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Nicole Haslinger: Zimmerman + Racial Profiling in Rhode Island

Wednesday, July 17, 2013


As George Zimmerman goes free, Rhode Island and the nation struggle with hard questions about racial profiling.

Saturday, the verdict that acquitted George Zimmerman for the murder of Trayvon Martin sent waves across our nation.

Pundits and legal experts on 24-hour news outlets debated the legal particulars of the trial: was it manslaughter, was it second-degree murder, did the prosecution misstep, and were the closing statements pithy enough? People took to Twitter, Facebook, and blogs to demand justice, and to wonder how this trial could have ended differently: If Trayvon had been a seventeen-year-old white boy, would the women on the jury have doubted that he was the aggressor?  If this were a young black woman would we have ever even heard of this case?

Protestors took to the streets in equal parts rage and grief. For the many people who were galvanized into action by the acquittal, this trial was not a case of injustice for one young boy. Rather, it was it was a case that exemplified the injustices that we see every day across the US. The results of this trial were devastating because they were all too predictable and the subsequent divided reaction to the verdict is all too telling. 

Despite the results of the trial, there are glaring issues to resolve here. The fact that Zimmerman approached Martin in the first place, out of race-based suspicion, is a problem. The fact prosecutors felt the need to argue a race-blind case, is a problem. Whether or not you believe that the Zimmerman trial was fair, so many people could identify beyond "reasonable doubt" with the Martin family's pain, and that fact should tell us that the violence of racial profiling is very real.

There is a chance, however, that we can begin to prevent further injustice. As we mourn this national tragedy, we may also learn how to create more just policy. We can take this time to build racial empathy in a nation that has been decidedly and paralyzing “color-blind” for decades.

Racial profiling is a problem here in Providence that community groups have been fighting for over a decade now. Despite clear evidence of profiling, RI legislators and police departments have made it difficult to take steps to combat it.

In 2000, the Rhode Island Traffic Stop Statistics Act required that RI Police Departments collect data on traffic stops. In 2003, Northeastern University released a study of this data that proved that non-white drivers were stopped at greater rates. When stopped, black and Latino drivers were twice as likely as white drivers to be searched. When searched, white drivers were more likely to have contraband.  As a result, the Racial Profiling Act of 2004 was passed, and the data collection continued in order to survey the effect of the act. Data released in 2006 and 2008, showed little change in police profiling. The Providence Police Department has been inconsistent in its support of community and legislative efforts, and the ACLU has had to release a fact sheet to quell fears that the act would limit police.

Organizers for the Coalition to Stop Racial Profiling have been working for two years on the Comprehensive Racial Profiling Prevention Act, a bill to help prevent profiling and offer resources to victims of it.  The Coalition is currently made up of 39 community organizations and advocacy groups, most notably the Providence Youth Student Movement (PrYSM), the Univocal Legislative Minority Advisory Coalition (ULMAC), and the RI ACLU.

The traffic-stop data and mixed support from police both point to the troubling and cyclical nature of police profiling. By criminalizing people of color, police re-create stereotypes, widen racial divides, and bolster white fear. By creating a system in which young people do not have reason to trust that law enforcers have their best interest in mind, we leave young people increasingly alienated and without support. It is disheartening how long it has taken for people to understand that racial profiling is a real and dangerous problem. Fortunately, dedicated community coalition building and organizing has made this bill a possibility.

Although the bill is currently stalled, the Co-Director of PrYSM, Chanravy Proeung believes that awareness is growing after a series of incidences of police brutality in the South Side and the West End. She also credits a series a racial profiling community forums held at the Mt. Hope Neighborhood Association, DARE (Direct Action for Rights and Equality), Central High School led by Youth In Action and PrYSM (Providence Youth Student Movement), and Brown University by the Africana Studies Department.  For those who would like to support the bill visit the Coalition’s page to find out how, sign the petition, and share this short film on profiling.

Nicole Hasslinger, a Brown University student who lives in Pawtucket, RI, hopes that the Profiling Bill is the first step of many.


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