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Russ Belville Headshot

Want Justice For Trayvon Martin? Legalize Drugs

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I'm sitting at the hotel bar in Denver.  Professional lacrosse is on one TV and some barking chef show is on another, competing for the least of my interest.  I'm nursing a pilsner at the very end of the bar while I await a friend's return with the hotel room key.

There is an empty seat next to me and an African-American woman, about my age, takes it. She's drinking some chardonnay and she's engrossed in digital communications on her cell phone.

Then I hear her say, "Oh my fucking God!" under her breath.

George Zimmerman, the man who shot and killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Florida, had just been acquitted of 2nd-degree murder (and manslaughter) by a six-woman jury.  I had just found out myself on Twitter minutes earlier.

"He fucking got away with it!" she continued, her voice rising and attracting the attention of the older married couple seated on her other side.  "They found him not guilty?!?  He was a baby!  A baby!"

Another person farther down the bar heard "not guilty" and asked "The Aurora shooter?" referring to James Holmes, the maniac who shot up the theater in Colorado and is now on trial.

"No, George Zimmerman," I explained, "was just found not guilty of murder in the killing of Trayvon Martin in Florida."

Then, I felt the room, at least the people in earshot of this now sobbing woman, turn a bit.  I've grown up in and played music in bars all my life.  At that moment, it felt like the empathy for her became indifference.  It was almost as if these white drinkers flipped an "oh, it's a black thing" switch in their heads and tuned her out.  Or maybe "oh, it's a drunk crying woman thing."  Either way, when they heard "killing of Trayvon Martin," they registered no more interest than if she were crying over the cancellation of a soap opera.

I asked her name -- it's Chris -- and engaged her in conversation, mostly listening to her.  The emotion she feels is palpable. I really don't know what to say but to lead her with simple acknowledgements -- "yes, I understand, why do feel that way?" types of questions.  Then she stops, her face twists into skepticism, and she asks, "why do you care?", where "you" clearly means "middle-aged white guy wearing a Boise State ballcap."

I was a little shocked to be asked, as white guys get in the rare instance when our race is the topic.  And, truly, while I wasn't shocked at the verdict, because it is Florida, and while I was certainly outraged about yet another travesty of justice, I wasn't at all feeling it in my core like Chris was at that moment, fighting back tears of anger.

"Well, I try to care about all people," I began, "and as a white guy born and raised in Idaho, it's taken some education.  I don't think I met a black person face to face until I was eleven years old."  Chris cocked her head in that "really?!?" look.  I continued. "Listen, I work in drug law reform, so every day I cover stories that consistently feature young black men getting screwed over by the system. My friends are some of the best defense attorneys in the country and they tell me horror stories. But only recently has the NAACP and other black leadership recognized how much of this systematic oppression is fostered by the War on Drugs."

I think my answer caught her by surprise. "When 1 in 57 white kids has a parent in prison, but 1 in 9 black kids do, there's something seriously wrong," I said.  "But this is Florida, so as saddened as I am by the verdict, I'm not shocked. This is a state where 3/4 ounce of marijuana gets you a felony and you lose your right to vote for life.  Did you know 23 percent of voting-age black people in Florida can't vote because of their felony laws?  We'd never have had a President George W. Bush if those people could have voted!"

We continued talking and I found out she worked with a non-profit that helps young black girls in the inner city.  Then she asked me if I'd video her with her phone because she just wanted to have a record of this day.  When she couldn't get her phone to work, I volunteered my handcam.

If you want justice for Trayvon Martin, legalize drugs. This isn't about the marijuana in Trayvon's system -- irrelevant -- but the racism in our justice system that is perpetuatued by the War on Drugs.  When we criminalize so many young black men it is not surprising that someone like George Zimmerman sees a young black man in a hoodie walking down the sidewalk and thinks "criminal."  That's in no way meant to justify Zimmerman's mindset and actions but to point out that he isn't all that different from the way our police and courts and juries and society perceive young black men.

Of course, legalizing drugs isn't going to miraculously cure racism.  It will, however, dismantle one of racism's primary engines.  So many of the cycles of poverty, incarceration, welfare dependency, single-mother households, high unemployment, gangs and violence that plague the black community owe their continuation to the War on Drugs.  Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow will explain it to you better than I ever could.

By the way, also in Florida, a single mother was sentenced to 20 years in prison for firing a warning shot to warn off her abusive ex.  She argued self-defense, just like George Zimmerman.  She didn't hurt anybody.  She's black.  Think about that.  If you're a black woman in Florida with a restraining order against an ex who's abused you before and you fire a warning shot, you get 20 years.  If you're a white Hispanic in Florida with a gun who's been told not to follow a teenager and you track him down, he "stands his ground" and you shoot and kill him, you walk free.  Justice?