Legal scholar & author reflects on Trayvon Martin case
Patricia J. Williams of Columbia Law School, who visited Elon this month to help commemorate the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., spoke Thursday about crime, justice, "stand your ground" laws and why conversations about race in America still matter.
On the same day legal scholar Patricia Williams had planned to talk at Elon University about Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela, George Zimmerman, the former neighborhood watch volunteer found not guilty in the 2012 shooting death of an unarmed black teenager, announced he would sell artwork he had recently painted to help pay mounting legal bills.
A previous painting netted Zimmerman $100,000. For Williams, a distinguished professor at Columbia Law School, that posed a fascinating question. Who are Zimmerman's supporters that can afford $100,000 to defray legal expenses for someone who continues today to have run-ins with the law?
So instead of addressing the legacies of King, a slain American civil rights leader, or Mandela, the recently deceased former South African president, Williams spoke of Zimmerman's racially charged trial in Florida last summer that captured the attention of the nation.
Her Thursday lecture in Whitley Auditorium, which capped a monthlong series of campus events honoring Martin Luther King Jr., reflected themes in her forthcoming book about Zimmerman, the teenager he killed, and how that victim, Trayvon Martin, was made into a symbol of fear and distrust as a deliberate strategy on the part of Zimmerman's defense.
“What happened in that case makes me depressed. It makes me depressed on some obvious levels, and maybe on some not-so-obvious levels,” said Williams, who explained that the trial represents a regression of public discourse about race. “For a while in America, we were engaged in something like a serious conversation about the costs of racial profiling.”
In the Zimmerman trial, the judge explicitly barred discussion of racial profiling. Yet the trial was premised on whether and how much Martin looked like a “thug” and how reasonable it was for Zimmerman to be suspicious, Williams argued.
Zimmerman’s defense team built a case around the notion that it was, in fact, reasonable for their client to distrust Martin, she explained. After all, weeks earlier, a black man had broken into a neighborhood home, and other burglaries were attributed to black men who she reiterated "were not Trayvon Martin."
“Day after day, the defense insinuated with virtually no pushback from the prosecution that Martin was guilty of something illicit,” she said. “Once demonized, this teenage boy with his candy and sweet tea was packaged as ‘Trayvon the Destroyer.’”
Though Zimmerman's lawyers employed a traditional self-defense strategy and not a “stand your ground” explanation - by which they would have cited Florida's law that permits the use of deadly force when someone feels his life is at stake - Williams criticized the law and others just like it around the United States.
“You have incredibly preposterous cases in which two gangs are shooting each other, half of them are killed, and no one gets prosecuted for homicide because no one knows who shot first … and all were ‘fearing for their lives,’” she said.
Statistics also show that blacks are charged and convicted at much higher rates than whites in "stand your ground" cases, she said. She illustrated her point with recent trials in New York and Florida where the situations appeared more clearly in favor of the defendants. Guilty verdicts, however, resulted.
Laws aren't the only methods by which structural or institutional bias exists today, Williams said. Surveys show that drug use is almost equal between blacks and whites, though arrest and conviction data would indicate drugs are predominately a black problem. Those are the neighborhoods police choose to target to the detriment of minorities.
“There are police policies that have been in place in a number of cities … like New York’s ‘stop and frisk’ policies,” she said, “and the vocabulary in today’s world is not that we’re targeting blacks, we’re ‘targeting high-crime neighborhoods.’”
Williams’ distinguished career started as deputy city attorney for the Los Angeles City Attorney and later as staff lawyer for the Western Center on Law and Poverty. The alumna of Harvard Law School has served on the faculties of the University of Wisconsin School of Law, City University of New York Law School, and Golden Gate University School of Law.
She joined the Columbia faculty in 1991 and is a fellow at the School of Criticism and Theory at Dartmouth College, and at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences. Williams has published widely in the areas of race, gender, and law, and on other issues of legal theory and legal writing.
Her books include “The Alchemy of Race and Rights,” “The Rooster's Egg,” and “Seeing a ColorBlind Future: The Paradox of Race.” She is a columnist for The Nation, a MacArthur fellow and a member of the Board of Trustees at Wellesley College, her undergraduate alma mater.
The evening program also recognized two winners of Elon University’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. Humanitarian Essay Contest.
Giselle Castaneda, a sixth grade student from Blessed Sacrament School in Burlington, N.C., and Dev Jha, a seventh grader at Kernodle Middle School in Greensboro, N.C., were both honored for short essays reflecting on King’s legacy.
Castaneda and Jha’s submissions were selected from among 80 entries from middle school students in Alamance and Guilford counties.