Spring 2014 Unit for Criticism Faculty Lecture, Lisa Cacho: "Criminalizing the Dead"
Response by Margareth Etienne
Monday, June 2, 2014
posted under criminalization , legal system , Lisa Cacho , Margareth Etienne , proxies , racism , Trayvon Martin by Unit for Criticism
[On April 21, the Unit for Criticism & Interpretive Theory hosted a Spring 2014 faculty lecture, "Criminalizing the Dead." The lecture was delivered by Lisa Cacho (Latina/o Studies, Asian American Studies. The response by Margareth Etienne (Law) is published below.]
“Excerpts from A Response to Dr. Lisa Cacho’s ‘Criminalizing the Dead’”
Written by Margareth Etienne (Law)
|A group of teenagers getting stop-and-frisked on |
Seneca Avenue, Bronx, on their way home from
school on September 2012. (Photo: Pearl Gabel)
There is a lot to be said about this work but I want to share with you today a few thoughts that have been churning over and over in my mind over the last couple weeks as I have been contemplating what I, as a criminal law scholar, could contribute to this conversation. Like much engaging scholarship, Cacho has leads us to re-envision old problems in new ways.
I want to invite you to think about the legal concept of proxies and how they elucidate a point that Cacho already makes quite forcefully.
Consider Trayvon Martin, for example, and the trial of his killer, George Zimmerman. It is uncontested that Zimmerman intentionally and purposely killed Martin. Zimmerman argued at trial that he shot Martin in self-defense. Martin, who he suspected was about to commit a crime, was armed with a sidewalk that he could have used at any moment during their scuffle to bash Zimmerman’s head in. Cacho points to the Zimmerman case as one example of the “criminalization” of the dead victim, Trayvon Martin.
|Mural at Venice Beach. (Photo: Rickerl)|
|A young man wearing a T-shirt commemorating the|
shooting death of 17-year-old Jordan Davis.
Because George Zimmerman killed that “trope” or category of persons, he almost by definition, killed the wrong-doer in the conflict. He himself could not then be the criminal wrong-doer. That trope, that of the young African-American man (in this case) has, as Cacho puts it, been “rendered permanently rightless in the U.S.” and “denied the presumption of innocence.” So here is where we are made to sympathize with the Zimmermans and the Dunns (another case Cacho uses as illustration) because they made a so called “reasonable” mistake of mistaken identification. In his hoodie, with his gait, in the wrong neighborhood, Trayvon was “impersonating” a criminal. In Dunn’s eyes, Davis was impersonating a “dissed” macho gang rival.
As Cacho wisely notes--and she is exactly right in this – even the prosecutors and purportedly objective media have adopted variants of this view. The question in Zimmerman’s case soon became whether Zimmerman was justified in believing that Martin, unarmed, was up to no good and whether that belief was racially biased.
|President Barack Obama pauses as he speaks about|
the death of Trayvon Martin on July 19, 2013. (Photo:
Cases like Trayvon Martin’s garner significant media attention. They do so in part because the victim is innocent, unarmed, young, a good student, with devoted parents. But lots of other children need and deserve protection too.
It is telling that in an early media speech following the Zimmerman verdict, President Barack Obama explained:
You know when Trayvon Martin was first shot I said that this could have been my son. Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago. And when you think about why, in the African American community at least, there’s a lot of pain around what happened here. I think it’s important to recognize that the African American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away... There are very few African American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me. There are very few African American men who haven’t had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happens to me–-at least before I was a senator. There are very few African Americans who haven’t had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off. That happens often.
Well implicit in that statement is that these micro-aggressions are unwarranted and that these victims of discrimination are innocent are wrongly accused.
|Trayvon Martin in an undated family photo. Courtesy|
of Sybrina Fulton.
What Cacho’s work examines here, and the importance of her work, is to give voice not only to the innocent victims mistaken in our criminal justice system for wrong-doers by virtue of their race or color or gender or neighborhoods. Cacho speaks up here for the benefit of those people who are not “INNOCENT” but who also deserve rights, deserve the presumption of innocence, and right not to be discarded.