Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Justice for Trayvon Martin

For the past few days, I’ve been thinking a lot about Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old teen slain because he was viewed as “suspicious” by George Zimmerman in the gated community in Florida where his father lived. Trayvon was accosted, and tragically, slain as he returned from a halftime errand to 7-11 to buy iced tea and Skittles while watching the NBA All Star game. What happened to this child was unconscionable and deplorable. There will be no justice in this case without a thorough investigation and an arrest of Zimmerman, who still remains at large and has yet to be arrested for taking Martin’s life. Many in this nation, including numerous African Americans, have viewed the investigation as one in which police have invested too much belief in Zimmerman’s questionable story about what happened without reviewing all of the facts.

It has mystified a great many of us that Zimmerman has had the audacity to argue that he felt threatened by Trayvon though he followed (dare I say “stalked?”) this child on the street, accosted him, had a gun, and ultimately took this boy’s life. That Zimmerman felt endangered simply does not add up in light of the facts of the case. Many young boys, whatever their identity category, would rightly find a strange adult man following them down the street in a car and accosting them at night to be threatening and intimidating, for example, and would take measures to flee or protect themselves, to the point of putting up a fight. Many youth have been rightly advised by their parents and guardians to be wary of strangers in a day and time when we hear about so many cases of child abduction and missing children and about the adults who routinely target and prey on them. Zimmerman was clearly the imposter and the aggressor in this situation. What might most people be imagining about him, for example, had he chased and tackled a teenage girl to the ground who had been walking down the street alone minding her own business? Conceivably, in a neighborhood where all of the condos seemed to look very similar and that may not have been familiar to him, Trayvon was likely lost, confused, and trying to figure out which unit to go to on the walk home, especially given that it was a rainy evening. This is an environmental factor that some have not been aware of in this case. His hoodie and tennis shoes that seemed to so perplex and intimidate Zimmerman are almost a uniform for teens everywhere and were perfect attire for a quick trip to the store in the rain. Something is horribly wrong in a society that urges black men to be good fathers and to spend time with their sons when something like this can be the end result of an evening at home watching a basketball game with one’s sons.

The pictures that we have seen of Trayvon tell the story of a youth who did everything from play football to ski. He was active, engaged, healthy and even handsome enough to be a teen model. It must not be forgotten that Trayvon Martin was stereotyped not only because of his skin color but also because of his tall, athletic body type at 6’3.” As a tall woman myself, I am very conscious of how this child was profiled at that level, bitterly resent it, and would not want a child of mine, including a son, subjected to such vile and intrusive intimidation by a grown bullying man. Predictably, reactionaries who can’t imagine that black teen boys exist who don’t belong to gangs or sell drugs have even tried to link racial stereotypes to someone as clean cut as Trayvon instead of sharing the outrage that many of us now feel. It is important for any apologists for Zimmerman to understand that the sky is falling where their safety and security are concerned if they live in a society where what happened to Trayvon could, indeed, happen to anyone at all. These people, including some national commentators, would rather “close ranks,” remain silent and stand in implicit solidarity with someone whose actions were as questionable as Zimmerman’s than condemn the wrongful death of an innocent child simply because the child is black. The only thing I can say is God help their hardened hearts!

The real issue here, too, has to do with living in a society that constantly conveys a sense of black unbelonging and authorizes and empowers anyone with white skin to violate black citizenship rights through racial profiling and other intrusive forms of surveillance and policing. On the other hand, a twisted logic that constantly presumes white innocence, innocuousness, goodness, honesty, sincerity, reasonableness, and a zillion other positive qualities has enabled many criminals to go free. This is the kind of logic that allowed the police to turn Konerak Sinthasomphone, the 14-year old boy found naked, delirious, and wandering in the street in 1991 and whose condition was reported by two women, back over to serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, who claimed that the child was his nineteen-year-old boyfriend and went on to take his life. The view of blacks as being “outsiders” and “others” in this society and in his community regardless of their class status and property resources, and Zimmerman’s view of himself as being an insider whose actions would be upheld by the law, in part led to this horrible tragedy.

As I have thought about this case, I can’t help but see what happened to Trayvon in the continuum with the kind of vigilante violence to which countless black victims in the South and elsewhere in this nation have been subjected. I can’t help but think of another young boy, Emmett Till, who took a fateful walk to the store in 1955. Bebe Moore Campbell’s novel Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine, which is based on this painful history, captures the vulnerability, confusion, helplessness and anguish of a teen at the hands of a mob in a vivid passage in this novel. All of this flashed to mind for me when I heard the heartbreaking 911 tapes.

In my current research, I am focusing some of my research on civil rights heroine Rosa Parks. It is sobering that in her actual work as secretary for E.D. Nixon in the NAACP in Montgomery, and even before her arrest in 1955 that led to the historic Montgomery Bus Boycott, she methodically documented and studied so many cases related to racial injustices against blacks. I am a product myself of all-black Catholic schools and attended the historic St. Jude Educational Institute in high school, located at the City of St. Jude, which famously provided the final camping ground of the Selma-to-Montgomery marchers in 1965. The night that my senior class graduated from high school in 1989, our parents threw a party for us at the club house of an apartment complex. The party was full of our parents, who had invested a lot in the party and literally decorated the place and set tables with party favors. Their turnout to chaperone and supervise that party was nearly at 100%. Music was barely playing as it began. It was a party that many youth in the city, including those from public schools, attended. At the party that night, no one was even dancing and the party had barely started when five police cars arrived to break it up because of a noise complaint. The real “noise” was the presence of black youth at a predominately white apartment complex. I knew that even as someone who had just turned 18, and as this unbelievable moment cast a shadow over a world that would have definitely struck most sociologists at the time, including many black ones, as unbelievable. This definitely felt very weird and shocking, to say the least, especially to a cohort like ours.

The same law enforcement officers that turn their heads to drugs, alcohol, sex and loud music at parties in other cases are ready to presume the worst when it comes to black youth. Many black teens, in some shape, form or fashion, become familiar with this tired double standard that views black youth as a threat and white youth as innocent young people simply "having fun” who, indeed, have the right to let loose, be free and have a good time. Zimmerman stacked on the stereotypes in his wild, whacky and even childish imagination and just presumed that Trayvon was an imposter, was on drugs, was up to no good, and was hiding a weapon of some kind. In his careless game of detective, he presumed he had it all figured out. Trayvon experienced the most extreme and reprehensible version of racial profiling inflected by racialized perceptions of black youth as dangerous and deviant. Zimmerman was acting more like a boy playing a game of cops and robbers than an adult, and even his record that reveals the assault of a police officer makes many people wonder why he has continued to be upheld and protected by the law when he obviously has some serious issues. That this society continues to operate on so many racial prejudices and blind spots honestly sickens and disgusts me and makes me resent that it offers so few protections to people who are born into it and who grow up in it during the one life they have to live. America must do better and be better when it comes to issues like this.

Today I signed the petition on the Change.org site in solidarity with Trayvon Martin, his family, and all of those who care about this case. I applaud those who have also signed, and urge as many others as possible to sign as well. This is yet another case that reminds people of African descent that our civil rights and even basic human rights are at risk. My thoughts and prayers are with Trayvon Martin’s family and friends.

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