The Zimmerman Trial Through an Abolitionist Lens.

George Zimmerman in April 2012.

George Zimmerman in April 2012.

Dead weight seems to hang in the air as we wait for the verdict in the trial of George Zimmerman. My fears and hopes feel hinged on each shallow exhale as I sit at the kitchen table, sifting through articles, nibbling oatmeal, talking heads muted. Like many people I know, I’ve been angry. The murder of Trayvon Martin has been about a young person who was presumed suspicious, followed, and shot in the chest on his way back to his father’s house after stepping out for a snack. It is surely about that. But it has also been about black men everywhere who are read as a threat. It has been about the ease with which the police took Zimmerman’s word when he said he acted in self-defense, and those weeks he lived regular life after having murdered someone in cold blood. It’s especially about these facts when considered in relationship to how many black and brown people go to prison for comparatively minuscule reasons: shoplifting a candy bar, driving a little bit fast, firing a warning shot during an abusive encounter.

We have consistently been told that this is “not about race,” perhaps strategically, perhaps not. But of course — in a country where there is a $2 million bounty on the head of a black woman for allegedly killing a police officer, while a police officer who participated in the harassment and murder of a black man in front of the world on a BART platform is serving in the army — it is about race. However, it’s about race in ways other than the egregious dissimilarities between treatment of black life and white life. It’s also about the colors of the punishment system, and how we think through our relationship to it as a whole. As a person who is against the carceral state, I have struggled with my feelings about the Zimmerman trial. If I truly believe in prison abolition, then it cannot, seemingly, be a sometimes commitment.

As I await the jury, heart in stomach, I am trying to think about how this whole situation could have gone differently through an abolitionist lens. What if, when people became outraged that Zimmerman was “roaming free,” they had demanded transformative justice rather than arrest? What if, rather than sitting there dopily, George Zimmerman would have had to explain himself to Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton? A friend of mine who advocates community conflict resolution, even to the point of violence, suggests George Zimmerman deserved to get whatever may or may not have come to him without state intervention. Are these our alternatives? What do we want?

It feels easier to think about prison abolition when we confront all the damage the punishment system — which includes laws, their enforcement, and the multiple institutions and relationships involved in those practices — does to people’s lives. As the United States is home to 5% of the world’s population and 25% of the world’s prison population, the severity of the problem is blatant. As we consider the disproportionate number of black and brown people who are targeted by surveillance and other punitive procedures, the violence is clear. But if we also acknowledge that the institution itself cannot be redeemed, then that means working against its domination, even — and particularly — in cases like Zimmerman’s, when we may not be sympathetic to the potentially incarcerated. Everyday abolition has to be about thinking of ways to address conflict and harm outside of the punishment system, on a regular basis. I’m asking you to think with me about the ways that this may be possible. If George Zimmerman is convicted, perhaps there will be a moment of joy for a lot of people across the country: here, this apparently unapologetic man who murdered a teenage boy, will be locked away for some years. He will, maybe, feel regret or fear or hurt in prison. But, for each George Zimmerman, how many black, brown, trans, gender noncomforming, undocumented, or homeless people will also be locked away? And for what we might deem far lesser reasons? How many people with disabilities or medical needs will be confined to some kind of institution, be it called a prison or a hospital?

As we sit, wait, and watch, with our hearts in our stomachs and the weight of black death in the air, what are our long term hopes for the future of this carceral state?



Jalen is a writer and DJ based in Los Angeles, California.

Latest posts by JC (see all)

  • Unapologetic? Zimmerman turned himself in after he did the horrific deed and has publicly apologized. He has been very much apologetic. Yes, he did act in self defense, that much is fairly obvious due to the head wounds he was seen with. If you strike someone in the head it means you are aiming to kill, so self defense is justified. I was initially on Trayvon’s side when I heard about the case, but after I actually did some research it’s quite clear that what Zimmerman did was justified. I’m not saying everything he did was right, Trayvon’s death is certainly a tragedy, but it was justified and by alrights the law should have no claim on him. Innocent until proven guilty, and case against Zimmerman is very flimsy while the case for Zimmerman’s “innocence” is consistant. Bringing race into the equation is more racist than the actual case as looking from the evidence there is no reason to believe Zimmerman was racist.

    However, what you say about prison abolition is interesting. From my standpoint I say that Zimmerman has already received any justice he deserved from the public and there is no reason to incarcerate him. His lost his job and was kicked out of school, his reputation has been ruined, he and his family were in hiding due to death threats they received, and they were being supported by charity from those sympathetic to him. The amount of people in the american prison systems is alarming, especially of males of african decent, but getting rid of prisons isn’t going to fix the problems of racism that caused that statistic. It’s best not to leave justice directly to the people as the people aren’t in the best place to fairly dispense it, just look at the circus the media created around Zimmerman, purposely manipulating evidence to make Zimmerman appear racist and carefully selecting images to create a desired public image for him. After all, racists getting away with their crimes sells more media than people acting in self defense. The prison system is certainly getting out of hand, but a just and effective alternate means of justice must be established.

    • VC

      I call Zimmerman apparently unapologetic in the context of the moment of joy some people may feel if he is convicted. The point here is not whether or not he is actually apologetic, but rather, the role that prison plays for people seeking that outcome. For a lot of folks, prison is the place criminals go to become remorseful. This is the connection I am trying to make.

      1. I never said Zimmerman was racist, and 2. Talking about race is not racist.

      Thanks for playing, though.

    • D. Anderson

      The only reason we know Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman’s name is because protests were required in order to get him to turn himself in. You DO know that he wasn’t in jail for killing Trayvon until a month after. You DO know that was because either his father or grandfather is a judge. You DO know that George Zimmerman has a criminal past (which further proves that his judge relative was giving him the hook up). You DO know that George Zimmerman said that it was God’s plan for him to kill Trayvon. After him saying that, you actually believe an apology?

  • I feel for the Martin family, but this trial has been miscontrued into a white-black thing. Zimmerman is hispanic. Does his mother look white to you? Does he look white to you?

    • That’s a pretty simplistic reading, Tony, that removes all the other context.

      Zimmerman may be Latin@, but all of the police officers who declined to charge him were white, as were all but one of the jurors. And you know, HISTORY.

      • What about history? The past is the past. If you keep holding onto the past we can’t progress. Anyway, according to Florida Law Zimmerman was innocent. I think if anything this really should have been an issue of gun control that got transformed by the media into a race issue. Now, I heard that there was a similar case were a black women killed her abusive husband and was found guilty, but I can’t find the actual case. I think that would be something worth looking into, since I haven’t researched it I can’t determine if the trail was racist or not.

        • What about history? The past is the past. If you keep holding onto the past we can’t progress.

          Seriously, why do people think that this kind of thought passes for insightful? It’s laughably childish.

          • Well then why don’t you elaborate why history matters here instead of just saying “HISTORY” and that it’s childish to think history is the past.

            • Come on, Joseph. Really? Race is completely inextricable from history; it’s telling that the people who are most adamant about race being some problem in the past have the flimsiest grasps of both.

              Go troll somewhere else, man.

    • D. Anderson

      Hispanic is a culture, not a race. If you read any application that has the race box, it says people can fill out “white, Hispanic” or “black, Hispanic”. And since race is a made up entity, it’s not based on what you actually are, it’s based on what you can pass for. Hence really light skin blacks passing for white back in the day (if you’re not familiar, watch the movie “Human Stain”.

  • john

    you have it backwards joseph. trayvon martin acted in self-defense when an armed stranger followed him in a car and then got out and chased him.

    • This is Florida we are talking about. They don’t exactly have the most sensical self defense laws. In the eyes of the law Zimmerman was clearly innocent, even though in actuality it’s debatable.

  • “this apparently unapologetic man who murdered a young boy”. One of the first things Zimmerman did publicly was apologize to the Martin family.

    • mj

      that sounds like an apology to you? he took no responsibility for anything – he didn’t apologize for what he did, he apologized for the loss of their son, not for anything he did. then he quickly went into justifying his actions by saying he thought Trayvon was older (why does that matter?). This is no sort of apology, it’s bullshit, like this whole trial

      • Can you guys cut it out and address the issues raised in the original post?

        There are plenty of other places where you can re-litigate the trial.

  • MH

    Apologies don’t bring people back to life. The entire situation could’ve been avoided, if Zimmerman hasn’t of profiled and followed him. Or, if he did follow him why not say,” hey! You live around here?” No, he acted like a wannabe cop and went commando on a 17 year old, who was unarmed. The power dynamic changed and at some point that teenager defended himself from a perceived threat, with his hands mind you. Zimmerman took control of the power dynamic back at the point he was getting his ass handed to him, and shot Martin, the person he had initially became the aggressor over.
    On Zimmerman being Latino, that’s such a deep subject. The census, wrongly so, does not have an option for Latino as a race unless you write it in, most Latinos check white….for their internalized racist fears of being ID’ed as Black. Association and mind set are what categorizes Zimmerman, a biracial man. He obviously didn’t identified with the young black male he slaughtered.
    Transformative justice would be amazing. Martins family and the community could decide on a punishment or steps for Zimmerman to take to make up for his horrific action.

  • What is it about these public farces called apologies that make folks believe they change anything? They are nothing but words. We should be seeing remorse. We should know that Zimmerman’s life has been changed. He should be telling us he wants to become a different person, and then we should see him working on it. He’s walking around; he eats meals; he chooses what to do next; he has sex; he may someday be some child’s father. Trayvon Martin gets none of these. Zimmerman survives, in a way, on Martin’s blood. He owes whoever he was apologizing to a life spent trying to become someone bigger and better than he was that night.

  • I really appreciate your analysis. I’m a little out of it today so I’ll leave you with two sets of amazing questions I and my community are pondering right now that are inspired by your article:

    First, my friend Max Silverman wrote today on my Facebook wall: “How do you reconcile being against the prison system with wanting a guilty verdict? To me the rage is that the murder happened and that there are laws that allow for it to be legitimized – not that he’s not going to jail for it.”

    Secondly, my friend Andrea Smith wrote in response to your article which she reposted on Facebook: “Important analysis. My thoughts: I think abolitionism is a positive rather than a negative project. Thus it is not necessarily inconsistent with abolitionism to wish that Zimmerman would get some punishment in the current system until an alternative system is put into place. But this begs the question, when are we going to build that alternative system? What would our community accountability work look like if we started expanding our agenda to be able to respond to cases like this as well as cases of police violence/brutality? What if we stopped ceding these cases to the criminal injustice system?”

    This is what is at stake in the aftermath of the Zimmerman verdict. Knowing what we know (and have known for over two hundred+ years) about white supremacist violence, the criminal legal system, and the carceral state, where do we go from here? What are we building in place of this current system? I would love to converse with you about this some more.

    In solidarity…

    • VC

      Thanks so much for your response. I typed a reply and somehow managed to lose it in the midst of various tabs, forward, and back buttoning. I had an exchange on facebook on Friday that I think speaks to some of the questions your friends raised, and I’ve asked my friend to repost here in the interest of avoiding having to blockquote everything. Our convo – once it’s up – may touch on a couple of issues you raise but in the meantime, I’ll try to convey the direction of my thoughts as clearly as I can w/o repetition.

      One concern I think both your friends touch on is whether or not it’s actually discordant to want a guilty verdict and abolition. I agree with Max that the rage is in the murder and the conditions that make it seem legitimate. And maybe now the rage is in the outcome. Not necessarily because we expected differently but because we know better and are disappointed (again) with the rule of law and procedural inadequacy – beginning with the moment that the police arrived on the scene. I don’t think, however, that the verdict has much political import either way, and for this reason, I don’t believe an acquittal or a conviction would have been worthwhile political goals for me. But I completely respect and appreciate people who are working towards bringing about different kinds of change, within and outside of the system, and I’m not at all interested in regulating what are appropriate desires for people who are interested in abolition to have.

      About the project of imagining and building that your friend Andrea brings up – I spent some time today tweeting some resources I’ve read/am reading on different models and frameworks for thinking about alternative systems (links below). I think there is really interesting work already happening in some communities and am in a process of trying to absorb what’s out there in order to think through alternatives in a programmatic way. What’s interesting to me right now is figuring out how people in my neighborhood would feel about something like transformative justice, and if that’s feasible for them. How do people feel about not calling the police? Also, a good place for me to practice alternatives has been with allies and people in my political communities, which have been mostly lgbtq people of color and occasionally anarchists. The question of what to do in cases of police brutality is a difficult one that I can’t make a cogent thought around, so I’ll just say I think it’s important for there to be space for people to discuss their relationships to violence. Thinking about police brutality, though, highlights for me the extent to which abolition is a negative as well as positive project, because there’s a lot of negation, subversion, bashing, deconstructing (call it what you will) that has to happen within our current system to make room for what we got.

      Thanks again for your comment, definitely interested in listening and building more.

      Long read about case that deals with murder – Can Forgiveness Play a Role in Criminal Justice?

      How restorative justice is practiced in an Oakland school – Opening Up, Students Transform a Vicious Circle

      ALP’s Safe Outside the System

      This details transformative justice model (p. 32) w/ focus on child abuse cases – Toward Transformative Justice

      Long, worthwhile read (dissertation) on deinstitutionalization – Genealogies of Resistance to Incarceration

      • Thanks for your response and the list of resources. I’m very familiar with Generation Five/Creative Interventions and applaud their work. I’m going to take a look at the other resources you mention and then will get back to you either on this post or the upcoming one you mention above. I’m excited to read and share these resources with other folks in my community who are also queer POC, indigenous Idle No More activists (yes, I’m currently living in Canada), and some cool, anti-racist anarchist folks.

        I’m also a prison abolitionist who works with formerly incarcerated girls, women, and trans folks who have experienced sexual violence and state violence (I myself am one). Many of the women I work with are not “sold” on restorative or transformative justice and just want to “kick the shit of the mofo” who raped or abused them (a totally valid response by the way but one which most likely will have one of us back in prison). Calling the cops is obviously not a good option for the majority of us who are on probation or parole so creating oppositional “neighborhood watch groups” (of course, we won’t call them that…more like harm free zones backed up by extensive phone trees and community accountability groups) is something we’re thinking seriously about but there’s no consensus there either (which is cool; consensus is overrated). So, you can imagine the kind of conversations we’re having in our collective. As you mentioned, we are starting to talk more about our intimate and collective relationships to violence. Challenging isn’t the word which is why I value your blog post and responses so much. These conversations are animated, contradictory, and overall, mind-blowing. I have never in my life been so inarticulate. But this may reflect the fact that within North American, it’s hard for us to think beyond criminal injustice reform, vigilante violence or the carceral state. It’s all we’ve ever known…

        I’m also a little inarticulate for other reasons (a weird summer cold)…I’ll definitely catch up with you soon! Looking forward to your next post.

        • VC

          Your work sounds amazing! And you bring up so many important points about working through the day-to-day groundwork of building alternatives to the punishment system. Would it be cool if I contact you at your email (the one you entered on this site to write a post)? I’m always looking to expand my base of interlocutors and comrades.

          • Absolutely! Let’s keep in touch.

  • M.M

    Thanks so much for this piece. The OP raised some really important questions, and I just want to thank you for the time and thought that you put into this at a really difficult time for these issues.

  • Really great blog post. This has been tough for me to think about, too. The defense lawyer in me wanted him to walk; the humanist/prison reformer in me wishes he weren’t on trial at all.

    Same time, I recognize two things: First, this isn’t the counterfactual–Zimmerman isn’t and won’t be held to make community reparations; he will be held accountable or not held accountable under this criminal model, and no other. And second, within this criminal model, Zimmerman is an individual, who deserves an outcome representative of his legal guilt; but his case is symbolic, and its outcome will be perceived by the public as symbolic.

    So it’s tough. I think saying “it would be better if Zimmerman were being held accountable in a separate (restorative justice?) model” doesn’t really get to question of whether or not, assuming legal and factual guilt, he should be convicted under the system that he is actually being held accountable under.

    Acquittal doesn’t disempower the penal state; it’s a valid conclusion reached through following–not challenging or deconstructing–the rule of law. At the same time, an acquittal will send a symbolic message to the public that reinforces a racist/violent/destructive narrative (black boys’ lives aren’t worth very much at all).

    So I think this is one case where, assuming legal and factual guilt, conviction is the radical answer.

    • Thanks for this response.

      I’ve only the most rudimentary understanding of the abolition movement, so apologies if I sound like a rube here. I don’t think you’d find much pushback on PB around using means outside of the criminal justice system to ajudicate offenses involving drugs and property crimes. But how would a restorative justice modeal work for something like rape or, as we’re talking about here, murder? How would you deal with those offenders?

      I was having a long conversation with an AP reporter today about this case, and as we were kind of arguing I was wondering aloud whether revenge is inextricable from our notions of justice, if communities need to enact harsh punishments on outcasts as a means of social cohesions. (No Foucault, tho.)

      Do you feel there’s a place for that anywhere?

    • VC

      I pretty much agree with everything you’ve said, except I don’t think conviction can be a radical answer… not unless it were happening in some kind of organized, strategic way, e.g. juries start convicting all white men of everything ever and acquitting everyone else. I don’t think whatever happens in the case of Zimmerman, in particular, will make much of a difference in any structural or politically significant way. Though I agree the case has taken on a symbolic character, and might become culturally iconic in the same vein as other high profile, racially charged trials, I don’t believe the jury decision has the potential to disempower, challenge, or deconstruct the rule of law. I think that’s why I don’t attempt to answer to the question of whether or not he should be convicted in the blog.

      It is difficult.. I tried to convey in the blog how invested I am emotionally in the case. and I think a lot of my process has been about trying to grapple with my realization that what might feel like a satisfying outcome to me is discordant with my political beliefs. But I end up coming back to my feeling that not much hangs on this jury’s decision. If I believed much did, I’d probably be right with you, as well as others (I’m thinking of Michelle Alexander) who advocate certain kinds of jury-related activism. But because I don’t believe in prison reform, it’s difficult for me to believe in the effectiveness of those kinds of independent acts. However, I take your point. I hope I’ve understood it. And I really appreciate it.

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