A black boy shot because his attacker thought his hoodie made him look suspicious. An Iraqi woman brutally murdered by someone who left a note telling her to "go back to your country, terrorist." These were the incidents that led one hundred Columbia students to gather on campus on April 5 at the Muslim Students Association’s vigil "Hoodies and Hijabs Against Hatred: Justice for Trayvon and Shaima," cosponsored by the Columbia Democrats, the Columbia-Barnard International Socialist Organization, the Columbia Queer Alliance, and the Interfaith Caucus.
For an hour, students stood holding candles and taking turns speaking about race, prejudice, and injustice. The students who came out to the vigil quickly moved beyond the particular cases of Trayvon Martin and Shaima al-Awadhi to protest against the institutionalized racism and stereotypes that create the kind of legal and cultural system where an adult man can shoot an unarmed black boy dead and walk free.
"It’s about more than just these two," explained Alay Syed, a Barnard College first-year and Vice President of the Muslim Students Association. In her introductory remarks, Syed set the tone of the evening. "We’re here to speak out against the hatred and intolerance that touch everyone, about the thousands of Trayvons that we will never know about." Syed’s focus on the broader problems of racial profiling, harassment, and violence allowed the protestors to get past the specifics of the cases, such as recent evidence suggesting that al-Awadhi’s murder was not a hate crime, and down to the more disturbing underlying problems. The murder of two individuals was tragic, but what brought Columbia out to protest with real anger was the racial motivation of the killings. Martin and al-Awadhi were murdered because of what they looked like.
Students came out wearing either hoodies or hijabs, symbolically adopting the garments of the murder victims. Columbia’s vigil was just one of many at universities across the nation in which students wore articles of clothing which were blamed for Martin’s and al-Awadhi’s deaths in order to challenge the idea that anyone’s character can be divined from their appearance. While many students explicitly denounced culturally pervasive racism when they took their turn speaking at the vigil’s microphone, others felt that the issue was more nuanced. "There should be less of a focus on explicit racism," said Swara Salih, a Columbia College sophomore and member of the Columbia Democrats. Salih and instead offered an idea of intersectional stereotyping. "There’s a problem in our society that we categorize people into types based on a number of factors, including socioeconomic class as well as race."
Behind their hoodies and hijabs, a diverse section of Columbia students gathered: men and women, black, white, and brown, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and atheist. Identity was blurred, and that was exactly the students’ point: no assumptions can be made from appearance, whether from race, clothing, or a combination of the two, and certainly no assumptions can be made which justify murder.
The kind of "Stand Your Ground" laws which George Zimmerman is hiding behind in Florida disagree with this presumably basic statement that you can’t judge a book by its cover – the sort of thing that the rest of us learn in elementary school. "Stand Your Ground" laws instead protect stereotyping – if you feel that you are being threatened, you are legally justified in reacting with deadly force. How might you feel that you are threatened? The law doesn’t care. In Zimmerman’s case, being near a large black boy wearing a hoodie was threat enough. In effect, "Stand Your Ground" laws enable and even condone prejudiced stereotyping by declaring that concepts of "threat" based in false, racist ideologies justify murder.
Trayvon Martin paid the ultimate price for George Zimmerman’s twisted worldview. Zimmerman may pay none. It is up to activists like the Columbia students who protested on Friday to continue speaking out against validations of prejudice wherever they reveal themselves. Only by showing our continued outrage will we change the culture and the system which it created.