Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Thoughts From a Trayvon Martin Rally

It is difficult for words to express how disgusted I feel with the jury’s decision in the Trayvon Martin case. A vigilante with a history of paranoid behavior racially-profiled and stalked a black boy who did nothing wrong whatsoever, and when the boy confronted his stalker and tried to defend himself, the stalker pulled a gun and shot the boy to death. Those are the indisputable facts of the case. People who argue in George Zimmerman’s favor claim that Trayvon, a lanky teenager, must have been in an advantageous position over his one-hundred-pound-heavier assailant. Of course, we have heard the “who really had the advantageous position?” question before – from those who defended the police following the Rodney King beating.

I read the “acquittal” headline on Sunday morning. It took several minutes for the words to cohere, and when they did, a series of dreadful thoughts began running through my head. What if, instead of Trayvon, it was one of my friends of color who were stalked and killed because they “looked suspicious” and tried to defend themselves? What does this decision confer to these friends of mine about their value in “modern” American society? I made a simple sign – “Justice for Trayvon” – and headed for the Union Square protest.

It began with several hundred people holding a speak-in. Anyone who wanted to speak was encouraged to do so. Because we lacked a PA system, speakers were instructed to use short sentences, which were then repeated (and thus amplified) by the crowd, like affirmations to a prayer. This ”Mike Check” method had a unifying effect: upon echoing modest words such as “I have two black boys,” I can immediately empathize with each speaker and begin to understand the more nuanced implications of the jury’s decision on their lives. Local politicians, university professors, community activists and concerned citizens all took their turn to speak, as facilitated by a charismatic and expertly-competent organizer, bearing the scorching weather in a tie and vest.

We then marched around Union Square Park. Our numbers were not yet large enough to take to the streets, but I nevertheless felt grateful that those around me shared my anger and cared enough to voice it. I chanted at a conversational volume, preferring to internalize the imploring words: “our children matter, our children matter...”

A teach-in followed wherein crowd members offered a diversity of perspectives on the tragedy. None were particularly radical or vengeful, and all expressed a desire for solidarity. In fact, this desire to coalesce against the broad idea of injustice led more than one speaker to declare that Trayvon’s murder was “not a race issue”: a sentiment with which I completely disagree. A series of other speakers pointed the blame at problems in the black community, including drug use, late-night liquor stores, gang membership and gangsta rap. This also irked me, not only because these had nothing to do with the murder of Trayvon Martin, but also because it speaks to an inculcated sense of inferiority within African-American culture; it suggests that Trayvon was killed because black people don’t behave themselves. Such opinions are the painful result of centuries of white supremacy in our country. Fortunately, more than one speaker voiced an opinion with which I agreed; for instance, one woman argued that, although race is a social-construct with no biological basis, racism certainly exists and exerted its deadly-self on poor Trayvon Martin. I also agreed with those who spoke against the legal system. Laws such as “Stand Your Ground” and “Stop-and-Frisk” are designed and utilized to maintain racial hierarchies in America.

The afternoon progressed and our numbers swelled into the thousands. Feeling tired, I was just about to split – I had even handed-off my sign to a fellow demonstrator – when the protesters spilled into Broadway. I joined the march with renewed energy. This time, I chanted the chants at the same angry volume as those around me, shouting “Justice for Trayvon Martin” “Hey Hey! Ho Ho! Stop-and-Frisk has got to go!” and a slew of others.

I looked around at my fellow protesters and noticed that a large proportion of them were white. Although thrilled by the number of white people showing camaraderie with the slain black child, certain fears occurred to me: do the majority of people of color feel so disenfranchised by their level of inequality that they think their voice does not matter? Does their voice, in fact, matter in America today? How at-risk do people of color feel at protests? Do they worry that a display of political dissidence could leave them suffering the same fate as Trayvon, perhaps at the hands of the NYPD – those paid to “protect” them? Let us be reminded that the name “Amadou Diallo” still holds a certain currency in New York City.

A fight almost broke out when some onlooker presumably said something calculated to incense a red-headed protester into a furious, threat-filled tirade. At first, the instigator walked away, but then, perhaps feeling the need to prove both himself and his own racialist views, he reversed towards the red-headed protester with all the foolish bravado of a rooster and the kind of smile Eichmann would smile if given a new red pen and a long list of names. Had it not been for a short, stocky black woman rushing towards the fast-escalating fight and risking her own well-being by standing between them, the instigator would have surely swallowed a few teeth. I wondered how the media would have reported the irony of two white men throwing punches, when they were so readily-expecting the “aggressive black male” stock character to explode into riot across urban America that night.

Incidentally, it was that same, culturally-ingrained stereotype that killed a teenage boy a year and a half ago.

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