [they] put you there. If the cops don’t like you they will find a reason or make something up. They put some people in there decades at a time for being in a gang, a danger to the prison and stuff. You never come out of your cell or see anyone. It’s solitary confinement… It’s like getting a term within a term or going to prison prison but it’s the cops, not a judge.”

Two years ago, thousands of prisoners went on a hunger strike to protest inhumane prison conditions; the CDCR agreed to prisoner demands but never implemented the

agreements. Prisoners in the SHU are organizing another strike to force the CDCR to live up to their words. Putting ethnic and gang divisions aside, they are uniting under the most repressive conditions to fight for marginally more humane conditions. When the strike began on July 8th, over 30,000 prisoners in three states joined, starving themselves and refusing to work. One striker wrote, “I wasn’t even hungry because I was gaining too much enlightenment. I could feel the hunger of others starving, feeding me.”

SCENE 3: Sanford, Florida. July 2013.

George Zimmerman is acquitted of all charges, even manslaughter, and walks away from court a free man. Riots break out across the country: fires set in Miami, the freeway blocked in Oakland, thousands in the street in New York City. How can there be justice for people of color in America, protesters ask, when a vigilante can stalk and kill a black young man and see no jail time at all?
Whether it’s the California prison strike or protests against the Zimmerman verdict, mass mobilizations against racism and white supremacy are energizing thousands of Americans, particularly oppressed people of color. But isn’t there a paradox here? How can we protest the injustice of Zimmerman walking free while protesting the existence of prisons like the one he would have been incarcerated in had the jury handed down a guilty verdict?

Let’s first remember that this was never really about George Zimmerman. Heck, it wasn’t even about Trayvon. Despite political pundits’ endless debates about the personal characteristics, virtues or vices, possessed by the two men, what drove the outrage around this case was the fact that the issues involved resonated with masses of people. Racism, white supremacy, property laws, and self defense are bigger than George and Trayvon, and we should never make the mistake of thinking that the decision reached by six Florida jurors is enough to vindicate or condemn the system as a whole.

And this is why I’m glad that George Zimmerman walked. Not because I think he was “innocent,” certainly not because I’m unconcerned with the pain it inevitably caused Martin’s friends and family, but because though this is the case that grabbed the attention of thousands, it’s far from the only example of the brutality of white supremacist violence. The deaths of Keaton Otis, Kendra James, and Aaron Campbell, all young Blacks, at the hands of the Portland Police Bureau caused local outrage but not national attention. CeCe MacDonald, a young Black transwoman, remains locked in a cage in Minnesota for defending herself against a white supremacist assailant. In fact, according to the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, a police officer, vigilante, or security guard kills a Black person in America every 28 hours, but precious few of these cases spark the rage at injustice that this racist system deserves. A guilty verdict would not change this fact. Nor would it bring the dead back to life.

The other end of the continuum that starts with racist vigilante and police violence is a system of mass incarceration that disproportionately imprisons poor black and brown people. It’s not just the vigilantes and cops; it’s the courts, the guards, the lawmakers and the reactionaries who support them. While liberals view the prevalence of brown bodies in prison as an unfortunate aberration, our contemporary police and security apparatus has in fact always been descended from the institutions used to keep Blacks in slavery before the Civil War. In Louisiana, for instance, a notorious plantation was converted into a state prison after Emancipation. While Black men picked cotton for armed whites on horseback when it was a plantation, at the new Angola State Prison…. well, Black men pick cotton for armed whites on horseback to this day. The slave patrols that returned escaped slaves to their owners in the antebellum South were converted to modern police forces. Since the beginning of the prison system in the late 18th through mid 19th century, reformers have critiqued its inhumanity and its inability to reduce recidivism. It’s not that people need to realize the system isn’t working. The system is working fine; it’s just that it’s a system of institutionalized racial violence, whether it’s expressed through the prison system, the police, or white vigilantism.

We anarchists oppose political, economic, and racial oppression. We do so without appealing to authorities or political parties but by directly confronting unjust institutions and, for many of us, engaging in the long, hard work of building alternative institutions proper to a free society. When we oppose the outcome of the Zimmerman trial, then, it is not because we wish to see Zimmerman in a cage. Rather, it is because we stand against the brutality of a racist system, exposed by the bodies in the street, the bodies in cages, and those who avoid the cages with impunity. This verdict is an occasion for mourning because of the dehumanizing brutality levied against people of color in this country. The mobilizations around it are an occasion for solidarity and celebration. Let’s not become enamored of reform and visibility but continue to build the solutions that will actually keep our communities safe. Whether we are working to mobilize against injustice; to create safety from interpersonal, domestic, and state violence in our community; or encouraging others to stand up together to change this system; we should fight the urge to make this about two people in a gated community and six jurors who decided on one of the men’s fate. Let’s also remember our victories along with the defeats. The past five years have seen remarkable mobilizations and politicizations of masses of people: unemployed and working-to-middle class people, mostly white, during Occupy Wall Street; the forces of organized labor who were pulled to action by the strength of OWS; and now the insurrections of people of color against the Zimmerman verdict. A critical and contingent solidarity between these groupings could create a revolutionary force with the power to radically transform this racist, capitalist society.

Liberals offer hope. Conservatives peddle fear. Let’s reach for tools and weapons.

This article appeared in the 2013 print edition of The Portland Radicle.


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