Brandon McInerney was sentenced to 21 years in prison for the execution-style murder of Lawrence King in a junior high school classroom in Oxnard, Calif. in 2008. The jury had deadlocked, but because McInerney is so young -- 17 now, 14 when he murdered King -- a plea deal was reached so that a new trial could be avoided. McInerney will be nearly 39 years old when he is eligible to get out of prison.
The Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network issued a statement that most resembles my thoughts: "Ventura County along with communities and school districts everywhere must come together to promote a culture of respect and nurture the true potential found in every individual regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression..."
The thing is, though, it goes deeper than even they suggest. Communities and school districts can and should do grassroots work to promote respect for everyone and to finally have discussions of sexual orientation, gender identity, and race -- all of which, as I've noted, played into this tragedy in a myriad of conflicting ways. This would be necessary even if this event had never taken place. It's a little disconcerting that there is little incentive to have face-to-face discussions and to do grassroots community building without some impetus like a brutal murder.
But this is also a time to reflect on the media's role in this saga -- and discuss the ways in which it is necessary to change that institution to better reflect the reality of our lives and the goals we seek. After all, the media was quick to attack the victim and to ignore many angles of this story. As I wrote on Daily Kos in September:
How did we get to this point? Why could a jury in a murder trial in which thirty witnesses saw the shooting not reach a verdict? Why is the media attacking the victim of the shooting, claiming that he "taunted" a "sweet-faced boy" into shooting him point blank in the head? Did King 'ask for it'? Why did the judge allow the jury to consider a voluntary manslaughter charge for a person who admitted the murder and talked about how he contemplated murdering King and planned it out?
At the outset, King was portrayed as weird, flamboyant, and anything but a typical boy. How King chooses to dress should, of course, not lead to his murder but that logic is seemingly lost in this article. They go on to blame coming out of the closet as one factor for the murder...
It only got worse from there. And it wasn't just that they portrayed the victim as the real villain in terms of sexual orientation and gender identity -- it was race, as well. The murderer had a lot of white supremacist literature and had clothing and other things with gang symbols on them. Most of the reporting on the issue of white supremacy -- and there wasn't much, despite the fact that there were expert witnesses testifying at the trial on race, sexual orientation, and white supremacy and how they are intertwined in some ways -- only occurred after a defense witness appeared on the stand to "debunk" the prosecution's evidence. Needless to say, the media's slant on that aspect was nearly universally hostile toward the prosecution's witness and to the idea that white supremacy exists, that people, even teenagers, are still interested in it, and that it plays a role in anything happening in our country.
If we are going to do some serious thinking about our own communities and our own approaches (or lack of approaches) to these issues, then we need to reconsider our reliance on traditional media -- or step up our fight to make our traditional more reliable and less openly hostile toward minorities.
There were conversations that could have begun to take place on a large scale. Pretending like these murders and crimes are always committed by "one bad apple" as a means to avoid discussions of race and sexual orientation or gender identity has been the go-to line in so many situations and for so many years, so many decades. It's become embedded in our culture that we can't deal with problems as a whole anymore, that we have to see everything and everyone as individual events, individual people, not connected in any way to any bigger picture. But there is always a bigger picture, and there are always going to be difficult and painful issues, and pretending like this isn't the case will only cause harm to our society -- and especially to those who are minorities, the ones who most desperately need these conversations to happen.
While we were thinking about these issues, we could have also asked ourselves why we consider our system one of "justice" in the first place, as if the word "justice" is devoid of any meaning except to label what we do to people whom our government considers to be horrible. This is a conflicting issue for me -- I think that far too often, someone can commit a crime against a gay, lesbian, bi, or transgender person and it not only ends in an acquittal but society itself usually approves of the acquittal and makes some excuse as to why it was necessary. This is a problem. People tend to dismiss real and valid complaints of queer individuals -- and I use that term to refer to everyone in our inclusive community -- that we, too, are hurt by our criminal "justice" system, and roll their eyes at our complaints that our society and our media institutions promote bigotry against us and put forward the notion that it's not that bad to kill someone for being gay or bi or for gender incongruence; one often gathers, from reading media reports or even from speaking in groups on these issues, that the gay, bi, or transgender person who was brutally murdered or raped "had it coming" for being so "open" about their differences with heteronormative society. It's hard to feel welcome in a society that won't even admit that killing minorities is a larger issue and an important one and that it needs to be addressed by our communities. It's hard to not feel a sense of relief when, finally -- finally -- someone commits a crime like this and society sends a message, through a District Attorney, that this type of behavior is something society does not approve of.
However, as I said, this isn't really justice. I am not sure that locking everyone away for many years is what we as a society should consider just and fair. I'm certainly vehemently opposed to state-sanctioned murder (euphemistically, "the death penalty"). While a message needs to be sent by our society that queer people and other minorities can't just be attacked, brutalized, murdered, stalked, and everything else, I'm not so sure that imprisonment, in itself, sends that message in a way I fully support. And I'm even less sure that imprisoning a 17-year-old for 21 years sends the message -- after this kind of trial and media circus, just locking him away may end the national conversation, and that is truly a lost opportunity.
Issues of criminal justice, imprisonment, and the death penalty affect queer people, as well; it's important to note that locking people away like this can adversely affect us, even as we imprison those who kill us. Imprisonment of queer people can happen at a more rapid pace and in larger numbers than imprisonment of heterosexuals, and when we are in prison, we are treated differently from everyone else. There is a certain masculine culture that exists in prison (and that's not entirely different from most of society, to be fair; it is just more noticeable in a cramped environment like a prison), and any male seen as feminine is "weak," and abuse happens. It can be worse for transgender prisoners. There are reports going back for decades of transgender prisoners who are only allowed to remain locked up in a prison filled with people who match the gender assigned to them at birth, not their actual gender. In a lot of cases, transgender prisoners are also denied hormone therapy, vital medical treatment that is absolutely necessary for many people who are transgender. And HIV/AIDS meds are in short supply in these prisons, as well. Many people, both heterosexual and queer, have not been allowed their required dosages of HIV meds while imprisoned. And treatment of these conditions in prison clinics is also subpar.
This is all in addition to our legal system itself; it is designed to work against queer people and other minorities. In many cases, a queer defendant's counsel is inadequately equipped to handle a case against the defendant. Attorneys have accepted plea deals on behalf of transgender defendants that led to that person being assigned to a prison that contained male prisoners when the defendant was female. Stereotypes and anti-queer archetypes are used at trial against queer defendants and then repeated by the media -- as happened in this case. Anti-queer sentiment has been documented as fairly prevalent in trials, and widespread bias leads to a negative outcome in so many situations.
I favor abolition of prisons and replacement with different forms of community responses to violence and crime. And I favor a complete reworking of our legal system and elimination of the biases that exist within it.
Given these issues, I wonder if being too supportive of McInerney's 21-year sentence is too easy, a way to prop up a failed system and a failed response to crime. I wonder if there are better, longer-lasting ways to handle this type of continuous violence against specific minorities. I wonder if it's putting a band-aid on our problems when we should be doing a lot more to end violence against our most oppressed communities and the injustices inherent in our daily lives.
A version of this piece appeared on my blog.
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