Mychal Denzel Smith | The Nation

Mychal Denzel Smith

Mychal Denzel Smith

All the blackness that’s fit to print. And some that isn’t. 

Why We Write About Oppression


I recently moved to New York City from Virginia Beach, Virginia. Its long been my goal to move to NYC, and while I’m aware that’s just another cliché I’m fulfilling in my young writer handbook, it’s the only place I’ve ever been that has felt like home. The city moves as fast as my mind, which helps me feel less anxious and alone. There’s a community here that makes my idiosyncrasies appear normal, my neuroses not unfounded, and allows me to indulge one of my favorite pastimes of drunken political debate. I love New York City, but I also know I’m not truly welcome here.

Reality is, I’m young, broke and black, arriving in the city at a moment when the young, broke and black are being pushed out. The Bloomberg years in particular have made the city attractive to corporations and gentrifiers, squeezing out the poor and working class, the communities of color that have always given New York its identity. I came with open arms, but it wasn’t long before the city responded, “There is no place for you here.”

In my naïve haze, I didn’t even consider it until an odd encounter with a stranger on the subway, someone whom in the past I’d probably have dismissed as crazy New Yorker. He struck up a one-sided conversation with me about undercover police officers riding the train into neighborhoods of color and said, “New York City is very racist. If anyone tries to tell you otherwise, they’re lying.”

I read/write about racism in America on a daily basis. I know it’s in this country’s DNA and will follow me wherever I go. Not just the structural but the visceral racism that painstakingly reminds you of your place. But I came up from Virginia. How bad could it really be?

I’m from a place where I was called a nigger for the first time in the sixth grade. Our elementary school classes romanticized the relationship between Native Americans and the settlers at Jamestown. Then they took us on multiple field trips to these historic grounds and barely mentioned it was the site where the first Africans arrived to the “New World” to be enslaved. I lived a two-hour drive away from the former capital of the Confederate States of America. In a tiny town in the western part of Virginia, where my grandmother was born and raised, my cousins and I once ran from two white men holding shotguns. The bloody history of racism has been ever present in my life. To my mind, whatever NYC had to offer, it wouldn’t be able to faze me.

But there isn’t much difference between the feeling one gets driving past their neighbor’s Confederate flag bumper stickers and standing next to an NYPD officer on a crowded F train, causing your muscles to tense up to the point the only thing you can move is your eyes, for safety reasons. My friends and I were kicked out of a cab and the driver actually told us, in so many words, he believed we were going to rob him. NYU students take tours of the neighborhood where I moved, gawking at the working-class brown people who may soon no longer be able to afford to call this home. And I’ve only been here three weeks.

It’s this form of racism that makes one paranoid, angry and frightened all at once. It puts you on edge in a way that, especially for someone like myself already living with anxiety disorder, is dangerous. It monitors your every step, alters your intuition, and makes you cynical before your time.

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So when people say that because I talk about race in my work I’m “keeping racism alive,” I honestly want to ask: do you think people enjoy living this way? Does anyone truly believe it’s healthy to feel that, no matter where you go, your life is in danger? No matter what some silly tournament bracket at Gawker says, no one feels any moral superiority being part of an oppressed and marginalized group. Be it racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, classism or any other system of oppression, people share their stories and fight back because the slow toll of oppression is torture. We need others to hear us and do something about it, before it swallows whole our genius and compassion. We just want some relief.

I wanted to find that in New York City, but it had other plans. As I exited the train, that same stranger advised me: “Keep your eyes open. Stay sharp.” I’m trying, but it’s exhausting.

Michael Denzel Smith previously blogged about the folly of respectability politics.

Respectability Politics Won’t Save Us: On the Death of Jonathan Ferrell

Jonathan Ferrell is seen in an undated photo provided by Florida A&M University. Ferrell, 24, was shot and killed Saturday, September 14, 2013 by North Carolina police officer Randall Kerrick after a wreck in Charolette. Ferral was unarmed. (AP Photo/Florida A&M University).

When they went on the air this weekend, CNN anchor Don Lemon and comedy legend Bill Cosby, known not only for their day jobs but also for their unrelenting critiques of black culture, may not have been aware of the killing of Jonathan Ferrell. The 24 year-old former football player at Florida A&M University was shot and killed by Officer Randall Kerrick of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg police in Charlotte, North Carolina, this past Saturday. Ferrell had been a car crash and then ran to the nearest house to find help. The woman inside answered the door, believing it to be her husband on the other side. When she realized it wasn’t, she immediately closed the door, hit her panic alarm and callled 911. She reported a man attempting to break into her home. When the police arrived, Ferrell approached them, presumably still trying to get help, at which point one of the officers fired his stun gun, which was “unsuccessful.” That’s when Kerrick fired his weapon, hitting Ferrell multiple times, and killed him.

Having a stranger knock on your door in the early morning hours is surely frightening. And Ferrell did fit the description of a man reported to the police as attempting a burglary. But did it ever cross the mind of anybody involved that he might not have been a burglar—that he might have been an innocent bystander, needing some help?

The tragic aspect of this is, as a young black man in America, Ferrell probably knew in that moment he couldn’t expect anyone to help him. He was likely very aware that knocking on a stranger’s door might backfire. But he took the risk anyway because he needed help. For that, he was killed.

Which brings me back to Don Lemon and Bill Cosby. Lemon and Cosby are not pioneers in the field of respectability politics—the idea that one can overcome racism (or any other form of oppression) by way of your personal actions, presenting one’s self as a citizen worthy of respect as defined by the dominant cultural norms and standards. They stand in a long tradition that includes Booker T. Washington and Elijah Muhammad, while also sitting alongside contemporaries such as Condoleezza Rice and President Barack Obama. But they cause a stir every time they say things like“…the reason why I’m giving you this information is because I was living in the projects. I was not taking care of myself in terms of managing my education, and once the door opened and I saw quote, unquote, the light, I started to become very successful,” as Cosby did over the weekend. When someone of his stature says,“It is not what they weren’t doing to me, it’s what I wasn’t doing. It’s a very simple thing,” he does more harm than the good he thinks his “empowering” words do. The problem with these comments is not that they don’t reflect his truth, but because they erase an even larger truth about racism.

When the Lemons and Cosbys and Rices and Obamas of the world dole out this “tough love” to black communities about education, hard work, being better parents, pulling up your pants, or what have you, they’re not only reinforcing racist stereotypes of black people but feeding the narrative that racism is either not as prevalent or not as vicious as others are making it out to be. Black people can achieve all that they want if they’re willing to work for it, the thinking goes. We just have to dedicate ourselves to the “right” things.

Jonathan Ferrell did everything “right.” He got an education. He worked hard. He was engaged to be married. His crime was being in a car crash and seeking help. In the process, he was profiled as a burglar, shot and killed. No one sought to protect, serve, or even listen to him. He had his humanity erased even after doing it all the “right” way.

So yes, you can go into debt to get an education, or play college football, wear a suit and tie to work in corporate America, or serve this country in the armed forces, but so long as you are black you will be subject to racism and white supremacy. You will constantly have to answer questions about your existence and prove that you belong. And in some instances, like that of Jonathan Ferrell, you may not even be given the opportunity to explain.

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What’s harmful about the line of reasoning that Lemon, Cosby, Rice, Obama and so many others champion is that they know this reality. They know racism shortens the life expectancy of black people in America. They know there’s nothing Addie Mae Collins, Carol Robertson, Cynthia Wesley and Denise McNair could have done to stop that bomb from blowing up the 16th Street Baptist Church fifty years ago, the same way there’s nothing Jonathan Ferrell could have done to stop the police from tasering and shooting him.

These aren’t simply isolated instances of vicious terrorists or rogue police officers acting in malice. These are the wages of blackness in a society built on white supremacy. We pay in cold blood for a right to live in this country as second-class citizens. We didn’t set the price and certainly won’t change anytime soon, unless those who’ve benefitted for so long finally decide that enough is enough.

Mychal Denzel Smith has previously blogged about the connection between race and the perception of threat.

A Lesson on Racism for Mayor Bloomberg

Bill de Blasio and his family protest the shutdown of the Long Island College Hospital and Interfaith Hospital (Bill de Blasio/Flickr)

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, like most Americans, doesn’t understand what racism is. Or perhaps he does and is purposefully pretending to be obtuse to score some political points. Either way, his remarks in a recent interview with New York magazine do little more than further confuse the public as to what racism entails by reinforcing a false narrative of equivalency.

Interviewer Chris Smith suggested that the Democratic front-runner in the mayoral race, Bill de Blasio, was running a “class-warfare campaign,” at which point Bloomberg interjected to add, “Class-warfare and racist.” He attempted to clarify, saying:

Well, no, no, I mean* he’s making an appeal using his family to gain support. I think it’s pretty obvious to anyone watching what he’s been doing. I do not think he himself is racist. It’s comparable to me pointing out I’m Jewish in attracting the Jewish vote. You tailor messages to your audiences and address issues you think your audience cares about.

*(The “no, no” part was added to the article after protest from the mayor’s office, but it hardly changes anything.)

It’s true that de Blasio, like many other politicians, has featured his family in his campaign. What’s unique to de Blasio is that he is a white man who is married to a black woman and is the father of two biracial children. His son, Dante (and Dante’s huge Afro), have been featured in commercials that have been critical of stop-and-frisk, the police tactic made famous during Bloomberg’s tenure. Dante’s appearance has personalized de Blasio’s objection to a tactic that was deemed unconstitutional, but not before police stopped and frisked more black and brown young men than even live in the city. One hopes de Blasio would object to stop-and-frisk even if his son were not at risk of being a victim of this racist policy, but making an appeal to voters on a personal level, showing that you can relate to the real issues affecting everyday people, is politics 101.

Bloomberg thinks it’s racist.

The definition of racism in public discourse has been so distorted that any mention of race is construed as racist, mostly by opportunistic right-wingers looking to deflect from their own racist beliefs.

Any analysis of race and racism in America that does not account for the country’s white supremacist foundation is useless. Ultimately, racism is a system of oppression that has disproportionately benefited those classified as “white” and regards others as second-class citizens. For a policy/thought/action/statement to be racist, it has to reinforce that second-class status. Absent the power of doing so, we’re not talking about racism. Bigotry, perhaps, or personal hatred, but not racism. Racism needs power.

It’s why Bloomberg’s stop-and-frisk is racist, and de Blasio’s pointing out that his son could be a victim of stop-and-frisk isn’t. One uses the power of the state to impose second-class citizenship on a group and justifies it by employing rhetoric that deems them inherently criminal and inferior; the other is a personal testimony of how that affects the lives of those who are targeted.

This only becomes difficult to parse when we live in an America that is so afraid of its past, it assigns racism to the demons of its history, rather than acknowledging the smartest, bravest and kindest among the architects have also held deeply racist views and helped perpetuate this system of oppression. Those who regard themselves as “good” people cannot also believe themselves racist. And those who invest their own money in programs to aid black and Latino boys would never be found on the side of a racist police tactic.

Yet, that’s exactly where Bloomberg finds himself. Deflect as he may, his term as mayor is characterized by one of the most far-reaching and racist public policies of this generation. I’m not saying Bloomberg is racist. But who cares? The racism of the policies he has stood behind have already done their damage.

March on Washington at 50: Commemoration vs. Movement

Students of Howard University march to the Lincoln Memorial to participate in the Realize the Dream Rally for the fiftieth anniversary of the March in Washington, August 24, 2013. (Reuters/James Lawler Duggan)

I had little interest in the March on Washington fiftieth-anniversary festivities. I have no problem with taking time out to honor those who came before us and struggled and fought for what gains we have made in terms of racial and economic justice. I’m all for it. But I also believe that the greatest way to honor those folks is by continuing the work to ensure that future generations will have the privilege of looking back into history in horror and not seeing any parallels to their present. However, after Saturday’s events, it was hard not to feel, as Brittney Cooper of Salon put it, that what took place was “eulogy for a bygone era, [rather] than a call to action.”

That feeling of ambivalence and mourning was only furthered yesterday, on the official anniversary of the march, when word came down that Philip Agnew of the Dream Defenders and Sofia Campos of United We Dream had been cut from the roster of speakers. The young people, my generation, were shut out.

The speeches that were given were generally fine speeches, as far as speeches go, but none came close to capturing the spirit of the times in which we live or setting a vision for where we need to go. That’s the purpose of youth voices and that’s what was lacking once Agnew and Campos were told there wouldn’t be enough time for their two-minute speeches. But it also made all the more clear what yesterday was and was not.

Yesterday was not about indicting America. It was a celebration. It was about paying lip service to the myriad forms of oppression that plague this country, without any specific agenda for how to eradicate them. Yesterday was about America patting itself on the back for finding one speech given by one black man to be important to its history. It was not about what brought more than 200,000 people to Washington, DC, that day, or the actual content of that speech, which was a radical call for justice, equality and freedom. Yesterday was not about updating the dream. It was about finding complacency in our progress.

Yesterday was about commemoration. Today is about movement.

When you listen to what Agnew planned to say, it’s not at all shocking why he was cut from the program. His brief speech takes this country to task on a number of issues that would have made the former presidents sitting on that stage squirm in their seats.

His are words dedicated to movement building. They are a warning to America that its youth would not sit idly by as this country continues to walk with pride in its hypocrisy. They are a call to action, not a lecture. Agnew’s words are the antithesis of what yesterday was about, but to the young people who will come across them via YouTube, Twitter, Facebook or other social media, they are exactly what needs to be said.

And we won’t apologize to the old guard for our movement looking unfamiliar to them. In his New York Times column, Charles M. Blow wonders when young people are going to take up the mantle of Martin Luther King Jr. He worries that there is no new leader. He says: “There is a vacuum in the American body politic waiting to be filled by a young person of vision and courage, one not suckled to sleep by reality television and social media monotony.”

To Mr. Blow I will say: it will not be a young person, it will be young people, and they will use that same social media you bemoan as monotonous to organize, and then return home to watch the reality television they DVR’d. And you will deal.

We are a generation of activists and intellectuals who understand very clearly, as Blow states, that “mass incarceration, poverty, gun policy, voting rights, women’s access to health care, LGBT rights, educational equality, immigration reform” are “all interrelated.” That our elders don’t know that is because they either aren’t paying attention or because they snatch the mic away when we try to speak. But we won’t be silenced. We won’t wait “our turn.” Our turn is today.

President Barack Obama, whose speech hit the usual notes when the subject of race comes up (Jamelle Bouie, Jelani Cobb, Imara Jones and Ta-nehisi Coates all take him to task for a rather lackluster address), did wander into something poignant when he said:

“There’s a reason why so many who marched that day and in the days to come were young, for the young are unconstrained by habits of fear, unconstrained by the conventions of what is. They dared to dream different and to imagine something better. And I am convinced that same imagination, the same hunger of purpose serves in this generation.”

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While our movement will remember and learn from the ones that came before us and continually pay homage, it will not allow that memory to hamper our creativity, our urgency, nor our commitment. We will not apologize. We will win.

Gary Younge writes about how Dr. King’s dream is still misunderstood.

Ending Stop-and-Frisk, Keeping the Racism

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly take questions during a news conference in New York, Monday, August 12, 2013. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

On Monday, US district court judge Shira Scheindlin dealt a serious, but non-lethal blow to the New York City police policy known as “stop-and-frisk.” After weeks of testimony and evidence presented in the case of Floyd v. City of New York, Scheindlin ruled that stop-and-frisk violated individuals’ Fourth Amendment right to privacy and Fourteenth Amendment right to equal protection under the law. She did not, however, call for an end to the policy altogether, instead opting to appoint an independent federal monitor to oversee the program and the implementation of reforms that would bring it in line with the Constitution.

Undoubtedly, this is a huge victory for the activists who have been doing work around the issue of stop-and-frisk for years, and perhaps an even bigger victory for the black and Latino young men whose lives have been disproportionately disrupted by repeated violations of their rights. In her ruling, Scheindlin wrote that “the policy encourages the targeting of young black and Hispanic men based on their prevalence in local crime complaints. This is a form of racial profiling.” The ruling may not put an end to stop-and-frisk in its entirety, but at the very least there was a recognition from the court that for years the city’s police force has engaged in a racist practice that has infringed upon the rights of millions.

The same can’t be said of NYC’s current political leadership. In a press conference yesterday afternoon, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and police commissioner Ray Kelly were visibly dismayed with the ruling. Stop-and-frisk has been a signature crime-fighting tool during the Bloomberg years, one that defines his legacy. Kelly has received praise from high places, in large part because of the work he has done in executing the stop-and-frisk policy. For a judge to rule their “success” unconstitutional surely grates. But their defense of “stop-and-frisk,” despite weak attempts to deny as much, went on to show just how racist it is.

To start, Bloomberg noted the racial diversity of the NYPD, presumably to protect against charges of racism by pointing to the fact that people of color are active parts of the police force. But having your rights violated by someone who looks like you doesn’t somehow make that violation less racist. The fact is that out of roughly 5 million stops conducted over a decade, an alarming majority of them involved black or Latino men, and almost 90 percent of those stops turned up no evidence of wrongdoing. You can add some color to the faces conducting the stops, but that’s an institutionalized form of racism that doesn’t rely on white skin to operate.

He didn’t stop there. Bloomberg then deployed some lazy racist rhetoric about how the greatest perpetrators of crime happen to be young black and Latino men, so it only makes sense that the stops would disproportionately affect them. It’s the close relative to his argument that the NYPD has been, given crime statistics, stopping too many white people. Bloomberf and Kelly added the paternalistic line of reasoning that it was young black and Latino men who would also disproportionately be the victims of crimes stop-and-frisk has prevented, so the policy is really for their own benefit. Aside from erasing the opinions of those whom the policy is supposedly meant to protect, that reasoning also perpetuates the racist idea that black and Latino men are inherently violent and criminal, and therefore ignoring their rights is a necessary measure of protection. It also flies in the face of the evidence—stops of white people turn up higher rates of criminal activity. Based on the results of their own policy, it would have been prudent to shift the tactic to include more stops of white people, something that never happened and would likely have caused actual riots in the street.

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But none of that is what Bloomberg and Kelly wanted us to focus on. Their most compelling argument: stop-and-frisk works. The city’s homicide rates are down and the police have recovered more than 8,000 guns that may have been used in potential crimes. For the sake of argument, let’s say that stop-and-frisk actually did reduce crime (a claim for which there is no actual evidence, only Bloomberg’s anecdotal belief that it instills fear in would-be criminals to the point they decide a life of crime isn’t worth the police harassment they’re going to receive). Even if that were the case, it still does not justify the use of a racist tactic that violates basic rights guaranteed to every citizen of this country. It’s disingenuous to suggest that the only way to reduce crime is to decide that the rights of certain segments of the population can and should be violated. Not only does this ignore the true drivers of crime (and not call into question whether some of these infractions should even be crimes, e.g., marijuana possession), it’s a frustratingly insidious justification for racism.

To recap: Bloomberg and Kelly denied that stop-and-frisk is racist, but then claimed it wasn’t racist enough, and now want everyone to believe that even if it is racist it doesn’t matter because it works. This is post-racial colorblind racism in all its glory.

Going forward, it will be interesting to see what type of reforms to stop-and-frisk are implemented in order to make it constitutional, though I doubt it can be any less racist. We are a society that starts with the presumption the greatest purveyors of crime are young black and Latino men. Any policy based around the idea of reasonable suspicion that then leaves that up to the discretion of people reared with that pervasive racist ideology will be disproportionately suspicious of men of color. Declaring stop-and-frisk unconstitutional is an important first step, but undoing the racism that creates the justification for the policy will be a much longer process.

Yesterday’s stop-and-frisk ruling cites The Nation.

Invisible Women: The Consequences of Forgetting Sybrina Fulton

Sybrina Fulton mother of Trayvon Martin, speaks at the National Bar Association annual convention, July 29, 2013. (Reuters/Joe Skipper)

Sybrina Fulton, mother of Trayvon Martin, has been a textbook example of courage in the seventeen months since her youngest son was killed by George Zimmerman. Thrust into the public sphere during a time of great personal tragedy, Fulton has carried her pain with incredible poise. It was no different when she spoke before the National Urban League in Philadelphia this past Friday. She told the audience: “My message to you is please use my story, please use my tragedy, please use my broken heart to say to yourself, ’We cannot let this happen to anybody else’s child.’ ”

In that moment, she made the connection between herself and Mamie Till, mother of Emmett Till, the teen slain in 1955 for allegedly whistling at a woman, even stronger. Speaking on her decision to have an open casket at his funeral after her son’s face had been so badly beaten and disfigured he was unrecognizable, Mamie said: “I wanted the world to see what they did to my baby.” These mothers of black sons publicly asked us to use their pain to seek justice. However, the way we use that pain cannot diminish the reality of the people who live with it. By which I mean, we have a bad habit of acting as if black women exist only as props in the story about black men and it’s time to stop.

Black women’s pain fuels but then becomes obscured in the popular narrative about the consequences of racism and the fight for racial justice, as it becomes framed through the experiences of black men. All of us who do work around these issues are guilty of this oversight, myself included. In our attempts to address the problem of anti-black racism in the US, we neglect to consider the experiences of black women as part of that story.

While the Congressional Black Caucus convened a meeting to discuss the plight of black men and boys, black women and girls who suffer under the same systems of oppression being discussed as problematic for our boys have been left out of the public discourse. We talk often of the criminalization of black boys, and point to the school-to-prison pipeline as an example, but fail to mention the ways it affects black girls, as Monique W. Morris laid out in her report for African American Policy Forum in March of this year. According to Morris: “Black women and girls continue to be over-represented among those who are in contact with the criminal and juvenile justice systems. Black girls continue to experience some of the highest rates of residential detention. Black girls represent the fastest-growing segment of the juvenile justice population, and they have experienced the most dramatic rise in middle school suspension rates in recent years.” Yet, the problem continues to be framed as a nearly exclusive to black men and boys.

The same is true of New York City’s stop-and-frisk policy. While it’s true that the policy disproportionately targets black men, black women are also subjected to these supposedly random searches whose constitutionality has been challenged. Additonally, according to The New York Times, “stops of women by male officers can often involve an additional element of embarrassment and perhaps sexual intimidation.”

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At times like this, it’s important to remind ourselves of our history. As Danielle L. McGuire expertly documented in her 2010 book At the Dark End of the Street, one of the major catalysts of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s was the dehumanization experienced by black women. The bus boycotts began because of the physical threat and sexual terror heaped upon black women’s bodies, in addition to having to ride in the back. And while a young Martin Luther King  Jr. grabbed the headlines, it was a great number of black women paying the day-to-day price of movement building, organizing and doing field work, only to have their contributions minimized in favor of a “great man” reading of history.

Writing for The Guardian, Jamila Aisha Brown put it this way: “The victimization of young women is subsumed into a general well of black pain that is largely defined by the struggles of African-American men. As a result, any insight about this important intersection of race and gender is lost under the umbrella of a collective sense of persecution.”

The stories of black men are important, but they are not a stand-in for the stories of all black people. We can’t continue using the pain of black women’s lives to explain our existence if we are then going to pretend that pain isn’t worth examining on its own. We dishonor the courage of the Mamies and Sybrinas of the world when we do.

What the Zimmerman verdict teaches us about race in America.

Rewriting Black Manhood: A Conversation With 'Fruitvale Station' Director Ryan Coogler

Last week, I had the opportunity to talk to Ryan Coogler, the 27-year-old director whose debut feature-length film, Fruitvale Station, was a hit at the Sundance Film Festival and has since received rave reviews. It tracks the last day of Oscar Grant’s life, the 22-year-old black man who was fatally shot on New Year’s Day by an Oakland police officer. Ryan and I talked about Oscar’s death and how it has impacted the way we see ourselves as young black men in America.

The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Mychal Denzel Smith: Start by telling me what made you want to tell Oscar Grant’s story.

Ryan Coogler: For one, as a filmmaker, like any artist, when something affects me emotionally I think about it in those terms. It’s my way of dealing with my thoughts, my fears and my hardships. I think the same can be said with any artist. For a musician, you’re going to write a song about something that affects you emotionally. It’s the same with a poet or a painter.

What made me want to tell this story? It started with the incident, and being right there in the Bay Area when it happened. Being the same age as Oscar. Oscar was born in 1986. And I couldn’t help seeing myself right there. Seeing that situation. Seeing his friends—they look like my friends. We wear the same clothes, the same complexion. So in seeing that I thought, what if that was me? And that is where the idea initially came from. Being so hurt and being so angry, and so frustrated, and confused about what happened. The same feeling everybody had when they were out protesting and rioting. And people on the other side on the Internet. And seeing the trial, I feel like it kind of got muddled over that Oscar is a human being. He became this saint or this idol that people held up. He became a rallying cry and a symbol for whatever kind of impressions you wanted to make him a symbol for. And the other side has demonized him. He’s a criminal. He’s a thug. He got what he deserved. Personally, he’s not either one of those things. I feel like what was getting glossed over was the fact that this 22-year-old guy didn’t make it home to the people that he mattered to most. And for unnecessary reasons—his life was cut short unnecessarily. And so many young black men’s lives get cut short unnecessarily. [They’re not seen as] human beings by people who don’t know them or are on the other side of [this particular] conflict who don’t seem to care.

I was watching one of your interviews and you said something that really hit me—you said, “A filmmaker’s most important tool is humanity.” And that really struck me because you are telling a story of someone. I was the same age as Oscar when he was killed. I was 22. And I’m looking at it—us, young black men, our humanity isn’t considered, like you were talking about. And I’m watching the trial of George Zimmerman for killing Trayvon Martin right now, and the way they’re trying to paint Trayvon Martin, they’re trying to reduce him to a thug or this dude who was high. But I think with Oscar, the thing that struck me, especially watching it unfold on social media, because I was watching it on Twitter and I was horrified clicking that link and watching this dude get shot for no reason. But it was the timing of it for me because we had just elected Barack Obama. And my political differences with Obama aside—that was a real big moment. That was a point of pride to watch, on election night, this black man be duly elected the president of the United States of America. But then, not even two months later, you’re watching a brother your age get shot and killed by the police and you just realize again most of us are not going to be Barack Obama, but a lot of us could end up like Oscar Grant.

You’re a lot more likely to end up like Oscar Grant, for sure. It was a trip because it happened.… You know the Bay Area is a really liberal place. It [votes] Democratic. And we kind of look at ourselves at being a leader in terms of that. A leader in terms of race [relations], and gender equality, and just in terms of acceptance because it such a diverse place. So when that happened it was like a gut-punch at that time, because we were on a high when Obama got elected. And people were feeling good. It was a very optimistic time. And there was a lot of optimism across young black males at that time. And it was interesting talking to Sophie, Oscar’s girlfriend, about what he was talking about on New Year’s Eve, and you know Oscar just got out of prison. And he had a young daughter who he had been away from for a year and some change. And what they were taking about was resolutions—what he wanted to do for that next year. And I think that seeing Obama get elected, for a lot of us, gave us a little bit of additional hope. And to have that video come was like getting punched in the gut when you’re reaching your arms up.

And what you said about humanity. It’s both a tactic and a defense mechanism to look at some people as full human beings and to look at others as not full human beings. You see that with any kind of conflict. You see that in Frisco, in the Bay and I see a lot of kids that are involved in [urban] conflicts. This gang right here, they have issues with that gang there that’s across the street. And when you talk to these kids about the people they are at odds with, they don’t see them as full human beings. They see their friends and their family and their side as full human beings, but over there, they see them as something else. So therefore, they’re capability of doing things that would classify as [subhuman] to those people. You see that same kind of thing with any kind of conflict, whether it’s the police and the people police see as thugs—especially with black men. There are so many people that don’t come in contact with black men. Whether they live in a homogeneous area that’s mostly white or whether they live in places where they don’t have to come in contact with them. So what kind of contact do they have with African-American males? They have the media and that’s it.

We can look and see clearly that there is no regard for our humanity in mainstream media—you can look at the way stories get covered, from Oscar Grant, to the way mass incarceration is discussed, or what’s happening in Chicago, what’s happening in Detroit with all these brothers dying in the streets and everybody’s basically writing them off. And that’s the big thing to me, watching the film, was witnessing Oscar’s potential. You work with incarcerated youth and seeing the potential in these young brothers, but policy-wise, and society-wise, people don’t want to see the potential in young black men. People don’t want to think that we have the ability to contribute to this society in an intellectual way, in a way that helps better our situation. And that to me is frustrating and infuriating.

One thing that makes me mad is that when Is that these young men’s lives are taken, no matter who’s [holding the gun], there’s ripple effect on society—the people that they leave behind are still here. Oscar’s daughter is still here right now. She’s going to go the rest of her life without her dad. And there’s hundreds of Oscar Grants losing their lives everyday in this country. The thing about it is that we’re dealing with a human rights issue on a massive scale. And you take people who have never met, never even spent time around African-American males. They see us as [criminals], they see us as thugs. They see us as this one-sided thing.

People who know us intimately [know] that is a small minority of us. People’s lives have value—they can’t be monetized to a settlement. Once they’re gone, they’re gone. Lots of times people who don’t come in contact with African-American males have power over their lives. These are the people coming up with policy. These are the people who are called to juries. These are the people who say “I want to be a cop,” getting a badge and a gun and shooting up these communities. Protecting people who they never really come in contact with. So it’s a really interesting dynamic. I’m from the Bay Area, but I know for a fact, growing up, my number one fear of losing my life, which was an accurate fear, was getting shot. And nine times out of ten, the people who I had to watch the most are the people that look like you and me. Those are the people most likely to kill me. And the [other] people who [may] kill me were getting paid to protect my community. So it’s an interesting way to come up.

It’s hard to come up in that. But I am looking out now and I am seeing you and this incredible film you made. And I’m looking at Michael B. Jordan, who stars in it and the amazing performance he gave. And I’m looking at Frank Ocean. And I’m looking at Kendrick Lamar. And I’m looking at my boy, Saeed Jones, who is an incredible writer. My generation is doing something different. We are rewriting the rules. We are taking control of it and demanding and asserting our humanity right now. Whether people want to cede that to us or not, against the odds, we’re demanding to be recognized as fully human and we’re rewriting the rules for what it means to a black man in America. Do you feel that?

Absolutely, I feel it on so many levels. I’m seeing things from a lot of my peers. I am seeing cats raising their kids, [what I’m so proud of] is so many young black fathers that I know. You have people in the entertainment industry, people you read about [in the papers]. Seeing cats [realize] it starts with us.

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I was told this by someone, I’m not sure who said it and I’m not sure what context it was side, but I find it rings true: the strength of a society or a community is determined by the ability of the strong to take care of weak. The ability and willingness of the strong to take care of weak. We look at the African-American community, for a long time those of us who be considered strong—black men—for whatever reason, haven’t done a good job of taking care of the weak. And we were doing things that render taking care of our youth and taking care of our women and our families impossible, when our lives are taken. Once you’re killed, you can’t care for your kids or your family anymore. When you’re incarcerated [for those years], you can’t care for your kids or your family anymore.

So what I’m seeing and what I am looking forward to, what I hope is that I can see as we get older is that our generation, number one, that we stop killing each other. Number two, that we do what needs to be done to take care of ourselves so we’re not getting incarcerated at a mass rate. Three, holding people accountable [for killing us unnecessarily]. And number four, that we take care of our families. That’s our kids—that’s our spouses. And I am seeing that with those people that have struggled with that.

Fruitvale Station is in select theaters now and opens nationwide July 26th.

Trayvon Martin: From Lament to Rallying Cry

Protesters rally in response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the Trayvon Martin trial in Times Square in New York, July 14, 2013. (Reuters/Keith Bedford)

There isn’t a good reason for me to be as angry as I am over the “not guilty” verdict handed down for George Zimmerman in the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. I always knew that would be the outcome. No amount of flat-out lies or inconsistencies in Zimmerman’s story, nor compassion for two grieving parents who lost their son in the most heinous and senseless of ways, was going to override the lack of respect the United States justice system has for black bodies. Disappointment is for people who have faith in the system. I knew that better than I know my own name.

And yet there I was, crying rage-filled tears as “ZIMMERMAN NOT GUILTY” appeared on television. Because no amount of cynicism can override the pain of knowing a 17-year-old boy is dead through no fault of his own, and no one will be held accountable.

Perhaps the state of Florida is at fault: the prosecutors could have put together a stronger case. Perhaps the jury is at fault: maybe they didn’t notice Zimmerman’s lies and call his version of events into question the way they could have. But in truth, the whole damn country is at fault for continuing to allow the racist ideology that renders blackness a threat to the American way of life. The auction blocks and “Colored only” signs are past, but we haven’t learned the lessons of our history; we’re merely products of it.

George Zimmerman was prosecuted, yes, but he was never really on trial. Trayvon Martin’s lifeless body was put on trial for having the audacity to exist and be black. Zimmerman started that the night he killed Trayvon, profiling the lanky teen for being “up to no good” and not belonging in his gated community—when he had no information to go on besides the fact Trayvon was walking in the rain. During the trial, defense attorneys Mark O’Mara and Don West trotted out every racist stereotype attached to black boys throughout history, suggesting that Trayvon used supernatural size, strength and speed to beat Zimmerman. To my disgust, O’Mara literally invoked the same justification for killing Trayvon as was used to justify lynchings. He called to the witness stand Olivia Bertalan, one of Zimmerman’s former neighbors, who told the story of her home being burglarized by two young African-American boys while she and her children feared for their lives. It was terrifying indeed, and it had absolutely no connection to the case at hand. But O’Mara presented the jury with the “perfect victim,” which Trayvon could never be: a white woman living in fear of black criminals. Zimmerman had offered to help her the night her home was robbed. Implicit in the defense’s closing argument: he was also protecting her the night he killed Trayvon Martin.

On MSNBC’s UP w/ Steve Kornacki, Daryl Parks, the attorney for Trayvon’s family, said he didn’t want to call O’Mara a racist. But when you traffic in those racist tropes in a court of law, it doesn’t matter if you’re labeled a racist or not. The damage is done.

In a statement released the day after the verdict was announced, President Obama said: “I know this case has elicited strong passions. And in the wake of the verdict, I know those passions may be running even higher. But we are a nation of laws, and a jury has spoken. I now ask every American to respect the call for calm reflection from two parents who lost their young son.” But I ask him, and everyone else who says we must respect the verdict: How long are we supposed to remain calm when the laws we are called to respect exist in an open assault on our humanity? The arc of the moral universe bends slowly. Our lives are on the line right now.

But if we are, as I suggested, merely products of our history, then alongside our history of injustice exists a history of resistance, and this, too, has taken shape in the aftermath. I was in New York City to witness and participate in the rally-turned-march that took over the streets of midtown, as thousands of people of marched from Union Square Park to Times Square. Parents brought their children; one wore a homemade sign that read, “Don’t Shoot Me.” People cheered from the sidelines, and on occasion joined in. Cars respected the new traffic laws or were met with fierce opposition when they didn’t. A man stood asking, “Have you ever considered Zimmerman was not guilty?” He identified himself as an attorney, but his question went ignored.

Trayvon’s name became a rallying cry. It mingled with the call-and-response chants of “No justice, no peace!” and “Hey hey, ho ho, the new Jim Crow has got to go!” The police did what they could to stop the march, but in the end they just weren’t any match for the power of a people determined to fight the injustice in this country.

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I watched nearly every minute of George Zimmerman’s trial, and the disappointment I felt during that time was replaced by faint bits of hope as I watched so many people come together for Trayvon (and Oscar Grant, and Sean Bell, and Rekia Boyd and Aiyana Stanley-Jones…). It affirmed something I had been feeling in recent months.

For those of us left among the marginalized and oppression, be they black boys buying Skittles in Florida; women raising their voices against virulent anti-abortion measures in Texas, Ohio or North Carolina; prisoners going hungry in California; innocent men awaiting execution in Georgia; little girls lying asleep in Detroit; or transwomen who defend themselves and end up locked behind bars in Minnesota; the time is now to commit to the revolutionary project of living our lives out loud. Our rage is valuable, whether we anticipate its coming or not.

So what’s next? My fellow Nation contributor Salamishah Tillet told me a story about the legendary jazz singer Nina Simone. After the church bombing that killed the four little girls in Birmingham, Alabama, Simone went to her shed and tried to make herself a gun. Her husband walked in on her and asked what she was doing. She replied she was making a gun because she wanted to kill someone. He replied, “But you’re a musician.” Then she wrote “Mississippi Goddamn.”

What’s next is that each of us take whatever gift we have and use it in a way that honors and values black life. That is the legacy Trayvon Martin can leave to this world.

White supremacy acquits George Zimmerman.

What Does #Justice4Trayvon Look Like?

Trayvon Martin’s father Tracy Martin and his mother Sabrina Fulton. (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/David Shankbone)

The murder trial of George Zimmerman for the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin is nearing its end, with the defense expected to rest its case today. It’s time to prepare for what happens if Zimmerman is acquitted.

I believe strongly in his guilt, but I’ve also watched the trial closely, and between the second-degree murder charge, where the prosecution must prove ill will or malice, and Zimmerman’s crafty defense, it is entirely plausible that he’ll walk. The special prosecutor assigned to this case, Angela Corey, originally charged Zimmerman with second-degree murder denying that it was because of “public pressure,” but because of “special evidence” that supported the charge. Legal analyst Dan Abrams, writing for ABC News, said:

I certainly sympathize with the anger and frustration of the Martin family and doubt that a jury will accept the entirety of George Zimmerman’s account as credible. But based on the legal standard and evidence presented by prosecutors it is difficult to see how jurors find proof beyond a reasonable doubt that it wasn’t self defense. Prosecutors are at a distinct legal disadvantage. They have the burden to prove that Zimmerman did not “reasonably believe” that the gunshot was “necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm” to himself. That is no easy feat based on the evidence presented in their case. Almost every prosecution witness was called to discredit the only eyewitness who unquestionably saw everything that occurred that night, George Zimmerman.

It’s heartbreaking to think that Zimmerman killed Trayvon and may never face punishment, but it’s possible. And for those of us deeply affected by Trayvon’s death, we have to think carefully about what comes next.

Because even a guilty verdict is only a consolation. It would send a one-time message that a black child’s life had value, but it would hardly shift the tide from the constant dehumanization. We would still be up against the same system—no only our criminal justice system but a larger cultural sytem—in which it was prudent to test Trayvon for drugs but not Zimmerman, that would ask a grieving mother if her son did anything to cause his own death, and that didn’t see fit to make an arrest for nearly a month and a half.

This requires us to wrestle with this question: What does justice for Trayvon look like?

Because if you’re like me, you don’t see prison as the answer. The prospect of Zimmerman sitting behind bars for twenty-five years doesn’t invoke a sense of justice. That just means they’ll be another person languishing in our broken prison system. Our carceral state doesn’t work, and relying on it to bring justice for any of us is a fool’s errand. We need a new outlook.

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Justice needs to be more proactive. It should consist of an entire society doing everything it can to ensure that what happened to Trayvon never happens again. This includes a commitment to seeing the humanity in black men and boys, and letting go of the entrenched idea of their inherent criminality. It means divesting from the racist ideology that would have us believe black men are preternaturally violent creatures seeking to wreak havoc on America. Justice is black boys not having to grow up with that hanging over their heads. Justice is support for their potential. Real justice is this country truly believing that the killing of black boys is a tragedy.

When Trayvon’s father was on the witness stand, it was clear, more than a year later, he was still trying to process his son’s death. Assistant State Attorney Bernie de la Rionda was asking him about the 911 call where you can hear the gunshot that killed Trayvon. He started his question: “You realized that that was the shot…” and before he could finish, Tracy Martin chimed in, “That killed my son, yes.”

Justice is making sure no parent ever has to say those words again.

Read more from Mychal Denzel Smith on the George Zimmerman murder trial.

Trayvon Martin and Black Manhood On Trial

George Zimmerman waits for the resumption of his second degree murder trial in Sanford, Florida, July 1, 2013. (Reuters/Joe Burbank)

Yesterday, the jury in the George Zimmerman murder trial heard, at length, Zimmerman describe in his own words what happened the night he shot and killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. He didn’t take the stand, but the prosecution played for the court three separate audio and video recordings of Zimmerman’s interviews with the police and read aloud his written statement from the night of February 26, 2012. His description of the events were generally consistent with the story he has repeatedly told. But to my mind, the case really comes down to what the jury will believe happened in one specific moment.

Zimmerman says that after the 911 dispatcher told him he did not need to follow Trayvon, he continued walking to find an address so that he could be more specific regarding his whereabouts. Then he got off the phone. It’s during this time that Zimmerman claims that Trayvon came out of either the bushes, or the darkness, and said something to the effect of, “What’s your problem, homie?” to which Zimmerman responded, “I don’t have a problem.” Says Zimmerman, Trayvon replied, “You’ve got a problem now” and proceeded to punch Zimmerman in the face. Zimmerman’s version of the story is contradicted by the state’s key witness, 19-year-old Rachel Jeantel, who took the stand last week. Jeantel, who was one the phone with Trayvon that night for the duration of this event, says Trayvon was attempting to elude Zimmerman, whom he had described as a “creepy ass cracker.” Trayvon, according to Jeantel, believed he had lost Zimmerman, only to then notice that he hadn’t, at which point he told Jeantel, “The nigga is following me.” Jeantel says she then heard Trayvon say, “Why you following me for?” to which Zimmerman replied “What are you doing out here?” She then heard what she described as a bump and wet grass before the call was lost.

Jeantel’s testimony is key because it directly refutes Zimmerman’s version of the event and calls into question who was the aggressor in the resulting tussle. It’s clear that Zimmerman sustained some injuries, while not necessarily consistent with his assertion that Trayvon punched him twenty-five to thirty times and slammed his head on the concrete. It’s likely that a fight took place. But who started it?

On her show Sunday morning, Melissa Harris-Perry asked a question that gets at the heart of why this case is of national importance. Talking with Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman, Harris-Perry said: “It does seem like part of what hinges here is whether or not Trayvon Martin hit George Zimmerman and whether or not he did so first…but why is it that if this person hit someone who was prepared to use lethal force against him…why wouldn’t he have a right to stand his ground? Is that not racialized?” Do black boys get to defend themselves?

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Because it’s clear that, whoever instigated the altercation, Zimmerman followed Trayvon that night. He was instructed not to, but he did anyway. That Zimmerman fumbled for an answer when the lead investigator asked whether he thought Trayvon was afraid of him is emblematic of the way society has trained us to think about black manhood. Of course he didn’t think Trayvon could be scared. Young black men never are. They are the danger. Which is also why, for some, Zimmerman’s story, even with the cartoonish language he ascribes to Trayvon, doesn’t sound far-fetched. A black man jumping from behind the bushes to sucker-punch someone they don’t know and attempt to kill them only a short distance from their home. It makes perfect sense if you believe that black men are preternaturally violent.

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The jury will have to decide who they believe in this instance, Jeantel or Zimmerman, and it is this that has me concerned. Brittney Cooper, writing for Salon, captured it succinctly: “…black womanhood, black manhood and urban adolescence are always on trial in the American imaginary.”

Zimmerman’s innocence rests on the notion of Trayvon’s criminality. And in this country, it’s not that difficult to convince six people of the criminality of a 17-year-old black boy.

Want more from the Zimmerman trial? Read Mychal Denzel Smith’s defense of Rachel Jeantel.

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