Interpretation and application of Law in the United States
by Meera Srinivasan on 03 Aug 2013 3 Comments
When Newt Gingrich, once a powerful member of the US Congress and a presidential candidate, called Americans angry at the George Zimmerman trial verdict of “not guilty” a lynch mob, one felt one was witnessing the decline of a civilization.


The very leaders who claim to be the great voice of Democracy in the Middle East, with its dictators and tyrants, many of whom were set up or/and funded by the US, disapprove of their own citizens exercising the constitutional right to dissent and express grievances in public. This represents inconsistency, contradiction and hypocrisy of the highest order.


Healthy democracies allow, understand, support and welcome such protests and acts of civil disobedience (within certain limits). Unhealthy or dying democracies criticize most marches, reject many protests and condemn any acts of civil disobedience. Non-democracies fear all protests.


It was shocking how many police commissioners in major US cities, fearing riots, came to the protest venues with vicious dogs, assault rifles, swat teams, and military weapons, though the protests were well organized and peaceful. These days, the police and law enforcement define a riot as a few Blacks marching together, few colored people shouting, few poor people holding placards and a few mischief makers who break a window or two or burn a garbage can. If this, according to the popular media, is “an out-of-control citizenry” or “a lynching mob” what right do these people have to define or promote democracy anywhere?


As some may note, Barak Obama’s election and re-election should not obscure the daily struggle of millions of Blacks and colored people in the United States, who not only live in poverty, economic insecurity and social second class citizenship, but struggle to just exist with a law enforcement and judicial system that allows false imprisonments of non-White men and the legal murder of non-White children in ever larger numbers. Jim Crow laws are still alive.


Jim Crow laws were state and local laws enacted in the US between 1876 and 1965 that mandated racial segregation in all public facilities, mostly in the Southern states of the former Confederacy. It started with a law in 1890 declaring African Americans and other People of Color separate but equal. This in practice led to conditions for African Americans and other non-Whites that tended to be inferior to those provided for Anglo Americans, creating many economic, educational and social disadvantages. This de jure segregation mainly applied to the southern United States. Northern segregation was generally de facto: with patterns of segregation in housing enforced by covenants, bank lending practices, and job discrimination, including discriminatory union practices for decades (Vann and Williams, 2001).


Some examples of Jim Crow laws are the segregation of public schools, public places, and public transportation, and segregation of restrooms, restaurants, and drinking fountains for whites and blacks. The greatest irony was that the US military was also segregated.


The phrase “Jim Crow Law” first appeared in 1904 according to the Dictionary of American English (1938-1944) although there is some evidence of earlier usage (Vann and Williams, 2001). The origin of the phrase “Jim Crow” has often been attributed to “Jump Jim Crow”, a song-and-dance caricature of blacks performed by white actor Thomas D Rice in blackface, which first surfaced in 1832 and was used to satirize Andrew Jackson’s populist policies (Wikipedia, 2013). When southern legislatures passed laws of racial segregation – directed against blacks – at the end of the 19th century, these laws became known as “Jim Crow Laws” (Vann and Williams, 2001). 


During the Reconstruction period of 1865–1877, the federal law provided civil rights protection in the US South for freedmen (freed slaves). In the 1870s Conservatives, including some Southern Democrats, in favor of slavery gradually took over power in the Southern legislatures, sometimes as a result of elections in which paramilitary groups intimidated opponents, attacking blacks or preventing them from voting, and began to introduce Jim Crow laws.

The current attacks on Voting Rights’ Act which makes voting more difficult, complicated and convoluted for Blacks and other people of color, as well as liberals and progressives, is an example of how Jim Crow laws, though they don’t carry that name, are indirectly still in the books and in action. 


For instance, in Texas, a member of the National Rifle Association (NRA) can use his or her membership slip as an identity card for voting. In the same State, a university student cannot use his or her college identity card for voting. Why? Because most NRA members are Republicans while most college students tend to be liberals or Democrats.

In Florida, a law was passed that would prevent voting for Presidential elections on Sundays. Why? Because Sundays are popular with Black voters down South - who are bussed from their churches to the nearest voting booth to exercise their franchise; a large percentage of them are usually Democrat or Liberal.

For many years, prison inmates, even those in prison for a few months or convicted for misdemeanors, were not allowed to vote. Why? Because a large segment of the prison population were Blacks and People of Color. And law enforcement without oversight or balance allowed the police to arrest people for trivial reasons, such as smoking marijuana or speaking boldly to a police officer; this has resulted in the incarceration of large numbers of colored men. Such incarceration also takes away their right to vote - disenfranchising them further, and making it impossible to vote against unfair or biased law enforcement systems.

In New York, “Stop and Frisk” programs allow the police to take DNA samples of innocent people and put them in a criminal database even when they have not done anything wrong. This not only disenfranchises a large number of poor colored people, but criminalizes them through “racial or ethnic profiling.” 


Stand Your Ground Laws, introduced less than a decade ago, mostly in the South, and now active in nearly 27 States in the US, give many gun owners the authority to “shoot first” and ask questions later. It is shocking that 70% of shootings where the victim was Black resulted in a “not guilty” verdict, with the shooter using the “Self Defense or Stand Your Ground” argument to go scot-free. Only 51% of the shooters who killed a white person were acquitted with the same argument. This shows how Black homicide victims are seen as dangerous or more problematic, and hence can be killed at random, while White shooters receive more acquittals than their Black counterparts for actually committing murder. This is what some would call, “the legal right to murder without rights for the innocent Black victims and appropriate consequences for the White killers.”


Few cases, like Trayvon Martin’s murder, receive national attention. Numerous innocent Black men, killed for no reason than that they were in the wrong place at the wrong time with a wrong guy with a gun, receive no attention at all. If a Black victim survives, even with deep disabling injuries, there will be no apology or compensation. The judge and the courts would expect the victim to feel grateful that he or she survived, and advice them to move on.

The Stand Your Ground law, that does not allow the shooter to retreat or find an alternative refuge or pathway to safety when confronted with danger, is in some ways an attempt to “kill and silence innocent victims who might start a legal or social protest against the shooter if he or she were alive.” 

As some might argue, “Dead men don’t walk and dead men don’t talk. Hence no one will know the truth and it is the guy with the gun, alive, determined and strong, who gets his way 90% of the time. And if that shooter is a White guy, rich guy, well connected guy or a well connected rich White guy, then he is acquitted even before an investigation begins!”

What is shocking is not only the strong savvy defense and support that killers like George Zimmerman receive from societies and systems that are racist and biased, but they are found “Not Guilty” by juries that seem to empathise with White killers rather than their non-White victims – be it inside the country or outside the country. The jury, as in George Zimmerman’s trial, seem to reject or negate those witnesses who were racially different, culturally dissimilar and socially outside their provincial circles, irrespective of the content of their statements, the facts in their testimonials, and the truth in their evidence. 


Even more frightening is the judicial illiteracy of many Whites, who enjoy power, privilege and protection in the system but understand very poorly the law they are expected to apply in their jury duties. In an interview with a juror on George Zimmerman trial in Florida, it was apparent that a great deal of time was spent by the jurors trying to understand the laws they were expected to use in their judgment. They struggled even with the definition of “manslaughter,” and requested the judge to provide some clarification during deliberations. The judge sent back the note requesting more specificity in their question. None came.


Any group that is unclear or unsure about the information it has to deal with to make an important decision will undoubtedly delay or postpone making a decision – be it in a committee or a commission or in a hearing – or will likely err on the side of caution. This is a common strategy or culture of doing group work.


In George Zimmerman’s trial, the jury seemed so clueless about the relevant laws that it decided to err on the side of caution and acquit the shooter rather than convict him of even manslaughter – even though it had a chance to do that. Most of the concrete evidence was actually strong enough to convict him of second degree murder.


Was this jury smartly chosen by the defense to make sure that they, as White women who constantly fear Black men as robbers and rapists, will empathize more with George Zimmerman the killer than Trayvon Martin the teen victim? Interestingly, Florida has the largest number of White male sexual offenders, including rapists and child molesters, than most other States. And did they also choose a jury of literate legal illiterates who could not read, understand, discuss and adjudicate on the law? Did the Prosecutors, the Defense and the Judge provide adequate information and clarification to the jury prior to the trial, knowing they were part of the public with little or no knowledge of the details and nuances of their own State criminal laws?


Many Whites may read and write English better than Blacks or Latino immigrants in the United States, and may be arrogant because of it, but their thinking, logic, analysis and evaluation of complex information can be poor. Knowledge on specialized subjects like science, mathematics, medicine and law cannot be garnered through mere fluency in English or through high school diploma. This is a universal problem even among educated people around the world, who mistake degrees and fluency in language or communication for adequate knowledge of a specialized field.


This is why in the US, as in so many places, there are people with undergraduate degrees who are arrogant but extremely ignorant about the subject matter they have opinions on, or are asked to debate about. The majority of jurors in the Florida trial were not only White, hence more empathetic to the light skinned shooter George Zimmerman they over-identified with, but were ignorant on matters of the criminal law they were supposed to decide on!


America has a huge number of white, rich and influential people, middle class people, including in the media, who fall in the category of ‘literate illiterate’, while enjoying entitlement, power, privilege and protection. They have the authority and power to decide a critical murder case, but are ignorant on the very subject matters and  laws critical to make a ‘guilty’ or ‘not guilty’ decision.

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