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Event looks at Trayvon Martin case through queer, feminist eyes
by Yasmin Nair, Windy City Times
2013-08-21

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In the wake of the Trayvon Martin verdict, Chicago has seen several public events and workshops exploring its aftermath. On Aug. 15, queer and feminist scholars gathered at the famous Hull House for a panel titled, "Transformative Justice and The Trayvon Martin Case: A Consideration."

There have been many cries for justice and calls for the prosecution and incarceration of George Zimmerman, who shot and killed Martin. However, this panel was put together to explore the possibilities of transformative justice (TJ) in the wake of the event.

TJ emphasizes alternatives to what is called the prison—industrial complex (PIC). For its proponents, TJ forgos revenge and believes that more incarceration only worsens the conditions that made the violence possible in the first place. TJ also resists using the PIC, believing that it is in itself brutal and harmful toward both the guilty and the injured parties.

With a strong commitment to TJ, three panelists and the organizer, Mariame Kaba, addressed the immediate responses to the Trayvon Martin verdict and discussed what TJ alternatives might be.

Kaba—founding director of Project NIA, a center whose goal is to end youth incarceration—said the aim of the evening's conversation was to initiate a much-needed conversation, not to declare absolute solutions at the end.

She said that the panel came out of her long-standing sense of "being unsettled," as she grappled with first the shooting, then the various outcries for justice which went against her prison abolitionist politics, and then her certain knowledge that the verdict would be "not guilty."

At the same time, Kaba understood why another verdict had been important for many. When it came through, she was taken aback and saddened when her 13-year-old nephew asked, "Why did they not convict him? Don't they know it's wrong to kill Black kids?" She said, "He feels his life is not valuable."

Kaba went on to say that the panel would not provide easy answers but would explore "how we might envision justice in a more expansive way."

The panelists were Traci Schlesinger, associate professor of sociology at DePaul University who works on racial disparities in sentencing; Erica Meiners, professor at Northeastern Illinois University who looks at youth incarceration and the PIC; and Beth Richie, professor of criminal justice as well as gender and women's studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago whose work focuses on feminism, African-American studies and the PIC.

Schlesinger spoke of TJ as "the transformation of the social conditions that perpetuate violence." She said that the breakdown of elements like public schooling in cities like Chicago, coupled with more intense private and public policing of Black bodies like Martin's were indirectly and directly the cause of such events.

Meiners made connections between what she called "interconnected histories," of various local, national and global events, including the Bradley Manning trial, the bombing of Yemen, the expansion of the prison system, the high presence of police in Chicago public schools and the targeting of trans youth.

According to Meiners, a TJ model would consider the connections between such issues in terms of how they pushed for greater policing and violence.

Beth Richie spoke of the "degradation of young people in our communities, because of how the state thinks of them." In that sense, she emphasized, it was natural that everyone should think collectively about how to respond to their deaths, and that "the mourning then turns into an action [such as outcries for revenge or marches] that feels important."

But, Richie continued, "If we only embrace punishment and conviction, we will only be responding to dead bodies, we'll keep finding ourselves calling for the same actions." Like the other speakers, she cautioned against using the PIC to call for justice: "It will not diminish in power and control, and instead gives the state more legitimacy."

The rest of the panel and the Q&A session continued with panelists and participants discussing both the difficulties and possibilities of TJ.


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