By: Keegan O’Brien*/Special to TRT—
Only in a country as racist as the United States could a grown adult racially profile, hunt down, and murder an unarmed black 17 year old boy—and get away with it. George Zimmerman’s trial revealed to the world what Black America has known for far too long; that in America, black lives don’t matter. But this time, people have refused to remain silent. The murder of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of George Zimmerman have produced an explosion of anger and protests, forcing politicians, the mainstream media, and even the president, to engage in an explicit and rare conversation about race and racism today.
The first statement from the Obama administration was insulting; it ignored race completely while asking people to respect the jury and remain calm. But following Zimmerman’s “not guilty” verdict thousands took to the streets to express their outrage. The following weekend, in over a hundred cities, thousands poured into the streets again to demand the federal government take action. As a result of continuous pressure, President Obama, for the first time in his five years in office, went on national television and spoke honestly about racism and the Trayvon Martin case.
Obama’s words are refreshing compared to the total neglect these issues have received from politicians and the mainstream media, and have emboldened many to feel legitimate and justified in their anger. But, politically opportunistic rhetoric designed to placate people’s outrage and desire for change will not challenge the institutions and polices, which have created and continue to perpetuate the Zimmerman mindset that lead to Trayvon’s killing, and so many others like him.
According to Florida’s judicial system and many political commentators, race was not a factor in Zimmerman’s case. Zimmerman never explicitly mentioned race, he followed Martin because he was suspicious looking, not because he was black. But, this line of argument completely misunderstands the operation of racism in 21st century “color-blind” America. Today, we rarely witness the same kind of explicit, white hood wearing, troglodyte, anti-black racism that existed fifty years ago.
Instead, racism is coded, concealed, and packaged into formally “color-blind” language and policies. So, although Zimmerman never said that he followed Martin because he was black (that would be considered racist), it was definitely an operating subconscious factor. The well-known truth is that if Trayvon Martin had been white, it is very likely he’d still be alive today. Race has everything to do with this case.
Take for example the highly controversial and now widely debated “Stand Your Ground” law, a policy that doesn’t mention race explicitly at all. But, when you examine the application and interpretation of the law, there emerges an undeniable pattern of racial biases. There are two cases everyone concerned about Trayvon Martin should know about, Marissa Alexander and CeCe McDonald.
Marissa Alexander is an African American woman and mother who fired a warning shot into her ceiling to prevent her abusive ex-boyfriend from attacking her. Instead of being granted the right to stand her ground and defend herself, the state of Florida sentenced her to twenty years in prison in 2012. CeCe McDonald is a young black transgender woman who defended herself against a hate crime from a white supremacist in Minneapolis and as a result faced the rest of her life in prison. Thankfully, instead of serving a natural life sentence, CeCe was offered a plea and given forty-two months in prisons. Although she deserves to be spending zero time behind bars, CeCe’s reduced sentenced was the direct result of an international pressure campaign launched by her supporters.
A recent study showed that in states with “Stand Your Ground” laws, white people were more than 300 times more likely to get away with killing a black person. So, if you murder an unarmed black teenager; no problem. But, if you’re a black trans woman who defends herself against a hate crime, or a mother who defends herself against a violent partner, or God forbid, a black man defending yourself against racist cops; tough luck. The message is clear; the right to “Stand Your Ground” doesn’t apply equally to everyone, because black lives do not matter.
One important question Trayvon Martin’s case raises is; how on earth could a grown adult be acquitted for profiling, stalking down, and murdering and unarmed black teenager? While Zimmerman pulled the trigger that took Trayvon Martin’s life, it was our racist society that socialized him to believe it was okay to view Trayvon as a criminal, hunt him down, and murder him; it was our society that told the Sanford police department it was okay to mark Trayvon Martin as a John Doe and test his dead body for drugs while they let Zimmerman walk free for forty six days. And, as horrific as Zimmerman’s actions were, they aren’t rare. Police officers in cities across the country profile, harass, brutalize, and even kill people of color, particularly black men, every single day. Should the fact that these men and women are armed and authorized by the state make their actions any more justifiable? Absolutely not.
This Zimmerman mindset has been produced by the corporate media and political establishment to justify and legitimize three decades of; racially charged “get tough” on crime laws and the war on drugs (essentially a war on poor people and people of color who use drugs), which have turned Black and brown communities into sites of police occupation, and a prison industrial complex and system of mass incarceration that have swept millions of black and brown people into cages while devastating communities of color. This matrix of laws and institutions is what civil rights attorney and author Michelle Alexander has termed “the New Jim Crow.”
While Zimmerman deserves punishment for his horrible crime, so do the countless police officers who’ve committed the same atrocities, but have never been held accountable. Ultimately, it is the Zimmerman mindset—the widely held and normalized belief that black men are a threat requiring policing, incarceration, or even death—and the institutions, policies, and lawmakers that have perpetuated this out look, that deserves to put on trial.
Why should the LGBTQ community concern itself with issues of racial justice and a case such as Trayvon Martin’s? Firstly, because much of our community is people of color and for them these fights are inseparable. Secondly, as a community that is continuing to fight for our most basic civil rights, we have an obligation and reasonability to stand by those who are continuing to struggle for theirs. Lastly, our capacity to fight and our potential to win is dramatically increased when we overcome the divisions fostered between us and champion the struggles of other oppressed community—it’s called solidarity.
So what can we, as an LGBTQ community, do to show our support for Trayvon Martin and the broader fight for racial justice? Reverend Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, the NAACP, ACLU, American Federation of Teachers, and a host of other civil rights and labor organizations are continuing the fight for Trayvon Martin by calling for a national demonstration in Washington D.C. on August 24th , the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Protesters will be demanding the Department of Justice prosecute Zimmerman and that the federal government seriously begins to tackle the range of injustices—from racial profiling to mass incarceration—that Black America continues to experience. August 24th will likely be one of the largest demonstrations for civil rights and racial justice in decades.
While a single protest won’t dismantle the prisons system over night, the August 24th March on Washington will contribute tremendously to forcing this conversation about racism in America today back to where it belongs—in the political mainstream. Secondly, it will be a crucial moment in the development a nation-wide movement against racial profiling, and all the injustices of the New Jim Crow and Mass Incarceration. Why does this matter? Because it has been grassroots activism and pressure from below that have pushed those in power, such as President Obama, to even shine the spotlight on these issues. What we’ve been doing has started to work, we better keep it up. August 24th, Washington D.C.; because if you want to live in a world where there will never be another Trayvon Martin, CeCe McDonald, or Marissa Alexander, you’ve got a responsibility to join thousands of people—black and white, queer and straight, young and old—in Washington D.C. on August 24th. A better world is possible, but it’s up to us to fight for it.
*Keegan O’Brien is a long time LGBTQ youth activist in Boston, anti-war organizer, a student at UMass Boston, a former board member of BAGLY, and member of the International Socialist Organization in Boston. He also has written extensively on LGBTQ social justice websites.