Last week my husband texted me from his jobsite. He said America was a country he didn’t want to live in. He was listening to coverage of the Trayvon Martin tragedy in Florida, and I couldn’t blame him. All I could do was point out that America shouldn’t be judged on the killing alone – he should also consider the widespread outrage and realize that a majority of American citizens will stand up for what’s right.
For international readers who aren’t plugged into the American media cycle, here, briefly, is the situation.
One month ago a self-professed neighborhood watch volunteer named George Zimmerman spotted a black teenage boy walking in a Sanford, Florida neighborhood. Zimmerman, who is apparently half-white, half-Hispanic, called 911 from his car to report a suspicious person, declaring that the boy, who was walking down the street with his hooded sweatshirt up against the rain, was “up to no good”. As the 911 dispatcher urged Zimmerman not to approach the boy, he got out of his car and, in a chilling prelude to a fatal attack, began to following the teen, muttering, “they always get away.”
The details of the ensuing encounter vary according to the source. The indisputable facts are that Zimmerman, who was armed with a gun and has a history of assault, shot and killed the teenager, whose name was Trayvon Martin. Zimmerman, who apparently confronted Martin, claimed that Martin began beating him and that he was acting in self-defense. Martin, 17, was on his way to a family member’s house and was holding nothing but an iced tea and a package of candy.
Police took Martin’s body to the morgue and failed to identify him or notify his parents for several days. They tested Martin’s body for drugs and alcohol and found none. Zimmerman, however, was not tested. Neither has he been arrested, due to a law active in about half of US states that says citizens have no obligation to retreat if they are threatened in public, but have the right to use deadly force in self-defense.
Outrage over the case has exploded across the US. We’re arguing about the continued prevalence of racial profiling and racism in America, the obvious dangers of the “stand your ground” laws, and the proper role of citizens’ neighborhood watch groups. We’re in fits over the National Rifle Association’s powerfully evident lobbying for the “stand your ground” laws, which, in essence, make it much easier for civilians to pull guns on each other with impunity.
Fox News commentator Geraldo Rivera instigated yet another layer of public fury by saying that Martin wouldn’t have been shot if he hadn’t been wearing the wrong outfit: the “hoodie killed Trayvon Martin as surely as George Zimmerman did,” Rivera wrote. Rivera claims that anyone seeing a black or brown person in a hood would automatically cross the street, because everyone knows people of color who wear hoods are “ghetto” or at least “low-brow wise-ass”. Despite the fact that it was raining when Zimmerman pursued Martin, Rivera called Martin’s outfit “a sign that says ‘shoot me’.” To Rivera, if America’s brown parents could just stop their kids from wearing hoods, regardless of the weather, these shootings wouldn’t happen.
I had an undiagnosed panic disorder when I was a child and teenager, and I remember the feeling I got when the anxiety overwhelmed me: I saw myself falling down, down, down into the deepest pit, desperately grasping at ledges that crumbled under my fingers. Knowing that the Sanford police have failed to charge Zimmerman with a crime reawakens that feeling in me, though now it’s on behalf of my family.
Racial profiling is definitely at work in the US, as my husband can attest. I can’t describe the depth of my frightened, impotent dismay at my black husband’s many run-ins with the police over the years. He’s been pulled over and forced to sit at the curb by cops who gave no reason for stopping him. As he shoveled my grandparents’ driveway one winter, a policeman stopped to question him. One day, waiting in his car for the start of his workday as a contractor in a client’s home, a neighbor called the police. He was questioned and had to have his boss vouch for his presence in the neighborhood. Another time, as he walked to work in the neighborhood of his alma mater, where he’d lived for four years, police stopped him to ask where he was during a recent car theft by an unknown black suspect. Thank goodness my husband needed a shave at the time: the policeman admitted that the suspect had been described as clean-shaven, so ultimately my husband wasn’t taken into the station.
But I don’t want a shave to be only thing standing between my husband and an arrest for a crime he didn’t commit.
The Travyon Martin shooting has sparked an outpouring from black parents in the American media: they describe the Black Male Code, handed to their boys when they become teenagers. The Code emphasizes the likelihood that their sons will be stopped by police no matter what, and urges a much-heightened standard of interaction to ensure that the black men come out of these inevitable encounters safely. As a wife to man who’s never broken the law and charms every senior citizen he meets, and yet is stopped by police on a regular basis, I wonder to myself what kind of fear I’ll feel for my future children. Worrying that someone else’s prejudice – especially racial profiling by police – will endanger my family feels like a real-life version of that bottomless pit.
That’s part of why I decided to attend a vigil in Philadelphia on Monday night for Trayvon Martin. I don’t think I have anything new to add to this discussion about the importance of acknowledging the hold racism still has in our society, but I came away from the vigil feeling as if I have a duty to talk about the situation in a public way, share what happened at the vigil, and urge others to think about it.
Hundreds of people of all races gathered in the famous Love Park, just northwest of Philadelphia’s City Hall. Unfortunately, the sound system didn’t work. But the crowd closest to the podium overcame the difficulty by repeating the speeches in unison, phrase by phrase, so that everyone could hear what was said.
We heard from activists, pastors and mothers. One speaker contrasted the Trayvon Martin case with that of professional football player Michael Vick, who was jailed for animal cruelty. As long as Martin’s killer remains free, the speaker said, it’s as if a young black man is worth less than a pit bull.
Speakers emphasized the importance of voting and political action, and urged residents angry over this Florida shooting to remember that Philadelphia has had over eighty murders so far this year, and many local mothers have never had justice for their children’s deaths. If we’re outraged over Martin’s case, we should face the problems right in our own backyard. Pennsylvania has its own version of the “stand your ground” law, and if citizens are unhappy about it, legislators need to hear from us.
Many people in the crowd had brought their children, and many waved packs of Skittles, the candy Martin was holding when Zimmerman decided to pursue him. It was a chilly, windy March night, and at the exhortation of several speakers, the crowd “hoodied up” in solidarity, pulling their hoods on in response to the idea that Martin’s killing was justified because he was wearing “suspicious” clothing. There were implications that if anyone wants to talk about the dangers of wearing hoods, we should discuss the Ku Klux Klan.
“No justice, no peace!” the crowd chanted.
Speakers urged the crowd not to let their feelings fade tomorrow, but to keep the desire for a just society strong, participate in our political system and join community efforts to combat racism, violence, and dangerously lax gun laws.
I hope this blog post will be one tiny piece of an America that my husband can be glad to live in. Thanks for reading.