The Trayvon Martin case is not rooted in an individual’s bigotry, nor will the issues it raises be resolved by a single trial.
Published in the June 2012 issue of the New Internationalist.
In past months, the details of the case have become familiar: A boy in Sanford, Florida who is visiting a family friend goes out to the store for Skittles candy and iced tea, wearing a hoodie. He is then chased down and shot dead by a self-styled “neighborhood watchman.” The killer walks free.
The generalities of the case have been familiar in America much longer: Skin color provides basis for an African-American youth to be viewed with suspicion. The victim is unarmed. Authorities are complicit in his death or negligent in responding. Race precludes justice.
These circumstances are not unique to 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, who was killed on February 26, and whose case, after recordings of emergency phone calls became public, has created a firestorm of protest. Indeed, Congressional Representative Frederica Wilson, whose district covers Martin’s home, cited another incident that had occurred in the area not long before.
“Almost 3 years ago, as I served in the Florida Senate,” she reported, “a young black boy, Martin Lee Anderson was beaten to death at a Florida [juvenile-detention] boot camp. It was all captured on a State of Florida Corrections video and shown all over the world.
“Martin Lee Anderson was beaten and tortured until his lifeless body couldn’t take any more…. Not one guard was sent to prison. Not one was even reprimanded.”
Upon learning of Martin’s killing, Wilson offered a resonant response. “I am tired of burying black boys,” she said.
After more than a month of raging controversy—including protesters in hoodies using civil disobedience to blockade the Sanford Police Department—Martin’s killer, George Zimmerman, was finally arrested and charged with second-degree murder. To New York Times columnist Charles Blow, the arrest signaled that the saga is over. “This is a moment when America should be proud. The wheels of justice are finally turning,” he wrote. “[W]hatever the outcome, satisfaction must be taken in the fact that the system recognized the value of Trayvon’s life and the tragic circumstances of his death.”
Blow warned against those who “have pressed their passion for justice beyond the bounds of what is proper.”
But there is reason to keep pressing.
It’s not over when it takes six weeks of national outcry for a murder to be prosecuted, and when many other cases of discrimination and abuse quietly escape notice or are made to disappear.
It’s not over when a well-funded lobby prevents passage of any gun control laws that might reduce firearm violence and vigilantism.
The powerful National Rifle Association not only champions the Florida “Stand Your Ground” law that will be used to bolster Zimmerman’s claim of blameless self-defense, it is seeking to spread the law throughout the country.
NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre also tells us to move on, minimizing Trayvon Martin’s death as “one of Florida’s many daily tragedies.” It is no different, he suggests, from common crime. And he believes that crime should be stemmed by more aggressively arming the population.
For his part, Blow is right that Zimmerman should not be prematurely convicted in the media. It is also true that a focus on whether Zimmerman is a racist—some believe he used a racial slur on the police tapes, while others defend him as someone who had mentored other African-American teenagers–misses the point. The Trayvon Martin case is not rooted in an individual’s bigotry, nor will the issues it raises be resolved by a single trial.
They will be resolved when the country undertakes a serious reckoning with the institutional racism that makes all black men “suspicious” by default, that marks people of color for criminal profiling, and that regards their deaths as unworthy of serious concern.
We will bury many more black boys, I fear, before that happens.