The recent murder of Trayvon Martin, a seventeen-year-old black boy is an opportunity to explore the dimensions of disciplinary power as Michel Foucault characterizes them. On February 26, 2012, a white neighbourhood watch volunteer, George Zimmerman murdered Martin in an Orlando, FL neighbourhood. According to news sources Martin was on his way home carrying a bag of Skittles he had purchased at a nearby 7-11. Zimmerman called police to say he had seen a “suspicious person.” He confronted Martin and shot him, claiming self-defence. Martin was unarmed. Florida State police have not arrested Zimmerman, stating that there is not enough evidence to disprove his claim of self-defence. I argue that Martin’s murder and the state police’s hesitance to arrest Zimmerman are exemplary of the success of disciplinary power.
The three instruments that ensure the success of disciplinary power are hierarchical observation, normalizing judgment and the examination. Each of these instruments worked together to result in Zimmerman’s overzealous trigger finger.
Euro-American civil society inscribes black bodies as criminal and outside of the social contract. This society consequently disciplines its members to police these bodies and defend the social contract. Zimmerman’s policing for civil society resulted in his shooting of Trayvon Martin. Zimmerman’s suspicion of Martin can be understood as part of a relation of surveillance that enables the discreet functioning of disciplinary power.
When Zimmerman recognizes Martin as a “suspicious person” his response, shooting and killing him, aligns with the disciplinary mechanism of punishing non-conformity. Martin’s presence in the neighbourhood did not conform to acceptable socially prescribed locations for blacks. Zimmerman thus undertook the corrective of disciplinary punishment by confronting and shooting Martin, thereby correcting the infraction that Martin’s presence entailed. The norm in U.S. American society inscribes criminality on the black body; the norm also requires that black bodies be incarcerated or disappeared (whichever gets rid of them faster). The power of the norm (Foucault 184) and its attendant violence is very much at play in Zimmerman’s response to Martin. Martin’s black body, inscribed with criminality must be confronted and disappeared, in order to re-establish homogeneity in the neighbourhood.
Finally, by recognizing Martin as “suspicious,” calling the police, then shooting and killing him, Zimmerman passes the examination with flying colours; he acts on the knowledge that produces the reality of blackness as criminal. Zimmerman’s actions are evident of his constitution as “effect and object of power [and knowledge]” (Foucault 192). Martin’s murder, and the police’s refusal to arrest Zimmerman is evidence of the disciplinary power of civil society that constructs blackness as its prey.
Police defence of Zimmerman’s murderous shooting as self-defence against an unarmed 140-pound teenager confirms Frank Wilderson’s assessment that “there is something organic to civil society that makes it essential to the destruction of the black body” (Prison Slave, 18). Despite the public outrage about the handling of the case, and the incoherence of the logic that a 240-pound man needs to shoot a teenager half his size in self-defence, it appears that legal action cannot be taken against Zimmerman.
Foucault, Michel. 1977. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Translated by Alan Sheridan. New York, NY: Random House Publishing
Wilderson, FB. 2003. “The Prison Slave as Hegemony’s (Silent) Scandal.” Social Justice. Retrieved February 15, 2012 (http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2307/29768181).
Lady Anima Adjepong is a doctoral student at the University of Texas. Her research interests are in gender, sports, race, and class. After receiving her bachelor’s in Comparative Literature at Princeton University, Lady worked in research consulting in Washington, DC. When the political climate in the nation’s capital got to be too intense for her, she moved to Austin, where the people are hippies and politics is on the back burner. In the rare moments when she has spare time, she tries to play rugby.