Our Lives on the Line

Our Lives on the Line

How long are we supposed to remain calm when the laws we are called on to respect are an open assault on our humanity?


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 inconsistencies in Zimmerman’s story, nor compassion for two grieving parents who lost their son in the most heinous of ways, could override the lack of respect the US justice system has for black bodies. Disappointment is for people who have faith in the system. I know that better than I know my own name. And yet there I was, crying rage-filled tears as Zimmerman Not Guilty scrolled across the TV screen. Because no amount of cynicism can override the pain of knowing that a 17-year-old boy is dead through no fault of his own, and that 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: they didn’t call Zimmerman’s 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 in the past, but we haven’t learned the lessons of our history; we are 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 nothing to go on other than that 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 preternatural size, strength and speed to beat Zimmerman. To my disgust, O’Mara actually invoked the same justification for killing Trayvon that was used to justify lynchings. He called to the witness stand Olivia Bertalan, Zimmerman’s former neighbor, who told the story of her home being burglarized by two young African-Americans while she and her son feared for their lives. It was terrifying—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.

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.” I ask him: How long are we supposed to remain calm when the laws we are called on to respect are 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 marched from Union Square to Times Square. Parents brought their children; one wore a homemade sign that read Don’t Shoot Me. People cheered from the sidelines, and some joined in. Cars respected the new traffic laws or were met with fierce opposition. A man stood asking, “Have you ever considered Zimmerman was not guilty?” 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 they weren’t any match for the power of a people determined to fight the injustice in this country.

I watched nearly every minute of 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 oppressed—whether we are black boys buying Skittles in Florida; women raising their voices against anti-abortion measures in Texas, Ohio and North Carolina; prisoners going hungry in California; little girls lying asleep in Detroit; an intellectually disabled man awaiting execution in Georgia; or a transwoman who defends herself and ends up behind bars in Minnesota—it’s time to commit to the revolutionary project of living our lives out loud. Our rage is valuable, whether or not we anticipate its coming.

For what would justice for Trayvon Martin have been? If you’re like me, you don’t see prison as the answer. Zimmerman sitting behind bars for twenty-five years isn’t justice delivered. Our prison state doesn’t work, and relying on it to bring justice for any of us is a fool’s errand. Instead, justice should be an entire society doing everything it can to ensure that what happened to Trayvon never happens again. This includes a commitment to recognizing the humanity in black men and boys. It means divesting from the racist belief that black men are preternaturally violent creatures, inherent criminals. 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.

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 gathered tools from her garage and tried to make herself a gun. Her husband walked in on her and asked what she was doing. She replied that she was making a gun because she wanted to kill someone. He said, “Nina, you don’t know anything about killing. The only thing you’ve got is music.” Then she wrote “Mississippi Goddam.”

What’s next is that each of us takes 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.

The editors comment on the George Zimmerman verdict in this month’s issue.

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