Since the murder of George Floyd, the usual far-right agitators have rushed to claim he deserved to die, just as they did when Trayvon Martin died, when Michael Brown died, and when Eric Garner and Sandra Bland died.
Why are these victims tried as perpetrators in the court of public opinion? Might it have something to do with the color of their skin? Does it have something to do with white America’s resolve to absolve ourselves and our government of these crimes?
This article was originally published on April 19, 2013. As always, I made minor fixes to clean up broken links and some language.
On Wednesday, Ammar Harris had his day in court here in Nevada. He’s charged with murder in the Las Vegas Strip shooting and car crash this past Feburary. After weeks of fighting extradition from California, Harris was finally brought back to Nevada to go to trial.
Now remember, Ammar Harris is on trial for murder. Yet in the first week after the shooting, some were quick to point fingers at Kenneth Cherry, one of the victims in that attack. “Oh, but he was a pimp. He was a gangster. He was asking for it!” We heard excuses for Cherry’s untimely death, and it forced his family to step forward to remind everyone that he was a slain victim, not a criminal.
What made this case even more poignant was that it was happening around the time of the one year anniversary of the murder of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida. There, George Zimmerman claimed he shot Trayvon Martin dead because he looked “threatening”. He was walking home while carrying a bag of Skittles & a bottle of iced tea when Zimmerman shot him dead.
Remember: He was the victim. He was the one shot dead.
Even though Trayvon Martin was the victim, he posthumously faced allegations of criminal wrongdoing. A Florida police chief even used Trayvon’s photo for “target practice”. And remember, he was killed for wearing a hoodie while walking home with a bag of Skittles and a bottle of iced tea.
Yesterday, Trayvon Martin’s parents sent a special message to the parents of Martin Richard, the 8 year old boy who was killed in the Boston Marathon Attack on Monday. He was watching his father finish the marathon when he was caught in the bomb blast.
In the letter, Martin’s parents wrote, “We have come to understand that the peace sign that Martin is holding in a photo being circulated throughout the media, was created in response to a lesson by his teacher about the death of our son. From our family to yours’, we are praying for you, thinking about you and will remember your son for the rest of our lives.”
“He put a shame on the family.”
The letter moved me to tears when I first read it this morning. Sadly, so did this. After facing a full media swarm descend upon his house, Ruslan Tsarni strongly condemned his nephews for their likely role in the Boston Marathon Attack.
Apparently, I wasn’t alone. Joan Walsh [then, a Salon editor] was thinking about the same thing. It’s the dark underbelly of American culture that always emerges after a tragedy like this one.
As Walsh noted, “It was a window on an ancient American story: the anguish of immigrants when one of their own becomes notorious, and shames not only his family, but his entire ethnic group.” And as Ruslan Tsarni himself explained to reporters, “He put a shame on the Tsarni family. He put a shame on the entire Chechen ethnicity. It has nothing to do with Chechnya.”
As always, immigrants got scapegoated.
I’ll add that this isn’t even limited to immigrants. As mentioned above, the families of Trayvon Martin and Kenneth Cherry have had to take to the media to clear their names, despite the fact that they were the victims!
Still, this has allowed the “tea party” to throw a giant, xenophobic monkey wrench into the pursuit of comprehensive immigration reform in Congress. Following Reps. Steve King’s (R-Iowa) and Louie Gohmert’s (R-Texas) respective nonsensical and unhinged attempts to tie the Boston Attack to the “Gang of Eight” immigration reform bill, fellow “tea party” icon Ann Coulter chimed in with another insensitive, nonsensical, and unhinged rant. This has even forced Senator Marco Rubio (R-Florida) to beg his fellow Republicans not to engage in any more mindless speculation that only results in more xenophobia and more trouble. Unfortunately for Rubio, his request seems to be falling on deaf ears.
Actually, we know the two named suspects had been living in America for over a decade. And the one who was shot dead this morning had become a permanent legal resident in 2007. But of course, that won’t stop the “tea party” from trying to take advantage of this tragedy and (mis)use it to shoot down comprehensive immigration reform.
When we rush to punish the innocent, we only create more tragedies and more victims.
Herein lies the problem. We’re all too often to react to tragedy with prejudice, and that prejudice only serves to hamper efforts to recover. We saw this earlier in the week as some “internet detectives” and media sensationalists were falsely accusing people of Monday’s attack. But now that we know the names of two suspects (and one of them has already died in a shootout with police), the same media sensationalists are already jumping to wrong conclusions again as family members of the suspects have had to issue condemnations to quell any backlash against Muslims and ethnic Chechens.
Certainly, it looks increasingly like these suspects committed a very heinous crime and hurt many innocent people. However, their uncle and aunt are not to blame. Neither are other Chechen Americans living peacefully in this country. And neither are the many Muslim Americans who live peacefully in this country, just like the rest of us.
Yet again, a vicious cycle of bigotry and xenophobia is playing out. We can only hope enough people speak against this nonsense and debunk the madness before it causes any more problems. Haven’t we seen enough victims hurt this week?
Postscript: The “clear and present danger” of backpacks
The conversation has shifted from the ordinance to a discussion of the underlying issues. @LawrenceWeekly says "we're also seeing a systemic issue that helps lay communities of color for decade after decade after decade."
— Daniel Rothberg (@danielrothberg) June 3, 2020
Yesterday, the Clark County Commission and the Las Vegas City Council both discussed proposed ordinances to ban backpacks at protests. At Las Vegas City Hall, the council rushed to pass the new backpack rule unanimously. But at Clark County Government Center, what Metro Police presented as a seemingly simple safety measure instead turned into a larger discussion on First Amendment free speech rights and what exactly constitutes a “deadly weapon”.
At the Clark County Commission meeting, ACLU Nevada Executive Director Tod Story noted the very disparity we noticed earlier this week. While law enforcement agencies were far more hands-off in overseeing the pro-Trump rallies that emerged after President Donald Trump began attacking state and local COVID-19 shutdown orders, we’ve seen a far more harsh crackdown on Black Lives Matter protests here in Nevada and nationwide.
What does it say about us and our municipal authorities that instead of seeing the emergency for what it is and acting accordingly, the City of Las Vegas took swift action against the “menacing threat” of backpacks and purses? And what does it say about our state that state officials moved heaven and earth in order to reopen casinos while leaving municipal authorities to take their own diverging paths in responding to the Black Lives Matter protests?
Postscript, continued: Let’s remember the true victims and the real perpetrators here.
Today, we launched #8cantwait.
Together, these 8 use of force policies decrease police violence by up to 70%.
No act of Congress or executive order needed. Mayors just need to do the right thing. Our lives are at stake.
— brittany packnett cunningham does not do remixes. (@MsPackyetti) June 3, 2020
Even though he himself was once arrested for assaulting a police officer, former Nevada Attorney General (and possible future perennial candidate) Adam Laxalt (R) continues to parrot Trump’s calls for militarized crackdowns on the protests. Even though his own department arrested three white “Boogaloos” who attempted to contribute to the violence that marred protests last weekend (we’ll have more on them later), U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr continues to “get too specific” in blaming Antifa for any and all violence.
Even though George Floyd was the one shot dead last month, some in the far right prefer to paint him as some allegedly “dangerous criminal” to justify his death by asphyxiation. It’s horrifying and infuriating to see victims portrayed as “criminals” while perpetrators are being “rebranded” as “victims”. So what will we do about it?
You have constitutional rights, regardless of what anyone claims. If you are in need of legal assistance, check with the Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada, Washoe Legal Services, Volunteer Attorneys for Rural Nevadans, and the Nevada Supreme Court’s Self-help Center. If you’d like to help during this time of need, check out the ACLU of Nevada, PLAN’s Las Vegas Freedom Fund, Black Lives Matter, Color of Change, and additional organizations across the nation who need our support.