Justice For Trayvon Martin Rally in front of US District Court, Washington DC on Saturday afternoon, 20 July 2013. (Courtesy of FLickr user Elvert Barnes)
There’s “hot”. There’s “summer in DC hot”. And then there’s “summer in downtown DC hot”. For the uninitiated, our humid nation’s capital, built appropriately on a swamp, is particularly sweltering amidst the federal buildings where concrete is king and trees are in scarce supply. This was the setting for Saturday’s vigil for Trayvon Martin, called by the National Action Network and held at the DC Federal Courthouse.
There must have been 1,000 people out on the scorching sidewalk, the overwhelming majority African-American families. [Given the widely publicized nature of the event, it was deeply disappointing that more white members of the DC left—people who organized around Occupy DC or march without fail around other issues—did not attend.]
Most of the signs were home-made; some so touching you’d feel a tear mix with the sweat on your cheeks. The one that grabbed me was a woman who wrote down the entirety of her version of “the talk” she was going to have with her 6-year-old son, who was holding her hand. For those who don’t know, “the talk” is what African-American families tell their sons to avoid racial violence. Normally, it centers on speaking softly and not making sudden movements. But as she said to me, “This is a different kind of ‘talk’ ”. It read:
I will teach my son strength. I will teach my son to question authority. I will teach my son to fight injustice. I will not teach my son to fear. I will not emasculate my son because of uncivilized animals pretending to be human. You teach your son to let my son be, to not hate him because of his skin color because I am teaching my son to die fighting.
The speakers ranged from the National Action Network and the NAACP to local icons like Joe Madison and Dick Gregory. Joe Madison provided a high point when he said, “We still have a Jim Crow legal system. But now it’s a legal system that’s decided the George Zimmermans of the world can be judge, jury and executioner. He then is backed not by Jim Crow. But by James Crow, Esquire.” Dick Gregory provided a low point by starting his speech with a homophobic “joke,” saying it was easy to get gay marriage because of who founded the country. “Just look at George Washington in those tight pants, boots and powdered wig,” he said, waiting for a laugh. The crowd, however, which was energized and clapping at every line from every speaker, was tepid* in response. Homophobia did not sell.
It’s also worth noting that President Obama’s unscheduled, impromptu words yesterday about the Zimmerman verdict were roundly celebrated. Everyone I talked to on the ground seemed to gain confidence and joy from the fact that the president spoke out, and particularly from the part where he said, “Trayvon Martin could have been me thirty-five years ago,” and when he asked the question, “If Trayvon Martin was of age and armed, could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk?”
But there was also a different negative kind impact that President Obama’s words had upon the proceedings. The president signaled Friday that there probably would not be civil rights charges forthcoming from the Department of Justice saying, “Traditionally, these are issues of state and local government…. And law enforcement has traditionally done it at the state and local levels, not at the federal levels.”
This reflected itself in the speeches where no one—to my ears—made direct demands of Eric Holder and the DOJ. Additionally, we were only less than half a mile from the DOJ and there was no consideration of marching over. Would there have been had President Obama not spoken on Friday? No one knows, but I’m inclined to think so.
The most positive part of the gathering however was that there was tremendous energy around the August 24th DC demonstration to commemorate the fifieth anniversary of the March on Washington. The uproar around Trayvon’s case has, I believe, transformed that from a low-key gathering of remembrance into a vital call for a new civil rights movement. People were eager to come back out in August, many even volunteering on the spot to hand out flyers or take home handbills about the coming march.
In the last 15 minutes before it ended, my own 5-year-old son played at the margins of the gathering with a little boy named Martin. As people started to stream away, his mother came over and when my son said, “Goodbye Martin,” his mother said, “I’m so sorry. His name is Kimonte. He’s been telling everyone his name is Martin because of all the people saying, ‘I am Trayvon Martin.’” I said I thought maybe he was named after Martin Luther King. She said, “Well, we need both their spirits arm-in-arm.” Their memories will come together on August 24. I hope to see you there.
* In my original draft, I described the reaction to Gregory as "silent", which it was in my section. After watching the video, sent courtesy of someone on twitter, "tepid" is a better word choice.
Mychal Denzel Smith on why ending Stand Your Ground isn't enough to prevent another Trayvon Martin.