Professor Cornel West on Monday compared the Obama administration’s use of drones to neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman.
During an interview on CNN, he was asked what he thought of Obama’s criticism of controversial self-defense laws like Florida’s “stand your ground” law.
“I was glad to see him bring it in,” West replied. “He said we must never rationalize killing innocent people in the name of self-defense, and then I thought about our drone policy, which makes us the George Zimmerman of the world in terms of killing innocent folk in the name of self-defense.”
“But he is absolutely right,” he continued. “Self-defense must never be used as a way of downplaying the precious lives of innocent people.”
The use of drone strikes to kill suspected terrorists has emerged as one of the most controversial aspects of U.S. counterterrorism efforts. A study published this month found drones caused 10 times more civilian casualties than manned aircraft.
President Barack Obama made a surprise appearance at the White House Friday to discuss African-Americans’ reaction to last weekend’s verdict in the George Zimmerman case, saying that “Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago.”
“You know, when Trayvon Martin was first shot, I said that this could have been my son. Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago. And when you think about why, in the African- American community at least, there’s a lot of pain around what happened here, I think it’s important to recognize that the African- American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that — that doesn’t go away,” he said.
Obama addressed the issue personally as well, saying, “There are very few African-American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they are shopping at a department store. And that includes me.”
He recalled his own experiences before becoming a nationally-recognized politician, noting, “There are very few African- American men who haven’t had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happens to me, at least before I was a senator. There are very few African-Americans who haven’t had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off.”
And he contended that these attitudes often shape perceptions in the United States.
“I don’t want to exaggerate this, but those sets of experiences inform how the African-American community interprets what happened one night in Florida and it’s inescapable for people to bring those experiences to bear,” he said.
Asked if the president had thoroughly contemplated his remarks, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said, “I don’t think there’s any question, and you can judge by what he just said and how he said it, he knows what he thinks and he knows what he feels, and he had not just in the past week but for a good portion of his life given a lot of thought to these issues.”
Obama also suggested that the outcome of the case could have been different if Martin were white. “If a white male teen would have been involved in this scenario,” he said, “both the outcome and the aftermath might have been different.”
The president also nodded to the Justice Department investigation which is probing whether or not to bring federal civil rights charges against Zimmerman. But Obama also urged state and local officials to review their own procedures to see how to improve their law enforcement practices.
He also called for a review of so-called “Stand Your Ground” laws, a central issue in the case.
“If Trayvon Martin was of age and was armed, could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk?” Obama asked. “If the answer to that question is at least ambiguous, then it seems to me that we should examine those laws.”
Obama said he wanted to “reiterate what I said on Sunday, which is there are going to be a lot of arguments about the legal issues in the case. I’ll let all the legal analysts and talking heads address those issues.”
The president added, “The judge conducted the trial in a professional manner. The prosecution and the defense made their arguments. The jurors were properly instructed that in a case such as this, reasonable doubt was relevant and they rendered a verdict. And once the jury’s spoken, that’s how our system works.”
And though Obama sidestepped the idea of demanding a new, national conversation on race — and while he said that racism was far from eliminated — the president ended on an upbeat moment, expressing his view that race relations are “getting better.”
“I don’t want us to lose sight that things are getting better. Each successive generation seems to be making progress in changing attitudes when it comes to race. I doesn’t mean that we’re in a post racial society. It doesn’t mean that racism is eliminated,” he said. “But you know, when I talk to Malia and Sasha and I listen to their friends and I see them interact, they’re better than we are.”
Obama added: “We have to be vigilant and we have to work on these issues, and those of us in authority should be doing everything we can to encourage the better angels of our nature as opposed to using these episodes to heighten divisions. But we should also have confidence that kids these days I think have more sense than we did back then, and certainly more than our parents did or our grandparents did, and that along this long, difficult journey, we’re becoming a more perfect union — not a perfect union, but a more perfect union.”
At first glance it seems nice that Obama has opened up about his past experiences and spoken out against racism. But is he also insinuating that those African-Americans that are protesting against the Zimmerman verdict are only doing so because they feel victimised in society? And that African-Americans cannot detach themselves from negative past experiences and that they are all looking at the Zimmerman verdict through those tinted spectacles? And thereby discrediting any valid concerns about the verdict and legal process by claiming: ‘you’re not seeing the case clearly because you are emotional and because you may have been the victim of racism.’
This Tumblr that went up recently called We Are Not Trayvon Martin is an interesting experiment, a way to talk about the role of race and privilege in this case, and how some of us have the privilege—which should be a right!—of being at least safe from would-be vigilantes deciding to murder us for crimes we’re committing only in their heads. A lot of us out here are angry and upset about George Zimmerman being able to chase down and murder an unarmed young man, and get away with it because he was able to convince a jury that the young man—gasp!—had the temerity to fight back. Anti-racists, I think, have long understood that the cops are a real threat to young black men who can be randomly treated like criminals on the thinnest of excuses, but the possibility that any random white (or white-appearing, anyway) person can, if you’re black, just chase you down and detain you arbitrarily or they now have the legal right to take your life? That’s a cold bath of WTF. This tweet captures exactly what is bothering me so much:
I’ve been thinking about it a lot, because as a woman, being followed by creepy dudes who clearly have bad intentions in their cars while I’m out walking and minding my own business is something I’ve experienced probably a dozen times in my life. Unsurprisingly, Rachel Jeantel—who was on the phone with Martin when Zimmerman began to follow him—had the threat of rape pop into her head and made a crack about it to Martin before telling him to run. A lot of scary things go through your head when this happens to you: You worry that if he catches up to you, he’ll overpower you. You worry that you won’t be able to fight him off. You worry about how violent he intends to get with you.
But you know what I never worried about? That if I defended myself, he would have an excuse to shoot me dead and that cops would shrug it off and not bother to contact my family.
I never worried that if he caught up with me, any hitting or kicking to get away would be used as evidence that he was in his rights to murder me.
That’s because I’m a white woman, and if a man chased me down and shot me dead, a few scratches on his face would probably be seen as evidence that he was really determined to hurt or kill me, not that he was acting in “self-defense”. I have the privilege of people using their basic common sense when it comes to what’s going on when creepy guys start following me. Even sexists have to admit that creepy guys stalking women are up to no good. With that in mind, if anyone ever started to chase me with the intention to restrain me against my will (which is, uh, kidnapping) or do bodily harm to me, I can give into the instinct to protect myself by fighting back without worrying that he now has the “right” to kill me.
I’ve seen a lot of conservatives arguing that Martin should have just surrendered if he didn’t want to die. Surrendered, i.e. allowed someone to arbitrarily just hold him there under threat of violence if he tries to leave (which, again, is kidnapping) because, well, he wanted to. That any random white or white-appearing dude has the apparent right to just randomly tell a young black man that he is no longer allowed to move freely, on pain of death. This is bananas. They wouldn’t say that for a white woman, and they sure as hell wouldn’t say that for a white guy.
I don’t know what else to say about this. I just wish that more people could perform the basic act of putting themselves in Trayvon’s shoes and realizing that Zimmerman just got away with, functionally, offering him the choice between surrender to a crazy man with unclear but definitely dark intentions or death. In the year 2013, in America. And somehow we’ve decided that’s legal.