Spring 2014 Unit for Criticism Faculty Lecture, Lisa Cacho: "Criminalizing the Dead"
Guest Writer: Rohini S. Singh

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

posted under by Unit for Criticism

[On April 21, the Unit for Criticism & Interpretive Theory hosted a Spring 2014 faculty lecture, "Criminalizing the Dead." The speaker was Lisa Cacho (Latina/o Studies, Asian American Studies) and other faculty member, Margareth Etienne (Law), responded. Below are reflections on the event from graduate student affiliate Rohini S. Singh (Communication)]

"Victims as Villains: Criminalizing the Dead"

Written by: Rohini S. Singh (Communication)

The central issue of Lisa Cacho’s talk was the differential treatment of people on the basis of race in criminal cases. Drawing on arguments developed in her award winning book, Social Death: Racialized Rightlessness and the Criminalization of the Unprotected (NYU Press, 2012), Cacho traced the troubling application of legal doctrines such as ‘stand your ground’ and self-defense in cases which featured victims of color. Through a discussion of two case studies, the 2000 murder of high school student Raul Aguirre by Armenian gang members in Los Angeles, and the 2012 shooting of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmermann in Florida, she argued that victims of color are regularly denied the status of ‘victim’ and are instead cast as the guilty parties.

A shrine to Raul Aguirre, killed on May 5, 2000
Through analyses of media coverage and court proceedings in the 2000 Aguirre case, Cacho illuminated how the actions of the Armenian gang members in this case were depicted by their lawyers as acts of insecurity brought on by a need to perform and imitate the violent attributes of their Mexican victim. Their lawyer attributed their act of killing to their enactment of a “macho psychosis” caused by interacting with a young Mexican man. Seen through this lens, the aggression displayed by the Armenian gang members was an expression of a type of psychological disorder of machismo commonly associated with Mexican manhood and brought on by associating with a Mexican man. By naturalizing and pathologizing the macho syndrome as native to Mexican culture, the defense lawyers effectively made Aguirre the one to blame for his own death. “Acting like a Latino” became the self-defense claim for the Armenians: they were not to blame, their victim was. 
July 12, 2013. Defense Attorney Mark O'Mara holds up
a chart titled "Self-defense burden of proof" during
closing arguments in Zimmerman's trial

Similarly, Cacho pointed out how the prosecution in the George Zimmermann-Trayvon Martin case focused not on proving the criminality of Zimmermann’s actions but on assuring the jury that Martin was in fact not a criminal – suggesting that if he had been a black criminal, Zimmermann’s actions would have been defensible and unproblematic. The defense team, faced with a black victim, chose to make sense of the situation by casting the victim as a criminal and his shooter “a would be hero defending his and his neighbors’ property.” Thus, the focus of the trial was on Zimmermann’s misreading of Martin as a criminal, rather than on Martin as a victim and Zimmermann his killer. In this view of the situation, both the prosecution and defense agreed that Zimmermann’s actions would have been justifiable if he had killed an actual criminal – his “fear” of the threat apparently posed by Martin was depicted as the understandable reactions of the “reasonable racist” faced with a perceived threat.

Indeed, Cacho contended that the legal system provides a justification for using deadly force against people of color in all situations by criminalizing even those who are killed. Death does not exempt a non-white person from criminalization, because, as Cacho put it, the legal system “necessitates, naturalizes, and requires discrimination” against marginalized groups, making it not only impossible to address their needs (such as their need to be presumed innocent until proven guilty), but legal – in the case of George Zimmermann, even civically imperative – for others to discriminate against them. In the process, non-white victims are cast as criminals who made poor life decisions which brought harm upon themselves. Such a narrative works to depict those who kill non-white individuals as inadvertent heroes while rendering their victims the threatening –and thus guilty— figures. This criminalization of the dead, stated Cacho, renders them ineligible for full personhood and positions them as undeserving of rights, empathy, and compassion within a rubric of rightlessness to which white individuals are never subjected. 

Picking up on Cacho’s comment that the law can have racist connotations even if race is never mentioned, Margareth Etienne offered two points of discussion on race and the law. 

The first point had to do with how we assess the illegality of certain practices. Constitutional lawyers distinguish between the law as it is applied and the law per se, or as it is written. Cacho’s work, observed Etienne, looks at the law as applied, the “law in the courts” as opposed to in books, and shows how a law may be illegal on the basis of how it is applied. For instance, said Etienne, an under-discussed aspect of ‘self-defense’ in the Zimmermann-Martin case was the legal notion that no person may use deadly force if they are the aggressor/initiator in the situation. The aggressor requirement tells us that one cannot claim self-defense if he/she started the altercation in question. Hence, defendants are careful to portray victims as the aggressors, a move which takes on a particularly discriminating role when the victim is black/brown. In effect, that person (the victim) gets a headstart as the aggressor and is assumed to be the aggressor merely for occupying a black/brown body. Thus, Etienne contended that the notion of requiring an aggressor is not a racially neutral law, both as written and as implemented.

Etienne then invited the audience to consider the legal concept of proxies in the context of the Zimmermann-Martin case. In the version of events popularized by the media and crafted in the courtroom, Martin stood in as a proxy for all African American men. Thus, Zimmermann did not mean to kill Martin per se, but rather the class of people Martin was assumed to belong to and for whom he stood. Zimmermann killed a trope, a category of persons typically construed as aggressors, so he made a ‘reasonable’ mistake. Indeed, Cacho had noted that even the prosecutors and media focused on whether Zimmermann was justified in believing Martin was up to no good, rather than on whether Zimmermann’s actions were justifiable in themselves, without reference to his victim’s race or to the category of criminals he assumed his victim to be part of. As Etienne asked the audience, “what if Martin was a thief, a hoodlum? In what world would it be acceptable to follow, tackle, and kill that person? It wouldn’t be.” She thus exhorted the audience to consider those who deserve rights and the presumption of innocence, not to be attacked and criminalized on the basis of their race rather than their actions. 

The question and answer session that followed saw Cacho and Etienne engage the audience on questions of the former’s method in selecting texts and narratives for analysis, as well as possible parallels between the cases discussed and other acts of racialization, such as the ‘Middle Eastern Manhunt’ following the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. In responding to the question of parallels with other cases, Cacho noted that terrorism is also racialized in the US, and that after the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murray Federal Building in Oklahoma, the U.S. created laws that essentially targeted Middle Eastern men, rather than addressing the threat of white terrorism, which was to blame in that situation.

Cacho’s talk was part of the Unit for Criticism’s ongoing 2014 series of seminar meetings and events around the topic, “Critical Inequalities” series sponsored by the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory. The series consists of talks and seminars held throughout Spring 2014, culminating in a 2 day conference on Critical Inequalities from May 9-10. The next Critical Inequalities event is a seminar to be held on Monday April 28 at 8pm in the IPRH building.


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