By Horace Campbell
Trayvon Martin was shot and killed on February 26, 2012 in Sanford Florida while walking from a neighbourhood store. The murder and the clumsy attempts by the police to cover up the real circumstances have exposed the callous and deep racism of sections of the criminal justice system. The information on the circumstances of the murder has sparked a new phase of mobilization against racism, racial profiling and hate crimes in the United States as details of the nature of his death becomes more widely known.
Trayvon Martin was targeted because he was a black youth and his murder highlights the structural and open violence in the United States. This murder reminded all who were talking about post-racial USA of the deep entrenched racism. Blacks face this racism in all areas of life, from kindergarten, in the school system, on the streets, where they live and in this case how they end their lives. Whether it was the case of Amadou Diallo who was shot with 41 bullets by the New York Police, James Bryd (chained in Texas and dragged through the streets), Anthony Hill (lynched in Mississippi) or the thousands of other innocent black males who have been killed in cold blood, these murders expose the dangers of living and walking while black in the United States.
The killer of Trayvon Martin, George Zimmerman, admitted that he had killed the young 17-year-old, claiming that he shot Trayvon in self-defense. Decent people all across the USA have been outraged as many parents have identified with the parents of Trayvon who lost their son. The remobilization has taken the form of protests, demonstrations, teach-ins, prayer vigils, marches and other forms of expressions that are calling for the arrest of George Zimmerman. The media is going overboard linking this episode to one person, but this killing has brought out in the open the depth of the issue of racism in the United States. We will agree with Frantz Fanon,
‘Racism is not the whole but the most visible, the most day-to-day, the crudest element of a given structure….We must look for the consequences of this racism on the cultural level. Racism, as we have seen, is only one element of a vaster whole: that of the systematized oppression of a people.’
In our commentary we draw attention to the escalation of hate crimes and violence in the United States in the past five years. For the oppressed forces, the killing of Trayvon Martin is serving as on inspiration for those who want to speak out against the demagoguery and hatred that has been spread in the United States in the midst of the capitalist depression. This case is again bringing attention to the world that 21st century racism and violence against the black people in the United States is still rampant.
On February 26, 2012, Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old Florida High School student was shot and killed in a gated community in Florida. Gated communities abound in areas such as Florida where the protection of private property is more important than human lives. George Zimmerman, the killer, claimed that he shot Trayvon in self-defense. Zimmerman, 28, a self -appointed neighborhood watch captain is more than ten years older and weighs 80 pounds(about 30 kilos) more that Trayvon Martin. The police first took him into custody but at the direction of the prosecutor failed to book him. Zimmerman was not arraigned nor administered a drug or alcohol test. They also did not run a background check on Zimmerman.
Trayvon was in this community, the Retreat of Twin Lakes, to visit his father. He had gone to the neighborhood store to purchase skittles (candy) and a drink and was walking back to the abode of his father. This was when Zimmerman saw the teenager.
There is evidence now to show that Trayvon Martin was singled out because in the United States young black males are profiled as criminals. This is especially the case for young black males wearing hoodies. A hoodie is a sweat shirt with a hood, which has become part of the apparel of youth in the United States. The 911 transcripts clearly show that Zimmerman viewed the young African American as a criminal and his communications with the police showed that he believed that he could take the law in his own hands. The Miami Herald newspaper reported that Zimmerman was a “habitual caller” to the police, making 46 calls since January 2011. He was out on his in the neighborhood as a self-appointed watchman, packing his concealed 9mm pistol, when he called 911:
‘We’ve had some break-ins in my neighborhood, and there’s a real suspicious guy … this guy looks like he’s up to no good, or he’s on drugs or something.’
Later in the call, Zimmerman exclaims:
‘OK. These assholes always get away … [Expletive], he’s running.’
Sounds of Zimmerman moving follow, along with a controversial utterance from Zimmerman, under his breath, considered by many to be “[Expletive] coons.” The sound of his running prompted the 911 operator to ask, ‘Are you following him?’ Zimmerman replied, ‘Yeah,’ to which the dispatcher said, ‘OK, we don’t need you to do that.’
Despite being told by the police dispatcher not to follow the youth, Zimmerman follows in his sports utility vehicle.
There are racial epithets that were being used by Zimmerman to show that his actions were motivated by racial hatred. The recording brings us the words (expletive) coon. The word coon is the derogatory term that had been used by white racists in the Jim Crow era of the United States.
The youth knew that he was being followed and was speaking to his girlfriend at the time. In this cell phone conversation between Trayvon and his 16-year-old girlfriend in Miami, we know that, far from seeking a confrontation, the youth had become aware that he was being followed and was seeking to get away as fast as he could without drawing attention by running. He was on the phone with his girlfriend so we have one view of what happened next.
When Zimmerman got closer to Martin, she told her boyfriend to run, but Martin told her that he was not going to run, she said.
‘What are you stopping me for?’ Martin asked Zimmerman, according to the girl.
‘What are you doing around here?’ Zimmerman asked in response.
The girl said she then got the impression that an altercation was taking place and that someone had pushed Martin, because the headset fell out of his ear, and the phone shut off.
Next we have another 911 recording from a woman who hears someone crying for help, then a gunshot. The police arrive. They accept the story of Zimmerman. The body of Trayvon Martin was taken to the Morgue. He was killed for walking while black.
The parents of Trayvon Martin are distraught. They became the point for the mobilization against the police handling of the case and after public pressure; the city of Sanford played the tapes for Martin’s family, then released the audio recordings.
It is now emerging after one month that the lead homicide investigator had filed an affidavit urging that Zimmerman be charged with manslaughter. The prosecutor, however, told the officer to not file the charge because there was not enough evidence for conviction.
STAND YOUR GROUND LAW
The killing of Trayvon Martin follows the modern day lynchings of young blacks in the United States. Since the elections of 2008, racial violence has intensified in the United States. This has been manifest both in anti-black violence and in anti-Muslim violence. Last week Saturday, Shaima Alawadi, an Iraqi immigrant and mother of five, died after being taken off life support, On the previous Wednesday, the 32-year-old was brutally attacked in her El Cajon home in Southern California. Alawadi’s teenage daughter, 17, came home to find her mother unconscious on the dining-room floor, having been beaten in the head with a tire iron. She had been targeted because of her religion.
These hate crimes have increased after the US media gave the nod to the conservative right wing forces in the society. Hate groups and hate crimes are on the increase since the election of Barack Obama with these hate crimes increasing from 608 in 2000 to 1,018 in 2011.These crimes have been backed up by the polluted atmosphere of the conservatives where racist demagoguery has been employed to justify police and vigilante-style violence, culminating in the passage of legislation like Florida’s notorious “Stand Your Ground” law and similar laws in over 17 other states. Characteristically, it was under the conservative Governorship of Jeb Bush when the state of Florida in 2005 passed a broad “stand your ground” law, which allows Florida residents to use deadly force against a threat without attempting to back down from the situation.
A 2010 study by the Tampa Bay Times found that “justifiable homicides” had tripled in the state since the law went into effect. These laws sanction the use of deadly force in public places by individuals if they have a “reasonable fear” that an assailant could seriously harm them or someone else.
REMEMBER EMMITT TILL
In many ways the mobilization around the murder of Trayvon Martin is reminiscent of the massive organization that developed in the United States after the murder of Emmitt Till in Mississippi in 1955. On August 20, 1955, Emmitt Till, a 14 year-old, African-American boy from Chicago, had gone to visit relatives in Money, Mississippi, a tiny cotton gin town on the eastern edge of the Mississippi Delta. His mutilated corpse was returned to Chicago in a coffin less than two weeks later. He had been killed by racists because he was supposed to have whistled at a white woman. The national attention that came from the work of his mother had a significant impact on the civil rights movement. His mother had left the coffin open for the world to see how the white racists had killed and mutilated the body of her son.
The parents of Trayvon Davis are not traditional activists. There are no reports that they have been active politically but in the pursuit of the truth about their child they have sparked a national outrage.
These parents have pressured the society and are leading the call for the arrest and detention of George Zimmerman. In the process they have been able to expose the Sanford police department, the prosecutor, and their history of racist oppression. Mother Jones Magazine reported that,
‘Sanford PD’s officers have suffered a series of public missteps in recent years, according to local reporters. In 2006 two private security guards—the son of a Sanford police officer, and a volunteer for the department—killed a black teen with a single gunshot in his back. Even though they admitted to never identifying themselves, the guards were released without charges. In 2009, after an assailant allegedly attempted to rape a child in her home, the department was called to task for sitting on the suspect’s fingerprints, delaying identification and pursuit of the attacker.’
The record pointed to numerous incidents where the police department supported killers of black people. In this case, the pressures and national outcry has forced the police chief, Bill Lee to temporarily step aside. A single on-line petition calling for Trayvon killer’s arrest has nearly 2 million signatures and growing every day. There have been continuous demonstrations with a new sense of organizing at every level of the black community in the United States. On Monday afternoon, on my campus more than 300 students held a vigil on the main quad, all dressing in hoodies to show their solidarity with the murdered youth. They wore signs stating “we are Trayvon Martin.” Last week, tens of thousands marched in Sanford , Florida and thousands more rallied in cities across the US.
This form of mobilization is now taking place with every rally, young black youth telling stories of their profiling. Mothers are telling stories of how they have to train their black children how to walk and respond to strangers on the streets. In my own community, the black chief of police has recounted how he himself has been profiled and followed in a store.
IF I’D HAVE A SON HE’D LOOK LIKE TRAYVON
When the story broke, the mainstream news media tried to avoid the issues but a few journalists supported the parents and the story is now dominant. But the corporate media has been forced by the massive outcry by black people at every level of the society. Black Congress persons wore hoodies to the House of Representative.
It became so pressing that last Friday, President Obama was compelled to comment on the killing of Trayvon Martin. On March 23, addressing the media during a Rose Garden press conference to announce his nomination of Dartmouth President Jim Young Kim to run the World Bank, President Obama spoke publicly about the case, expressing relief that the Department of Justice was on the case and saying it was ‘absolutely imperative that we investigate every aspect of this.’
‘I can only imagine what these parents are going through,’ he said. ‘And when I think about this boy, I think about my own kids. I think every parent in America should be able to understand why it is absolutely imperative that we investigate every aspect of this.’
‘I think all of us have to do some soul searching to figure out how does something like this happen.’
He added, ‘When I think about that boy, I think about my own kids…If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon. I think they are right to expect that all of us as Americans are going to take this with the seriousness this deserves and get to the bottom of what happened.’
It is from the massive demonstration across the country that forced the justice Department to launch an investigation into the shooting of Trayvon Martin.
THE HEIGHTENED MOBILIZATION
The case of Trayvon has brought to the forefront the issues of racial profiling and living while black in the United States. Many politicians from different sides of the political divide have declared the killing a tragedy, but after the statement by Barack Obama the right wing forces have doubled down to discredit Trayvon Martin and sully his character. Right wing sources are spreading stories that he had traces of marijuana in his bag and that he had been suspended from school. As if to say that these were justifications for his killings.
The mobilization is mounting and the conservative media is now working overtime to dampen the massive organizing that is going on in the black communities. The right wing is scheming to deepen the divisions among the working peoples and to exploit the tensions so that black, white and Latino working peoples do not organize against the forces that benefit from the killing and profiling of young blacks.
The capitalist crisis has brought the questions of racism and white supremacy to the forefront of the society. In the past, white supremacy bound white people together but the insecurity generated by the deepening depression has broken the fundamental ideas that legitimized this society. The idea that the society is dominated by one per cent must now be linked to the connections between whiteness and private property. Progressive whites have been able to critique the deformities of whiteness in the United States and how this has affected the intellectual culture. Institutionalized racism (especially in the areas of education, medicine and the prison industrial complex) has deepened in this period of crisis.
Driving while black was dangerous in most parts of the United States because of the constant harassment by the police. Today, walking while black is a hazard and in spaces such as New York City 90 per cent of those who are stopped and frisked are young black and brown peoples. This racial profiling and ‘the war on drugs’ ensured that one in three black persons in the US under 25 will become enmeshed in the courts, prison or post prison experience. Of all U.S. prisoners, about 67% are people of color, although people of color make up only about 30% of the U.S. population. The United States imprisons more persons per capita than any other society on earth. Black men and women are disproportionately held within the system of courts, prisons, surveillance.
Institutionalized racism ensured that in every area of social engagement- housing, education, employment, health, and police interface- black and Latino people were worse off than in the period of the Civil Rights revolution. Conservative public policy under successive governments rolled back social programs as neo-liberalism gave more support to racists.
The Occupy Wall Street Movement led the way against corporate greed and it is now the moment to bring to the forefront the links between capitalism and racism. The confrontation with racism and sexism has also brought to the forefront the ideas and practices of those who in the past were called the Left. Materialism and linear thinking of the radical left meant that the race question was made subsidiary to the class question. It is now the moment to return to the view of Frantz Fanon that in order to end the kind of killings and murder such as that of Trayvon Martin the society must go through a period of cleansing , “It has had to undergo the fate of the cultural whole that informed it.”
Horace Campbell is Professor of African American Studies and Political Science at Syracuse University.