Outrage at the murder of Trayvon Martin has sparked a wave of protests in recent days. Demonstrations numbering in the tens of thousands have been held in New York; 8000 marched in Philadelphia, 3000 in Seattle—and more in Chicago, Washington, DC, and Los Angeles. Demonstrations as large as 25,000 have been held in Sanford, Fla., where the crime took place. In Miami, hundreds of high school students walked out of class. Over the weekend, hundreds of churches encouraged their congregations to wear hoodies to Sunday services.
The majority of the demonstrators have been young African Americans, many wearing “hoodie” sweatshirts and demanding “Justice for Trayvon!” The chant “I am Trayvon Martin!” is heard everywhere.
Protests have forced the Sanford police chief to “temporarily” step down and impelled state and federal authorities to announce an investigation. President Obama, previously silent, made a statement of sympathy with Trayvon’s parents and said that if he had a son, he would “look like Trayvon.”
On Feb. 26, Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old Black man, was confronted by an armed “town watch” vigilante, George Zimmerman. Trayvon was walking back to his father’s home from a nearby convenience store with an iced tea and a bag of Skittles. He had gone there during halftime of the NBA All-Star game.
Zimmerman, speaking on the phone with a 911 operator, reported seeing a “suspicious” person walking through the neighborhood. Ignoring instructions of the 911 operator to not approach Trayvon, Zimmerman continued to follow. Moments before fatally shooting Trayvon, according to witnesses, Zimmerman uttered the racist epithet, “fucking coons.” Witnesses heard Trayvon’s cries for help followed by gunshots.
When Sanford cops arrived they found Trayvon lying dead on the ground; Zimmerman claimed to have shot him in self-defense. No forensic evidence was gathered and no attempt was made to identify Trayvon, who was initially labeled a “John Doe.” Trayvon’s body was tested for alcohol and drugs, while Zimmerman was not similarly tested. Trayvon’s father made repeated calls to police about his missing son for 24 hours before he found out about the murder. The Sandford police were previously criticized for racial incidents; including the failure to arrest a police lieutenant’s son—for almost one month—for beating a Black homeless man.
Zimmerman was released shortly after the killing and has yet to be charged for any crime. His claim of self-defense was based on the so-called “Castle Doctrine,” which has expanded the definition of self-defense in a number of states. Previously, self-defense statues required a person to attempt to retreat from a situation before using deadly force. Now, the law states that someone can “stand their ground” against an assailant.
The notion that Trayvon—outweighed by Zimmerman by more than 100 pounds, wearing a hooded sweatshirt, and “armed” with a bag of Skittles—posed a threat to the shooter is ridiculous.
Clearly, the life of a young Black or Latino is not worth much in this racist society. The extrajudicial murder of young Blacks or Latinos by cops and vigilantes is routine and hardly deemed worthy of comment by the capitalist media. These killings echo the lynchings of the Jim Crow South and serve the same purpose—to keep “uppity” Blacks and the oppressed in line and under control.
Racist curfew laws, “stop and frisk” programs, and the “war on drugs” all serve the same purpose—to demonize and criminalize young people of color. The mass incarceration of Black and Latin youth is another symptom of this oppressive set-up. Millions are imprisoned, mostly for non-violent offenses. In fact, more Black people are in prison, jail, or on probation or parole, than were enslaved in the 1850s.
The racist functioning of the criminal “justice” system helps reinforce the reactionary narrative that young Blacks are criminal by nature and ignores the fact that institutional racism insures that oppressed nationalities have fewer opportunities for a good education or well-paying jobs. Young Blacks are disproportionately more likely to be unemployed or to drop out of school. Death rows across the U.S. house Blacks and Latino/as in excessive proportions.
This does not illustrate the “inherent” criminality of the oppressed and exploited but rather the systemic, institutionalized racism that is a prop to the U.S. capitalist system. The fact that cops failed to charge Zimmerman, while an outrage, is no surprise. For cops, the death of a young Black man is routine.
Racist violence is not used against only Black youth. Over the weekend of March 24, an Iraqi immigrant woman, Shaima Alawadi, was brutally beaten to death in California by someone who left a note referring to this innocent woman as a “terrorist.” People building on the Trayvon Martin mobilizations have started a Million Hijabis for Shaima Alawadi campaign. Organizers in the Muslim community are making common cause with the Trayvon Martin movement as well as with campaigns against stop and frisk programs.
Moreover, violent vigilante groups along the U.S.-Mexico border, like the far-right Minutemen, target immigrants from Latin America daily. Politicians of both parties aim their rhetoric at the undocumented.
These crimes are abetted by government policies of surveillance and entrapment of Muslims, curfews, and stop and frisk programs aimed at young Blacks, and the increased scapegoating of undocumented workers. All of these measures create an atmosphere of paranoia and hate, widening divisions within the working-class and hampering the building of a united movement against our oppressors.
Obama’s crocodile tears for Trayvon should not fool anyone. The first Black president has done little or nothing to address the social and economic crisis of Black America. Nothing has been done to address the mass incarceration of Black youth or the mass unemployment in the community.
Obama has done nothing to revitalize the education system. Instead, he has slashed budgets, which has resulted in thousands of laid-off teachers, and endorsed privatization schemes that will only damage public education. Obama remained silent when the state of Georgia executed Troy Davis, an innocent man. His Justice (!) Department has done nothing to deal with the unjust and unconstitutional treatment of political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal.
Obama’s statement of sympathy was a cynical ploy to win Black votes in the election and had nothing to do with winning real justice. Like his predecessor, Obama cares little for the lives and needs of Black workers and youth and serves the interests of the richest one percent.
How do we win justice for Trayvon? It is critical that mass mobilizations in the streets continue to put pressure on the system to arrest and try Zimmerman for this murder. We cannot have illusions that Obama, the Democratic Party, and Obama apologists like Al Sharpton are real allies in this struggle. Their rhetoric is aimed to defuse the situation and channel popular anger into safe, legal channels.
Nor can we put our faith in capitalist courts, cops, or the so-called justice system. The oppressed and exploited have in their hands the power to make real change; to do that, they need to mobilize independently of the parties and organizations of the ruling class.
Socialist Action says: Justice for Trayvon Martin! Arrest the murderer Zimmerman now! Repeal all racist Castle Doctrine laws now! Fire the incompetent racist cops who failed to investigate this crime! Stop the mass incarceration of Black and Latino/a youth! Jobs at living wages; free education and health care for all!