Death of Trayvon Martin aggravates old racial wounds
The death of Trayvon Martin, the Florida teenager who was killed late February by George Zimmerman, a Neighborhood Watch volunteer, has sparked demonstrations across the country by people who are demanding his arrest.
In Los Angeles, far from Sanford, Fla. where Martin was killed, there have already been three solidarity demonstrations with more to follow. Justice is on the mind of these activists, but it is not solely Martin’s death that motivates them. Conversations with civil-rights advocates quickly reveal that the broader issues surrounding race and justice are fueling their campaign.
Jubilee Shine, who is currently acting as an organizer for the Los Angeles Committee for Justice for Trayvon Martin, is an advocate for community control over police. He has participated in many justice campaigns for victims of police shootings, many of whom were just like Martin — young, black and unarmed. He can quickly rattle off the names of police victims in seconds — Donovan Jackson … Devin Brown … Deondre Brunston … Oscar Grant …
“They all have the same pattern,” he said. “They are all the same in the sense that they were no danger to anybody else.”
It is the police connection in particular that pulls the Martin case into the fray. Though Martin was not killed by law enforcement, many feel the police were complicit in protecting Zimmerman from arrest. The fact that Zimmerman’s father is a judge only heightens their suspicions.
At a rally in Leimert Park last Sunday, April 1, the Black Riders Liberation Party, a group that calls itself the “next generation of Black Panthers,” led the march chanting: “Here we go again … same ol’ shit again … marching down the avenue … twenty more pigs and we’ll be through.”
The Black Riders’ chief of staff, who goes by the moniker “Lala,” likened Zimmerman to a slave overseer. She connected the death of a Virginia slave in 1799 who, she said, was murdered for being on a public street, to Martin’s death because he was killed while being on a public sidewalk.
She also urged black citizens to arm themselves and “meet violence with violence” against police or racial attacks.
“We have a constitutional right to bear arms and defend our people, children and families by any means necessary,” she said. “We have a God-given right to self-preservation.”
At a recent forum over Martin’s death, John Parker, the West Coast coordinator for the International Action Center, accused the police of a cover-up.
“This is not the first time this kind of thing has happened where a black youth was assaulted by racists and the police either got rid of the evidence or decided not to prosecute,” he said to a reporter.
Because of the way Martin’s death has captured the nation’s attention, some have likened the incident to that of 14-year-old Emmett Till, whose violent death in 1955 helped spark the civil rights movement.
Shine said when Till’s mother allowed Jet magazine to publish the photos of her son’s beaten and mutilated body on its cover, it helped confirm “what people already knew” about racism in America. A similar thing, he said, occurred when the 911 tapes over Martin’s death were released.
“Everybody could hear enough of the detail to get a sense of what happened and know that something was not right about the way this story was being swept to the side,” he said.
The other side of the debate has focused more on Martin’s reputation than race. Right-wing bloggers began to work-over Martin’s reputation by hacking into social media sites and showcasing his use of obscene gestures, as well as highlighting his being suspended from school over an empty marijuana baggie.
Los Angeles Times op-ed columnist Jonah Goldberg referred to the civil-rights leaders’ reactions to Martin’s death as “playing the race card again” with “weak-tea Marxist rants” about “the system.”
“The aging race industry that continues to see the world through a half-century-old prism of Jim Crow, and still wants you to see it that way too, is determined to bum-rush Zimmerman into his assigned role, heedless of facts or the lack of them,” he wrote.
“Weak-tea Marxist rants” aside, “the system” is definitely a point of contention with civil-rights advocates. In her speech to demonstrators, Lala directly mentioned the system, saying it has been “building off our death in the streets.”
Larry Aubry, a columnist for the Los Angeles Sentinel, also discussed the construct of society. He told LA Activist that institutional racism “still exists, but is not as potent.” He said the clearest example of this is in the public education system, which was the subject of one of his recent columns.
“Black kids are at the bottom of the ladder through out the nation,” he said. “That is a manifestation of racism, pure and simple. It has nothing to do with intelligence.”
Some also believe that racism is not the only factor in Martin’s death. In a recent New York Times op-ed, Rich Benjamin, a senior fellow at Demos, a nonpartisan research center, wrote about the psychology of gated communities and its role in profiling Trayvon Martin. He said these neighborhoods were “self-contained, conservative and overzealous in [their] demands for ‘safety.’”
“Mr. Martin’s ‘suspicious’ profile amounted to more than his black skin,” he wrote. “He was profiled as young, loitering, non-property-owning and poor.”
Activists acknowledge that classism and agism played a role in Martin’s death, but focus on race as being the main culprit. It is a sentiment shared by Parker.
“If it wasn’t racism,” he said, “then why would so many black people immediately feel so angered about this situation? It is because they are reflecting on the racism in their own lives.”
When asked about class and age, Shine brings up the story of Henry Louis Gates Jr., a black Harvard professor who was arrested in 2009 for trying to break into his own home due to a jammed front door. The case gained national attention when President Obama said police “acted stupidly.”
Despite Gates being a respected scholar living in an upscale neighborhood, he was still “treated as a problem,” said Shine.
“He’s not a poor, exploited worker at the bottom of society,” he said. “He probably travels among the highest circles of America, but when it comes to that face-to-face interaction with some knuckle-head police officer with authority it doesn’t really matter what rank he has attained because he’s still just a black person in America.”
Some still insist that Martin’s death is not over race, such as Fox News commentator Mike Huckabee, who criticized unnamed persons for using Martin’s death to increase their popularity and fill their coffers.
“Since we don’t yet know what really happened that night in Florida,” he said, “maybe fewer speeches and more tears would be in order; maybe less taking it to the streets and more taking it to the churches; maybe fewer demands for revenge, and more for reflection of the unnecessary death of a kid would be in order.”
Aubry, who was “taking it to the streets” at Sunday’s march and rally, sees things a bit clearer about racism and its role in society and in Martin’s death.
“I don’t have any answers,” he said, “but I can tell you the difference between crap and ice cream.”