We are all Trayvon Martin. This chant resonates with the global call of the Occupy movement: We are the 99 percent.
But, how can I be Trayvon Martin? I am not an unarmed black 17-year-old child shot dead in Florida last month by a neighborhood watch vigilante. I can walk through my neighborhood and not be challenged for being out of place.
In my hand, iced tea and Skittles (the suspicious package carried by Trayvon Martin) are not likely to be mistaken for a gun. While my white, male and professorial body would not stop a bullet, it likely would protect me from being targeted by a trigger-happy wannabe hero.
Likewise, I am not Amadou Diallo. I am not Oscar Grant. I am not Emmett Till. I am not any of these young black men killed for no good reason beyond that they were young black men seen through a lens that framed them as dangerous, and thus legitimate targets of violence.
But, I am Trayvon Martin, and so are you.
Her voice cracking with grief, but also crackling with rage, Trayvon’s mother, Sybrina Fulton, brought this truth home by declaring, “Our son is your son!”
At an earlier event, Benjamin Jealous, the national president of the NAACP, described the toll taken from trying to keep his boys from being the next statistic.
“I stand here as a son, father, uncle who is tired of being scared for our boys,” Jealous said. “I’m tired of telling our young men how they can’t dress, where they can’t go and how they can’t behave.”
Whether we bear physical or emotional scars (or both), we are all marked by living in a society where the challenge “What are you doing here?” — the response apparently made by George Zimmerman to Trayvon’s question, “Why are you following me?” — can come loaded with life-or-death consequences.
Zimmerman’s challenge to Martin’s presence in this gated community speaks volumes about the marginalization of youth of color in our society, where crossing from the wrong to the “right” side of the tracks can still, in 2012, be a killing offense. The fact that Zimmerman has been identified as Latino complicates, but does not lessen, the racial dimension of the episode.
The name of the Florida law that is shielding the alleged shooter Zimmerman is called, ironically, “Stand Your Ground,” and allows residents to use lethal force against an attacker if they believe their life is threatened. Coupled with Florida’s permissive policy on concealed firearms, Stand Your Ground is a formula for tragedies such as this one.
Likewise, the refusal of local law enforcement to even file criminal charges against Zimmerman communicates how much weight is given to Zimmerman’s presumed innocence relative to Trayvon’s innocent life.
It is worth asking whose “ground” does this law stand for, and against whom? While I may not have asked for it, such phrases privilege people like me to stand my ground and protect it from people like Trayvon Martin, whose race, class, and age position him beyond the pale and therefore vulnerable to symbolic and physical violence.
The ground that Trayvon covered that night was not that different from my own: a suburban neighborhood where black children walking at night are suspect, even if they only carrying sugary snacks to their father’s house to watch the NBA All-Star game on television.
As has been observed in this column before, by Jann Murray-García and myself, Davis is not immune to this syndrome where walking, biking, driving, shopping (etc.) while black or brown can lead to what can politely be called special attention from law enforcement. Fortunately, this has not resulted in any deaths in Davis. Not yet.
Unfortunately, in Sanford, Fla., that night, this gated community was protected by a gun-wielding neighborhood watchman who pursued Trayvon in his truck, even as police on the 911 call advised Zimmerman to stand down. This ground is now hallowed by Trayvon Martin’s innocent blood.
In the weeks following the shooting, a “One Million Hoodies for Trayvon Martin” campaign has been launched across the country, referring to the hooded sweatshirt favored by Martin (and millions of other young people of all colors, including my son) that served to arouse Zimmerman’s suspicion. Turning this badge of shame into a badge of courage, people of all ages and stations in life are declaring solidarity with those whose profile earns them harassment, not profit.
In a time of social unrest arising from the radical economic and political systems of inequality that richly reward the elite 1 percent to the detriment of the 99 percent, the tragic loss of Trayvon Martin can at least serve to remind us of what is truly worth standing for.
— Jonathan London, Ph.D., is a Davis resident and parent. He shares this monthly column with Jann Murray-García. Reach him at [email protected]