Friday, July 19, 2013

Do We Need Freedom Papers

peopleIn the wake of George Zimmerman not guilty verdict a man, in my view a vigilante, that hunted him down and killed a young black boy in his gated neighborhood. Although we know the end result of the night of the murder; we do not know all of the particulars of that night, but we do know for sure, if we can believe what we hear from the jury members, George Zimmerman did get a jury of his peers; obviously of his mindset.

As I think about history I am reminded of a time when slave catchers roamed the nation in a historical context surrounding and preceding this case. I came to realize that people of African descent who were required to carry “freedom papers” to prove they belonged when they were and when they did not produce them the encounter often ended with similar outcomes from the Zimmerman types; upholding a system of racial slavery and the bodies of laws which restricted and criminalized black mobility and autonomy.

These laws resulting in blackness being synonymous with enslavement, and the movement and activities of black people were severely curtailed. There was no right to bear arms which was banned for the purpose of control. This legal system relied upon all white colonists to police and survey black bodies. They were the eyes and ears of the law, and the courts gave them great latitude in assessing where black people could and could not be at any given time.

Overtime the criminal justice slave system became more sophisticated with the courts requiring blacks to carry documents which validated their rights to be in certain spaces and their ability to navigate their freedom to move. Enslaved people carried pieces of paper called slave passes, documents written by their owners, which indicated their destination, time of departure, arrival and return, and sometimes the purpose of their journey.

Even free people of African descent were required to carry “freedom papers” at all times to validate their free status and hence delineate the places where they could be. Any white person, regardless of their legal authority, could demand to see these documents and interrogate a black person at any time, without any justifiable cause. If the black person in question could not produce such documents, they could be arrested, beaten, maimed or murdered with impunity.

Towns and communities hired groups of white men, everyday citizens, to “patrol” Southern space, which was a more formal arm of this system of surveillance. These vigilantes had the power to control and police black movement in any way they saw fit, with the sanction of law behind their actions, no matter how brutal they might be. Black people lived in constant fear of these men that evolved into the KKK.

People of this ilk during and after Reconstruction created “Black Codes” not only sought to maintain a cheap, servile labor force throughout the South, they also criminalized black movement and were arrested for violating Black Codes. After arrest, they were fined, jailed, and often times their labor was sold to white landowners who forced them to work as though they were slaves again. Over time, this kind of law and order morphed into its most extreme and horrific manifestation; the lynching of African-Americans throughout the twentieth century.

This is the legacy of America’s racial past that is similar to George Zimmerman’s decision to kill Trayvon Martin and his acquittal. This mindset is part of the reason why black males are suspicious and criminal to many whites who assume they are “up to something” simply because they were moving through space.

Zimmerman was simply doing what many Southern whites have done for centuries and believes they are right to do so. Martin seemed out of place, and Zimmerman was going to find out where he belonged. When Trayvon Martin did not present his “freedom papers” that night, when he elected not to explain why he was where he was; he chose to confront, and Zimmerman stalked the boy and killed him because it was “God’s plan”.

The Police department seemed to agree with Zimmerman’s assessment of Martin’s alleged out-of-place-ness. Therefore, on the night of February 26, 2012, George Zimmerman decided that Trayvon Martin was not entitled to move freely as a free American. He was not entitled to be free without verifying his freedom to a white man. When Zimmerman came upon a black male body that refused to justify his movement through a space that he deemed off limits, he enacted a brand of “law and order” which generations of white Southerners have practiced.

History is known to repeat itself. It looks like we are witnessing a return to America’s wretched past. And that’s my Thought Provoking Perspective…

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