What one ‘neighborhood watchman’ did


Sooner or later, every politician in the United States learns to handle an unwanted or uncomfortable question, either by answering a different question than the one that was asked or by simply changing the subject. Something similar is happening in the national dialogue in America with the conclusion of the Trayvon Martin case, especially in response to the outpouring of public protest. The subject has been changed in the most familiar and frequently successful way, in which the victim becomes the criminal.

This scenario holds: “Martin may have been a victim, but he is an exception. The real threat to Blacks is other Blacks.” Assenting to this assertion means the nation can, as conservative opinion-makers insist it should, just “move on.”

It will not happen, not this way. Not yet. When “move on” means “to forget,” then justice is thrown aside or ignored. It would be to condemn Trayvon Martin once again.

The official decision of “not guilty” for George Zimmerman on July 13 was more than a slap in the face of Black America. The pain and anger ran much deeper. In a fatal conflict, where one man claimed to fear for his life and a teen-age boy had life taken from him, there had to be a right and a wrong. A “not guilty” for George Zimmerman was a “guilty” verdict for Trayvon Martin. Insult was literally added to injury.

As a result, protest rallies sprung up shortly after the verdict and continued through the week, spreading throughout the country, from Miami to San Francisco, from Los Angeles to Boston, forming a kind of horizontal X through the map of America. Nor is the fervor of protest likely to end soon. Organizers of the upcoming Aug. 24 rally in Washington, D.C, have already announced plans to link this burgeoning movement with the 1963 March on Washington and the current outcry over the Supreme Court’s rollback of key sections of the Voting Rights Act.

In the face of continued protest, and calls for a Justice Department investigation into the killing of Trayvon Martin, the response of the political right in the United States has been a particularly revealing.  They claim that all the “rhetoric” and rallies are only a misguided distraction from the real issues.

Consider a single, recent example, though a typical one. On Fox News Sunday, host Chris Wallace argued, “Should the African-American community be focusing on that—the “black on black crime”—the carnage in our inner cities—and not on George Zimmerman?” The program continued by posting a graphic giving Justice Department statistics which showed that 93% of Black murder victims are killed by other Blacks.

No information was given about racial preference in hiring, or overall unemployment, especially jobless rates affecting Black youth. No information was given about attacks on affirmative action, declining educational opportunities, or the continued existence of segregation in housing and education. No information was given about the prison system and incarceration of young Black men. Conditions that lead to crime were simply ignored.

Instead, Wallace repeated his blame of the African-American community and, in the form of a question, made an assertion: “Should civil rights leaders be focusing on that and not what one neighborhood watchman did in Sanford, Fla., 17 months ago?” To this rhetorical question, the audience for Fox News Sunday could, eagerly and with a measure of relief, nod “yes.”

The rhetorical advantage of the conservative argument, at least for scoring debating points, is obvious enough.  It prevents too many questions from being asked and reduces the Trayvon Martin case to merely “what one neighborhood watchman did.”

A more sensible, a more honest and fruitful question to ask would be, “Why has the killing of a Black teen raised such a powerful and sustained outcry, one potent enough to force the arrest and trial of George Zimmerman, and why has this outrage spread so far and so fast?”

Despite the best efforts of mainstream media commentators, the Trayvon Martin case refuses to go away. Protesters refuse to be sidetracked by the talking points of right-wingers who care about crime in the Black community only when it is convenient, when it can turn attention away from the larger crime of a justice system that has failed. This is not just a neighborhood scuffle that ended badly.

Instead, the killing of a Black 17 year old in Florida raises many troubling questions whose answers suggest bitter and ugly truths about racism throughout America. Questions about racial profiling, prejudice, vigilantism against Blacks, police bias, the fairness of the judicial system, the integrity of the congressional system with its passage of laws that target minorities, the real substance of social justice, all these questions and more are being asked by people angered by the court’s decision that found George Zimmerman “not guilty.”

These are questions that get to the root of racial injustice in America and reveal the failings of the legal and political system. Fifty years ago, in “The Fire Next Time,” James Baldwin wrote, “… this is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen … that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it.”

What the wave of protests in cities across the country reveals is that more and more people, especially but not only Black people, do know some measure of the reality of oppression in America and demand something better. The death of a young man and the acquittal of his killer have opened a window to a larger truth, that the centuries-long struggle for equality and freedom for Black people has still not been won and that partial victories are not yet secure.

Photo: Tony Savino / Socialist Action

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