by Mikel Kwaku Osei Holt
Dear Charlie: The Reverend Deborah Thomas preached one of her most rousing and inspirational sermons last Sunday. The pastor of the recently formed House of Grace Kingdom Church spoke about ‘justice in an unjust society.’ Had you been there, I’m sure the spirit would have overtaken you, as it did us. Since the services are held on Sundays at 10 a.m. in the Radisson Hotel in Menomonee Falls, it is not unusual for hotel guests to stop in, or at the very least observe the services from the doorway. This past week they got an eye and earful, particularly when Rev. Deb linked scripture to the recent killing in Sanford, Florida of Trayvon Martin by a self proclaimed vigilante.
At one point Rev. Deb, who happens to be my sister, asked youth wearing hoodies to parade around the room. As they did so, she noted that their attire, age and skin complexion placed them in the ominous position of being negatively stereotyped and profiled by much of White America. It also put young men in potential danger, making them targets of overzealous or racist police officers, block watch patrollers and radicals intent on carrying out an agenda rooted in 400 years of racial hatred and prejudices.
The fact the three young men who paraded around the conference room were good students and brought up in strong Black nuclear family settings where Christianity is lived instead of talked about, would mean nothing to those with an agenda rooted in prejudices and perceptions.
Seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin fit their description, yet was killed by a vigilante while walking home from a neighborhood store in Stanford two months ago.
According to suburban legend, Trayvon should have purchased a 40 oz. and a blunt from the grocery store. In reality, he had spent his legally earned money on a bag of skittles and an ice tea.
As I listened to Rev. Thomas’ compelling assertions, I thought of comments and questions you raised two days prior during a segment of your daily morning talk show on WTMJ radio.
You raised several compelling questions, even while acknowledging the inherent tragedy of Trayvon’s killing. You questioned why gunfire that ended his life has sent shock waves throughout Black America. You noted that even the president of the United States has weighed in, and hundreds of civil rights activists including Rev. Al Sharpton have since traveled to the site of Trayvon’s killing to lead protests and demand ‘justice.’
Most interestingly, you asked why equal disgust and attention has not been paid to the thousands of Black children and adults killed annually in central cities by people who look like their victims.
If I recall correctly, you also mentioned the controversial shooting death of a Black teenager by a homeowner in Slinger, Wisconsin two weeks earlier. That Black teen was discovered in the man’s home, hiding from police (reportedly having ran from a under age drinking party). The homeowner told police he felt threatened after hearing noise on his enclosed porch. When the teen stood up upon command, the homeowner shot him.
In many respects, the Slinger killing was similar to the Trayvon case, yet there has not been more than a whimper by local lack leaders about that Wisconsin tragedy. Of course, your remarks were made before it was announced that the chief of police and District Attorney of Sanford have both recused themselves from the pending investigation, asserting that their positions had become distractions.
That’s a fair rationale, but more appropriately both of those law enforcement officials had found themselves targets of angry and frustrated protestors because of their respective investigative ineptitude and bias.
Their actions–or inactions—during the initial ‘investigation’ have prompted the initiation of independent investigations by the governor of Florida and U.S. Justice Department. What those two agencies will hopefully look at is why self-declared block club member George Zimmerman, who was ‘patrolling’ his neighborhood, made the original assumption that Trayvon was ‘suspicious’ and worthy of following.
Secondly, why did Zimmerman disobey a police dictate to discontinue tracking Trayvon, and instead confronted him? Did the 200-plus pound Zimmerman really feel threatened by the skinny 17-year-old teenager? And lastly, did Zimmerman initiate the confrontation, and if so, can he be protected by Florida’s controversial ‘stand your ground law,’ which provides citizens with the ‘right’ to kill someone if they feel ‘threatened.’
With that backdrop, let me attempt to answer your questions in order. There are obvious reasons why the Trayvon Martin killing has sparked national protests, international media scrutiny and even non-partisan political outrage.
Beyond the tragedy and symbolism, questions have been raised about racial profiling, the complicity of law enforcement—which all but exonerated the killer without benefit of a full scale investigation—and the new Florida law, which in the minds of many progressive citizens will give unstable or prejudicial gun owners a ‘get out of jail free card.’
Incidentally, the author of the stand your ground bill, which received broad bi-partisan support when it was introduced in 2005, has stated in interviews that the Trayvon killing did not fall within the umbrella of the law, and Zimmerman overstepped his bounds.
Dozens of states, including Wisconsin, have introduced similar laws, fueling growing concern among many minorities that we are being targeted, and that the ‘innocent’ will be lumped in with the bad, accidentally, or on purpose.
As a result, Sanford, Florida is now ground zero in a national agenda to repeal ‘stand your ground,’ or at least put it under a microscope where its intrinsic dangers can be examined.
Even before passage of the law and its sister legislation—the castle doctrine–Black parents were burdened with the innate fear that our children will be involved in a nonsensical killing, either by police officers—there are hundreds of cases of innocent Black men being failed by a system spelled out to mean ‘JUST-US’–or gun happy vigilantes, or frightened White citizens who have brought into the stereotypes about Black males.
Parents of teenagers and young adults carry this stressful fear with them every day, their senses heightened when their children stray outside the segregated boundaries of the central city, traveling to malls as near as Mayfair, or participate in trips where their Black presence draws unfounded conclusions and cause for alarm by White, so-called Christian folk.
We expect—if not know as a certainty– they will be profiled, harassed, if not ticketed unjustly, by police. If they open their mouths to protest acts of injustice, they might find themselves arrested, beaten or worse. And God forbid, we have been told, for them to stray into the wrong White neighborhood could result in their ending up like Trayvon.
This may sound like an over-exaggeration to you, but it happens, and Black parents feel impotent to do anything to stop it other than to warn our children, to strip them of their dignity, pride and constitutional rights simply because they are of ebony hue, or wear a hoody, which to many Whites means they are in gangs or otherwise criminally natured.
At the very least, they will come under scrutiny for looking ‘suspicious,’ which is a euphemism for being a Black thug.
Some of us warn our children about wearing hoodies, which has become an assumption of gang membership if not criminal behavior (you can’t wear hoodies in many schools or banks today). But we also have to ask ourselves who makes the rules about attire?
If we don’t allow our sons to wear hoodies, are we not succumbing to prejudice as well? Should we also tell them not to carry an Ipod (surely they are listening to gangsta rap music that promotes violence). What about ear rings?
Hoodies, baseball caps tilted to the side, pants that are hanging below the waist, and even expensive tennis shoes and tattoos have somehow become associated with gang membership, violence and criminality.
Interestingly, I saw a video of a protest in Sanford where a half dozen White boys were wearing that same attire. I guess I should be surprised none of the Black adults shot them! But I did wonder if George Zimmerman had witnessed those White boys walking in his neighborhood, would he have followed them?
But I digress.
It may sound like a stretch to you, but to many older African Americans the Trayvon killing brought to mind images of Emmit Till.
Fifty years ago, Emmit Till made the mistake of whistling at a White woman and was beaten, hung and mutilated. In the respective incidences involving Trayvon and Emitt, prejudice, and maintenance of the status quo, was the motivator.
There have been hundreds of Emmit Tills since his murder a half-century ago. Some were by ‘law enforcement,’ others by vigilantes.
The end result has been the same, the M.O. compatible. Lastly, the Black community has galvanized around Trayvon because his death, and the perceptions that led to it, are at the core of a racial paradigm that many predict will lead to an inevitable racial confrontation.
There are three obvious ways to derail that possibility, the first being to keep Black children out of harm’s way. The second and third have to do with our youths biting their lips when confronted by ‘authorities.’
These are lessons you’ve never had to integrate into your sons’ socialization and survival training (which they, obviously, have no need for).
But imagine if only for a few moments, you had to arm your sons with the knowledge they would almost assuredly encounter racism sometime in their lives and sometimes they would have to swallow their dignity instead of lashing out in self-defense?
Have you ever had to tell your sons there are certain neighborhoods they cannot venture into for fear that they will be profiled and maybe confronted because of the color of their skin? Imagine telling them to bite their lips when stopped by an overly aggressive or racist police officer that may disrespect and verbally abuse them. Imagine telling them to take with a grain of salt incidents when White women will cross over to the other side of the street if they happen to encounter them.
Have you ever had to tell your sons to ignore racist taunts when they play basketball somewhere 60 minutes outside of Milwaukee? How would you tell them to respond if they went to their ‘white’ girlfriends’ home only to be confronted with a racist epithet from a parent? Or expected to laugh when their boss told a racist joke?
I remember writing about an incident that occurred more than a decade ago when my wife and I took my two youngest sons to a hotel in Illinois. We acquired a room overlooking the hotel pool, and initially paid little attention when our pre-teen boys went swimming. A few minutes later we were both looking out the window when we noticed the boys playing with two young White girls of similar age. Without saying a word, we looked at each other and immediately ran out the room to the pool, where we literally snatched both boys out of the water and took them back to our room.
Why? Because we knew if the girls’ father or mother walked up on that scene, there would be hell to pay. Black boys playing with White girls in bathing suits? If the parents didn’t call the police, I can almost guarantee there would be a confrontation and I would have ended up in jail, or worst.
You may think we over-reacted. But trust me, Black people have been conditioned to respond that way based on historical precedent.
Oh, but you think we’re in a post-racial society? Guess again. A few weeks ago a group of ‘liberal’ White students at UW-Madison confronted several Black students with racist slurs and threats. That occurred in the place you call the “People’s Republic” because its inhabitants are supposedly sooooo liberal.
I can cite a dozen similar incidents in Milwaukee, but you get my point. Trayvon’s killing represents an American phenomenon that has persisted for hundreds of years, and despite claims that President Obama’s election moved us into a colorless society, evidence suggests the evil cancer of racism and prejudice is growing.
Since President Obama’s election, gun sales have increased 300%, a figure that is eerily similar to the number of para-military organizations that have boldly announced their presence and racist agenda. The number of ‘official’ hate groups has grown by over 20% in the last decade, now numbering 1,002. Armed block clubs such as the one Zimmerman was a member of are springing up wherever there is a minority presence.
The ‘castle’ and ‘stand your ground’ laws are the country’s latest cowboy solution to the ‘crime’ problem. Of course in many minority’s minds, the crime problem isn’t so much about citizens’ arrest of criminals, but instead about White citizens arresting the rights of innocent citizens of color. The protests over the killing of Trayvon Martin is as much about the shared pain of families of color to both the killing of an innocent young Black child, as it is about challenging both the mental state of those who pull the trigger and the laws that enable them to do so without fear of legal entanglement. It is also about a legal system that aids and abets this tragedy and a thinly veiled government sanctioning of a initiative against minorities.
That said, I would be surprised if Zimmerman is ever charged, or if these protests and ‘demands’ for justice result in slowing the proliferation of hate groups, armed vigilantes or shootings of Black boys and men under the banner of ‘self defense.’
What it may instead do is push this country further into the abyss of racial conflict. Lastly, your assumptions about us ignoring Black on Black violence is partly correct. That phenomenon poses more of a threat than racism and prejudicial reactions probably ever will. Which is not to say Black folks are not unnerved by it. But in that regard, many of us feel equally helpless. There have been thousands of marches, educational campaigns and prayer vigils. None of them have made much of a dent in arresting violence in Black America. Truth of the matter is, most African Americans honestly don’t know what to do, other than to blame poverty, unemployment and racism while we await some ‘white knight’ to step in and solve our problems.
Some say the phenomena of Black on Black violence would solve itself if there was zero unemployment. We know that’s not going to happen, And moreover, some people are just evil, and wouldn’t take a ‘regular’ job if it was handed to them on a plate with greens and cornbread. Which brings to mind an ironic possibility that I have previously endorsed. What if we formed armed vigilante groups to patrol our neighborhoods, but harbored some of the same prejudices as Zimmerman?
The truth is many of us—Black people—have succumbed to the same prejudices and stereotypes. Many of us also look on Black teens with suspicion and fear, which raises an interesting paradox: Is there the remote possibility that we will someday read of a Black block club member standing over a Black teen wearing a hoody and armed with a bag of skittles?