Reflections on George Zimmerman

by Joshua Dubler

Joshua Dubler is the author of Down in the Chapel: Religious Life in an American Prison, which follows a group of prisoners serving life sentences at Graterford Prison. FSG published Down in the Chapel earlier this month.

The acquittal of George Zimmerman last month elicited little surprise at Pennsylvania’s Graterford prison. My friend Charles Coley, who is black and is serving life, characterized the collective sigh in a letter: “There was not much consternation here because people here did not expect any outcome other than what happened. People understand the times, and how so little has changed.”

Stories of stasis are never true, and in his lament Charles actually understates his case. Over time, the entanglements of race and the justice system have arguably worsened. Since Charles came to Graterford more than forty years ago, the number of Pennsylvanians in prison has climbed six hundred percent. Back then, Pennsylvania had five prisons; now it has twenty-five. African Americans have been disproportionately affected. The incarceration rate for black Pennsylvanians is nine times that of their white counterparts.

Charles maintains that he is not guilty of the crime for which he was convicted, and in this he surely has company. Without question, the vast majority of men housed at Graterford did their crimes, and a good number have killed. But the commission of criminal acts has not been the primary driver of prison expansion either in Pennsylvania or nationwide. Rather, the New Jim Crow era has been brought about by decisions undertaken in the Capitol, executed in the bureaucracy, and applied by the courts: the imposition of mandatory minimum sentences, restrictions on parole, and the effective end of commutation. For Charles, the last of these has been most devastating. When he first came to Graterford as a life prisoner — though statutorily barred from parole — Charles could have reasonably hoped for legal relief. Now it will take a miracle for him to die someplace other than in prison.

But if Graterford’s morgue is the terminus, the pipeline starts back in Philadelphia with Charles’s grandchildren. With the implementation of zero-tolerance policies and excessive policing in poorer urban districts, the sorts of race-based disparities that have long defined the American criminal justice system now begin in school.

The pressure on Philadelphia’s children continues to build. As part of its “Doomsday Budget,” the Philadelphia School District closed twenty-four schools in June. Those that remain open are prepared to operate without support staff; without music, art and athletics; without libraries. Meanwhile, on the nearby grounds of Graterford Prison, construction continues on two new facilities to house 4,000 prisoners, at a cost of $400 million. According to the governor, the opening of State Correctional Institutions Phoenix East and West will mean the discontinuance of the existing facility. But past precedent says otherwise.

Why the hell are we doing this? At the inception of this madness, fear of violent crime played a primary role, but violent crime rates have been down for a generation. Once upon a time, administrators passionately spoke the language of rehabilitation, but with sentences longer and resources for programs sparer, that talk seems quaint.

As Nietzsche and Foucault encouraged us to see, the things institutions do are frequently much more enduring than are the reasons offered for why they are done. From a critical standpoint, the most important thing is the yield. And so, what then have we done?

We have built a system that feeds on the young, the poor, and especially the black. As Charles wrote, it is a monster that “swallows our men and boys into its dark bowels without a burp; or a school system conveyer belt that pushes them out the doors whether they can’t read or add; or people killing them in cold-blood simply because the mere sight of one of their God given faces scared them to our death.”

In spite of all the death, one finds a range of strategies for living on. In Graterford’s chapel, whose religious life is the subject of my new book, many come to reject the systemic chaos that brought them there, and live instead in a world cobbled together with ancient texts—an idealized world of sense and order, justice and grace. With God made sovereign, ethics becomes a matter of obedience to His will.

Charles, who is himself a chapel mainstay, refuses such fatalism: “The time is here for the black and brown to get rid of all restrictions on their right to be looked upon as human beings created in the spirit of the Creator. There must be a methodological push to remove all of the collars of demonization, all artificial convictions and fanciful myths, about who and what we are.”

I solicited Charles Coley’s thoughts on the Zimmerman verdict in part because I felt poorly positioned to comment myself. Bemoaning injustice at a distance feels too easy. It costs nothing for someone like me to decry the utter insanity of Florida’s stand-your-ground laws, or the manifest racism that, in Charles’s formulation, scared George Zimmerman to Trayvon Martin’s death. Harder is to locate one’s own position within such systematized terror.

In David Dinkins’ New York, where I went to high school, getting mugged was a rite of passage. But if the early days of the prison explosion shadowed the death of the American city, the last two decades have accompanied its rebirth. While I no longer live in the city, these days people like me tend to feel the costs of Bloomberg’s New York most acutely when they are cutting their rent check. But others pay in more corporeal ways.

The new New York has bestowed a bounty: who knew that Central Park is so magnificent in the dark? And so, when I’m in town, I’ll sometimes take a nighttime bike ride or stroll. In the lusciousness of the sleeping park, tooling around without fear, it doesn’t occur to me to remember that someplace not too far away, a child, suddenly stopped by a police officer, may wonder if he is going to make it home.
Joshua Dubler is an assistant professor of religion at the University of Rochester and the coauthor of Bang! Thud: World Spirit from a Texas School Book Depository. He has also taught at Haverford College, Columbia University, and Villanova University’s program at Graterford Prison.