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If you have a Netflix account — or like myself, shamelessly log in to a friend’s — you have probably heard of the series Making a Murderer. I was told to watch it because, and I quote, “you will never be more likely to yell at your computer screen.” As someone who frequently directs angry outbursts towards her laptop, I was intrigued.
For those who don’t know, the show is a documentary series about a man named Steven Avery and his dubious relationship with his local police department in Wisconsin. The series provides a pretty compelling case that law enforcement framed Avery for rape and murder. The show is gripping. Kudos to Netflix for making what should be boring material fascinating; there are not many things that could convince me to voluntarily sit through hours of court proceedings. While watching I did indeed direct some choice words towards my computer.
I was not alone in my rage. The hashtag #FreeSteveAvery exploded on Twitter, I’ve seen Tinder bios include people’s passionate feelings about the case, and an acquaintance posted a photo on Facebook of them holding a sign reading “Steve Avery is innocent!” at a hockey game. So if the Avery case has forced us to admit that maybe — just maybe — we have systematic failings in our criminal justice system, then why aren’t we able to admit that race may also play a part?
When talking about law enforcement we should be keeping the Black Lives Matter movement in mind, especially when discussing police misconduct. As of last month, the Federal Bureau of Prisons reported that Black inmates made up 37.8 percent of America’s prison population, but only 13.2 percent of the general population. Don’t let yourself believe this is only an American problem. According to Statistics Canada, Indigenous adults represented 26 percent of those taken into custody in 2013 and 2014 while making up only three percent of the population. This is not due to a higher number of Black or Indigenous people committing crimes, but instead flaws in our social and judicial systems that perpetuate systemic racism.
Steve Avery is White, which is not to say that he did not have barriers between him and a just trial. Avery comes from an impoverished family and has an IQ of 70. Throughout the series he is acutely aware of the constraints he faces due to class. The problem is that while his story is a compelling example of the miscarriage of justice, he is not unique. His case is not even the only preposterous high profile example of police and judicial misconduct in recent memory. In 2013, George Zimmerman was acquitted for shooting of the unarmed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. In 2014 a grand jury decided not to indict the police officer that held Eric Garner in an illegal chokehold until he died. In 2015, a grand jury elected not to issue an indictment in connection to the death of Sandra Bland, a woman who died in jail — allegedly a suicide — after being pulled over for failing to signal when changing lanes. If there are countless examples of People of Colour being mistreated by the police and the courts, many of which are just as scandalous or more so than Avery’s case, then why is Making a Murderer about a white man, someone who is statistically underrepresented in American jails?
The answer is that we are much more comfortable relating to, pardoning, and fighting for White criminals, fictional or not. We love our Walter Whites, our Peaky Blinders, our Sopranos, our Boardwalk Empires, our Deadpools, and so on. We aren’t even that concerned if our dubious heroes are less savoury characters. Making a Murderer shows Steven Avery’s disturbing letters to his ex-wife, threatening her with violence, but we forgive him because we are invested in a very specific narrative: a White man being the victim of a miscarriage of justice who deserved better.
So if the Avery case has forced us to admit that maybe — just maybe — we have systematic failings in our criminal justice system, then why aren’t we able to admit that race may also play a part?
Next month is Black History Month, and it would be foolish of us to assume that our work regarding racism is done. It is uncomfortable to think that the people we have been told will protect us — officers, lawyers and judges — may not be as unbiased as we would like to believe. However, if we are willing to defend Steven Avery then we should without hesitation stand up for the Trayvon Martins, the Eric Garners, and the Sandra Blands in our midst.