TRAYVON MARTINS: a tragic case of racism in America

TRAYVON’S CASE IGNITES A NEW CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT, OR DOES IT?/// BY Margaretta wa Gacheru. Published in Daily Nation’s DN2 8.2013/// Just as the OJ Simpson trial captured the attention of Kenyans who, nearly a decade ago, closely watched the way race relations played out in the American judicial system, so Kenyans have been equally gripped by the ghoulish American story of a brown man (one who Malcolm X would have described as a ‘house nigger’), armed with a gun and honorary title of ‘neighbourhood watch man’, who shot and killed a teenage black boy whose only ‘crime’ was wearing a hoodie and walking through a gated community carrying a bag of crisps, bottle of ice tea and cell phone. Trayvon Martin had been talking to his Haitian girlfriend when he felt someone following him. He expressed his justifiable concern to her just before some sort of scuffle broke out followed by a gunshot which the girl heard. She was the last person to speak to Trayvon before he died. And one might imagine that her testimony in court would have sealed the fate of George Zimmerman, the volunteer cop who openly admitted to killing her friend. Yet Zimmerman claimed in court that he felt ‘threatened’ by the black boy who supposedly attacked him. That he shot Trayvon ‘in self defence’ seemed unbelievable to people of colour, especially to African American men whose very existence was described over a century ago by the Black scholar W.E.B. DuBois in his classic The Souls of Black Folk as “a problem to be dealt with, managed and controlled but never solved.” Zimmerman was charged with second degree murder, but a six women jury made up of five white women and one Puerto Rican Latina, voted unanimously for his acquittal of all charges. The only person of colour on the jury has since stated on national television that she believed ‘Zimmerman got away with murder’ but in good conscience, she claimed she had to obey the controversial ‘stand your ground’ law which entitled Zimmerman to shoot Trayvon since the Pervian-born armed watchman claimed he felt endangered by the unidentified black man. It was a verdict that has enflamed raw emotions all across America among people of colour, including liberal whites, who are incredulous and stunned that race relations in America are apparently still as backward and biased as they were when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led the civil rights movement in the 1960s. But while Blacks are protesting all across America, even holding a Million Hoodie March across the land and conducting sit-ins against what they see as the racist ‘stand your ground’ law, the mainstream (corporate) media (especially the powerful Fox News station, mouthpiece for Rupurt Murdoch and other Tea Party Republicans) have sought to vilify Trayvon and absolve Zimmerman of any hint of guilt. The media, including CNN, even tried to raise doubts as to whether the killing of the 17 year old boy had anything to do with race relations in America! Wanting desperately to retain the unreal narrative that America has moved beyond the civil rights era and is now a ‘post-racial society’, the mainstream coverage of the Trayvon case sought to ignore the nationwide protests and the multiple voices insisting that the tragic case of Trayvon Martin has ushered in a new era of civil rights protests, this time against racial profiling and ‘stand your ground’ laws, the proliferation of guns and racist efforts to curtail minority voting rights. For African Americans and other people of colour, there was no question but that race played a critical part not only in Trayvon’s death and the deaths of countless African American men such as Rodney King, Emmett Till and Amadou Diallo; but also race had everything to do with the jury’s selection and its verdict, which many cynical social critics claim was ‘inevitable’ given Zimmerman’s role of ostensibly protecting the private property rights of wealthy elites from one ‘suspicious’ black man walking in the wrong place at the wrong time. What mystified me is how that decision could have been left to a jury of practically all white women. I apparently wasn’t the only one questioning the wisdom and justice of choosing a jury which seemed so flagrantly ‘stacked’ in favour of Zimmerman. One only needs to recall the way countless Black men have been lynched historically by white supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan for supposedly lusting after their white women. The brutal bludgeoning and killing of the black teenager Emmett Till aroused so much outrage among African Americans in the 1950s that it is said to have been the spark that ignited the Civil Rights era which is being celebrated this year in light of Dr Martin Luther King, Jr’s “I have a Dream’ speech which was given exactly 50 years ago in 1963. Emmett Till was an innocent teenage boy who is said to have had a slight lisp, which was interpreted by one Southern white woman shopkeeper as a suggestive whistle which she reported as the boy’s unsolicited sexual advance. Emmett was grabbed and brutally murdered without being given a moment to defend himself. When his body was shipped back up North to his mother, she intentionally had an open casket at his funeral. His mangled body so shocked and appalled the Black community that the outrage served as the catalyst that is said to have activated the nationwide civil rights movement which was led by Dr. King. To ensure that Black rage elicited by the perceived injustice of the jury’s verdict not re-activate the same sort of passionate activism witnessed in the 1960s, the American corporate media, including its supposedly liberal wing, CNN, sought to explain that the six women were picked according to laid-down legal procedures. There was supposedly no bias involved in the court’s selection of the six, claimed another white woman commentator. The fact that the one woman of colour on the jury has finally come out and confessed she believed George Zimmerman was guilty of murdering Trayvon serves as some consolation for those who believe the same thing. And yet, the Latina woman known as Maddy claims she had ‘no choice’ but to obey the ‘stand your ground’ law. Her opinion has been strongly contested by African American lawyers like Seema Iyer, a specialist in constitutional, criminal and civil rights law, who says if Maddy had held her ground, the verdict would have been a ‘hung’ jury and that would have been more accurate. Nonetheless, another one of the six jurists also came out on national TV and had the gall to claim Trayvon ‘got what he deserved’ since he shouldn’t have been walking there in the first place. This is to say that racism still persists in the USA, no matter how hard the media spokesmen and women may argue that race ‘had nothing to do’ with Trayvon’s death. One of the reasons that President Barack Obama has received so much flak in the media for having empathized in a recent speech with Trayvon is because he challenged the narrative of the dominant class which wants to pretend that America is a ‘post-racial’ society so it no longer needs affirmative action laws that protect people of colour from racist bigotry and the rolling back of rights acquired when African Americans actively engaged in non-violent civil disobedience. Much has been made of President Obama openly identifying with dead boy and stating that “Thirty-five years ago, Trayvon could have been me.” Yet critics like the African American professor Cornell West feel however courageous Obama’s message might seem, he has done little to nothing to reverse the “new Jim Crow laws” that have indeed begun to roll back civil rights legislation protecting Blacks. His critics have also noted that those few words have been the only ones on the topic of race that he has uttered since his famous “Race Speech” given during his campaigning for the presidency in 2007. Yet however little or late Obama’s remarks on race may have been, they served to debunk the myth that America has become a ‘colour blind society.’ The Trayvon tragedy has played an even more disruptive role in exposing the reality that African American people have never been in doubt about. For as the Rev. Dr. Calvin Butts III, Pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem put it after the Zimmerman case’s verdict was read: Now we know “we are not in a post-racial society.” Yet Black Americans don’t need convincing that racism isn’t dead. One only needs to check out a few statistics to be convinced. For instance, while Blacks make up 13 per cent of the national population in the US, more than half of America’s homicide victims and culprits were Black in 2011. And out of the 2.3 million people incarcerated in American jails, no less than one million are Black. And since the collapse of the US economy around 2008, minority communities have been harder hit than white ones, according to Michael Scherer and Elizabeth Dias writing in Time magazine’s July 29 issue. “From 2007 to 2010, according to the Urban Institute, black family wealth fell by 31 per cent, compared with an 11 per cent decline for whites.” Finally, the unemployment rate among Black Americans, which is 13.7 per cent, is more than twice the 6.6 per cent rate of whites. In the view of Dr Eddie Claude, Jr, Chairman of Princeton University’s Center for African American Studies, “[Blacks] are experiencing what I would call a black Great Depression.” What is perhaps the most disheartening aspect of the Trayvon Martin case is that it has left many Black parents feeling helpless and hopeless to protect their children, especially their sons. According to Jeannine Amber, a senior writer for Essence magazine, the moment parents watched George Zimmerman walk out of court a ‘free man’ thanks to the jury’s ‘not guilty’ verdict, they knew no matter how hard they tried to protect their boys, they could be stopped and treated like criminals by police even when they had committed no crime. Prior to the verdict, Amber said, Black parents at least held out the hope that they could counsel their boys on how best to behave in the presence of armed police: stay cool, cooperate fully and don’t put your hands anywhere near your pockets lest a cop believes you are going for a gun. But now, in light of Zimmerman’s not guilty verdict—despite his openly admitting he shot Trayvon, parents don’t know how to protect their sons since the new ‘stand your ground’ laws has opened the door wide to not just police but civilians shooting anyone they deem ‘dangerous’ or suspicious looking. Nonetheless, there seems to be a correlation between Emmett Till and Trayvon Martin in the sense that both their cases have served as catalysts to spark social movements that have the capacity to bring about meaningful social change in the US. Already there have been demonstrations all across the country, protesting the verdict and giving the one Latina jurist the nerve to come out and admit she was pressured by the other five to vote alongside them. Already, Black clergy in black churches all across the country are committing themselves to waging non-violent campaigns against racial profiling and the impunity associated with ‘stand your ground’ laws. In Florida, there’s already a four week old sit-in at the state capital to demand that Governor Rick Scott remove the state’s ‘stand your ground’ law from the books. The sit-in could very well serve the new civil rights movement in a way similar to the Sixties’ sit-ins turned the tide of public awareness in the early 1960s. It has been painful for both of Trayvon’s parents to speak in public about the tragedy of losing their son in such a cruel and callous fashion. But his mother, Sybrina Fulton, has asked that her son’s death not be in vain, but that it serves as an incentive for the public of all shades and colours to come forth and demand that racial profiling come to an end, and that America finally live up to its potential to become a truly pluralistic, non-racial society. It’s a tall order but perhaps parents and children will see that no child or adult is safe in America unless the madness of murdering, maiming and incarcerating innocent black men and boys come to an end.

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