Trayvon Martin and the new Jim Crow

IT TOOK forty-four days for the authorities in Florida to arrest and charge the vigilante George Zimmerman for the murder of the African American seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin. Special Prosecutor Angela Corey claimed that the arrest was the result of an investigation that had been allowed to run its course adding, “We do not prosecute by public pressure or by petition.” That Angela Corey was even involved in the case was, however, itself evidence of the massive pressure building in Florida and nationally to deliver an arrest. State’s Attorney Norman Wolfinger was removed from the case after he personally intervened the night of Martin’s murder to overrule a local detective who thought there was cause to arrest Zimmerman. As the facts surfaced surrounding the death of Martin at the hands of Zimmerman and the deliberate mishandling of the case by Sanford police, demonstrations and demands for “Justice for Trayvon” erupted across the United States.

The arrest of George Zimmerman is proof positive that protest does indeed matter. It was the decisive factor that turned this case from an unknown racist murder in a small Southern town to a catalyst for national mobilizations against racism. State and federal officials hope that the arrest of Zimmerman can rehabilitate the tarnished image of policing and the criminal justice system in Florida, but the movement goes far beyond the single lynching of one Black teenager in Florida.

Just as the murder of Emmett Till in 1955 became a national symbol of the depths of American racism, the murder of Trayvon Martin has become a symbol of criminalized Black youngsters who are racially profiled—and sometimes killed—by police or those who are protected by the police. The national outpouring for justice for Trayvon by tens of thousands of African Americans across the country is not because the murder of Martin is extraordinary, but rather because it is all too familiar. Anyone with Black men or boys in their lives knows that racist violence by the police or others is a feature of daily life.

Martin’s murder has led to a national discussion about the nature of racism in the United States and whether or not we live in a colorblind society. It has resulted in broad discussions about racism and the criminal justice system, and the disproportionate way in which Blacks are arrested and imprisoned. For African Americans, it has created the political space to act upon the accumulated grievances against the institutional racism that is at the core of our society. This is a critical political development that needs to be nurtured and encouraged. From the disenfranchisement of African Americans in Florida that helped George W. Bush steal the 2000 election to the disaster of Hurricane Katrina, a series of high profile cases of police murder, the historic impact of the economic recession in African American communities across the country, and the execution of Troy Davis last fall, Black people have had few places or opportunities to register their anger and rage over these all-too-common injustices. In fact, Blacks are regularly lectured to stop “playing the race card,” or they are told that race is not a factor in the deep disparities that separate the Black experience from others in this country.

While politicians can openly vie for womens’ votes and the Latino vote, no one—neither Democrats nor Republicans—talks about what they will do to woo Black voters. Instead, African Americans are either ignored or chastised. The demonstrations around Trayvon Martin’s murder have tapped into and channeled that anger toward a variety of targets.

Many of the protests called for participants to wear hooded sweatshirts of the type Martin was wearing when Zimmerman identified him as suspicious. This has raised important discussions about the pervasiveness of racial profiling across the country. While some in the media cautioned against a “rush to judgment” regarding Zimmerman, the outpouring of young African American protestors reflects the growing bitterness among young Black people at being targeted, in the words of Dr. John Carlos, “for the crime of Living While Black.” The release of the 911 tapes in the case—released only after Martin’s parents threatened to sue—confirmed that Zimmerman racially profiled the young teenager. Other records showed that Zimmerman regularly made calls to the Sanford police about “suspicious” young Black men.

The racial profiling highlighted by the murder of Martin helped to elevate the growing controversy surrounding the NYPD’s policy of racial profiling, otherwise known as “stop and frisk.” This policy resulted in almost 800,000 people being stopped by the police in 2010, the overwhelming majority of them African American and Latino men. Rarely is contraband ever recovered in these stops. Hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers of color are basically treated like criminals solely because of racial characteristics. The growing chorus against the indiscriminate policies of racial profiling that exist in every police force in the country foreshadow the possibility of linking anti-Black racism to the institutional profiling and harassment of Muslims and Arabs across the country. Indeed, in the weeks before the NYPD’s “stop and frisk” program became the focal point of activists, there was growing outrage that the NYPD and the mayor’s office had authorized the surveillance of Muslim student groups not only in New York, but in other states.

Police departments across the country honed their racial profiling abilities while using the template of the prototypical Black suspect. But in the post–9/11 political atmosphere, state and federal authorities have used the pretext of “terrorism” to extend an internal regime of heightened surveillance, in which everyone is a suspect, to include an intense program of racial profiling against Muslims and Arabs. Finally, these racist tactics have also become popular in hunting undocumented immigrants across the United States. Several states have adopted reactionary laws that profile Latinos in an attempt to control the movement of immigrants in and out of the country.

The epidemic of racial profiling across the country has created a number of natural allies, if the various groups can unite. Combined with what has been described as the growing militarization of local police forces across the country, this has created a powerfully armed wing of the state, trained in racism, and deployed against its local populations that it considers dangerous and, more generally, the enemy. It is not clear whether this year is better or worse than others in terms of the incidents of police violence and terror in the neighborhoods where people of color live. Police violence and racism is a permanent feature in African American communities where the police are trained to treat virtually all men of color as potential suspects.

One central contribution of the national spotlight provided by Martin’s case has been the increasing profiles of other cases of racist police brutality. Obviously, the police in Florida did not kill Martin, but the way in which the police mishandled the case underlined the racism and corruption inherent in police departments across the country. In fact, if Zimmerman had been a police officer, it is likely no arrest ever would have been made, as police are rarely punished for racist abuse, violence, and murder committed in their custody.

In every city across the United States, there are cases of racist police violence and murder. In Chicago, just weeks after Martin was killed, an-off duty detective confronted a group of people hanging out in a park on the city’s West Side, took out of his gun, and fired almost twenty shots. One of those bullets hit Rekia Boyd in the head, killing her several hours later. Police Chief Gary McCarthy immediately declared the killing “justified,” claiming the officer felt his life was threatened. But neither Rekia Boyd nor any of the friends she was with were armed. On February 7, just a few weeks before Martin was killed in Florida, thirty-one-year-old Manuel Loggins was shot “multiple times” by police in Orange County, California, as he sat in his SUV with his fourteen and nine-year-old daughters. The police claimed Loggins was acting “erratically” and feared he would harm his daughters. But Loggins was unarmed. After police killed Loggins, they detained and interrogated his two daughters for more than thirteen hours, refusing to release them into the custody of their mother.

On February 1, Stephon Watts, a fifteen-year-old autistic boy in Calumet City, Illinois, was shot by police in his home in front of his father, Steven Watts, who had called the police to help him calm Stephon down. “My son had autism,” Stephon’s father told the press, “and he just wanted to get out of the house.”

He saw the police. He’s afraid of the police, and he just wanted to get past them. He had a butter knife in his hand, and just because he had a butter knife in his hand, the officers came to the conclusion that it was okay to use deadly force.

They shot him once. He fell. He tried to get up, and they shot him again. They did not try to wound him. They did not try to shoot him in his arms or legs. They did not try to hold him or Taser him. They shot him in the torso. They meant to kill my son. And now he’s gone, and I have no answers.

In the first few months of this year alone, there are dozens of cases of police killing either unarmed Black men or barely armed Black men. Sherron Jackson, twenty-one-years-old, of Baltimore was shot “multiple times” when he flashed a penknife at police last March. This kind of wanton police violence gave rise to the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense in the 1960s. A new movement today won’t produce exactly the same kind of political response, but a growing number of people have been convinced of the need to respond. The focus of local movements on cases of police brutality and violence in a particular city can help sustain the new movement while the forces around Trayvon Martin hunker down and prepare for trial sometime next year. Campaigns that call for justice for local “Trayvon Martins” can give activists and family members and those new to struggle a place to mobilize and organize on a day-to-day basis.

In 1955, the lynching of Emmett Till compelled a generation of African Americans to dedicate their lives to the downfall of Jim Crow racism—and for even more it led to deep and fundamental questions about the nature of a society that permits the murder and mutilation of children. An editorial written for the November 1955 American Socialist condemned not only the lynching of a child, but also the American racism that was its underpinning:

Much violence has calloused our sensibilities in this day and age. Yet there is something about the murder of Emmett Louis Till to touch even the coldest heart. The thought that in this America, full-grown and brawny men would abduct a grade-school child, and beat in his helplessness until all his teeth were out, his head caved in, his body mutilated with horrible wounds, put a bullet into his brain and drop him into a river—truly, even the most emotionally impervious cannot fail to be aroused.

In a decaying social order, man’s inhumanity to man includes man’s inhumanity to children. And the children, even in their years of hope and light-heartedness, are forced to taste the bitter fruits of knowledge. During the Second World War, one of those public school essay contests in which children are asked to write answers to usually fatuous questions was held, the question being: “How would you punish Hitler for his crimes?” On one paper written by a little Black girl, the answer was startling: “I would put him in a Black skin and force him to spend the rest of this life in the United States.” Here was a pathetic early wisdom. And Emmett Louis Till also, in his final hour, knew more about our Southland and the desperate forces at work in it than any college of sociologists. May we be granted the power to build a world in which our children will be spared such lessons!

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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