Trayvon Martin and victim blaming for hate crimes

Plies is one of the least conscious rappers I know.  Despite his cultural fifteen minutes crossing over with Gucci Mane’s fraternity party anthem “Wasted,” Plies has made music discussing his problems associated with the representation of young black men and violence. His song about Trayvon Martin covers some of the predictable landscape and I find surprisingly poignant.

Perhaps the massive resonance of the murder of Trayvon Martin is because the crime is so obscene.  The victim seems so innocent and the killer seems so enthusiastic to kill.  The crime is enraging because of the 911 tapes, the images of Martin in his football uniform, and his desperate phone call to his girlfriend.  We are invited to view a real injustice.

But of course racist killings take place all the time.  The difference is the victims are often blamed for their killing.  The usual way this is done is to associate some socially unacceptable behavior (sex, drugs, rap music, clothing) with the murdered victim and call them a “suspect.”

For people who regularly experience police harassment, the inaction taken probably seems like a confirmation that the system works against you.  For people who do experience privilege of not having to regularly deal with police (corrupt and otherwise) the inaction taken against Zimmerman probably seems like a grotesque aberration of the system.

Both of these groups of people will don hoodies to march for justice for Trayvon.  A big part of that anger is fueled by the perception that this violence was exceptional.  I would argue that it is ordinary.  What is exceptional in the Trayvon Martin case is that the victim blaming is particularly hard. *

Lets take a quick look at the ways the press and police did Sean Bell dirty after he was killed.  Undercover police officers shot fifty bullets into Bell’s car the night before his 2006 wedding.

Five of the seven officers investigating the club were involved in the shooting. Detective Paul Headley fired one round, Officer Michael Carey fired three, Officer Marc Cooper fired four, Officer Gescard Isnora fired eleven, and veteran officer Michael Oliver emptied two full magazines, firing 31 shots from a 9mm handgun and pausing to reload at least once.

via Sean Bell shooting incident – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

Although Sean Bell’s case is used as an example of police misconduct, there was a lengthy series of public relations attempts to blame Bell for the murders.

Initially it was claimed that the officers were afraid of gun violence from Bell and his companions.  Never found a gun or evidence that there had been a gun in the car.

Then the press and police pointed out that that Bell had been legally intoxicated at the time he took the wheel, usually adding in that he was drunk at a strip club.    In essence suggesting that Bell had been shot because he had been drinking and driving or cavorting with strippers.

Michael Wilson from the New York Times makes this idiotic statement:

Further, trial testimony showed that Mr. Bell may have played some role, however unwitting, in the shooting, as he was drunk by legal standards when he pressed down on the accelerator of his fiancée’s Nissan Altima and struck Detective Isnora in the leg in an attempt to flee.

via Sean Bell Case.

Despite being a poster case for injustice, the victim blaming helped to let the police killers go free.   The cops were acquitted because they were found to be confused and it’s okay to kill people if it’s a mistake.  Scratch that, it’s okay to empty your magazine into a car and then reload and empty the second magazine into the car before figuring out what is going on.

But yesterday something interesting happened.  The cops who killed Sean Bell, some eight years ago were finally released from their jobs as cops.  One is getting fired!  Huh?  I wonder if the public scrutiny in the Trayvon Martin case raised up enough public discussion to pressure the New York Police Department to clean house.


For an interesting view on the construction of public information.  Check out the discussions about the editing of the Sean Bell Wikipedia page.  Note the battle over how to talk about Sean Bell’s arrest record.  Fascinating discussions about what to include and how to write the information.   A great place to view the articulation of victim blaming.


* Of course victim blaming isn’t impossible in the case of Trayvon Martin.  Check out Geraldo Riviera making the worst version of this argument.

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Filed under communication, hip hop, human rights, learning, memorial, police, propaganda, race, representation

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