Monday, March 26, 2012

Trayvon Martin - Turning Emotion Into Action

It has been nearly one month and yet no charges have been brought upon George Zimmerman for killing Trayvon Martin, who still remains free. There have been marches and rallies around the country to support Martin’s family and call for bringing Zimmerman to be arrested and tried. The Sanford police department has been called out for mishandling the case and the police chief has stepped down as a result.

What have I done? Besides share my thoughts here, I wore my hoodie Wednesday to support the march in New York. I changed my Twitter avatar after seeing a friend as well as several respected Black journalists (Jim Trotter of SI, Calvin Watkins of ESPN Dallas and Clarence Hill Jr.) do the same. Now I see so many do it and it makes me proud.

I almost shed a tear when I saw that Dwyane Wade and LeBron James convinced their teammates to lend their support. I never thought I’d see a high profile athlete take a stand on this and in this era of corporate pitchmen – the most high profile basketball players took a bold stand. They earned my respect for life.

I’ve shared links from other perspectives and I’ve engaged in conversations about why this case means so much to me. I’ve thought about the teenage boys at my church or my girlfriend’s nephew and how they could be Trayvon. About how America is learning that before we are teenagers, young men of color are told how to act in certain circumstances to potentially save their lives and not be a threat.

I’ve also thought about my own prejudices and wondered how assumptions/biases/fears have governed American society. Whether it be Native Americans, Japanese Americans after World War 2, Black Americans during and after slavery and more, we have been taught to fear others or treat them different. Shameful laws have been passed to enforce this.

“69 billion in the last 20 years spent on national defense but folks still live in fear.” – Mos Def (Yasiin Bey) "Mathematics

Even look at Rush Limbaugh slandering Sandra Fluke. By having an unpopular position on birth control, she was labeled a slut. Anything outside of the main narrative gets labeled and cast as something abnormal or shameful. It’s the American way – make something different look fearful instead of embrace openmindedness.

As more people sign petitions, share their hoodie pictures and attend rallies, some people skeptically wonder if people are riding the bandwagon similar to the KONY 2012 campaign. It’s natural, considering that social media activism capitalizes on instant reaction that can fade away with time. There are great flaws in it that the KONY campaign highlighted brilliantly – absence of facts, no clear plan beyond the initial emotion or action, too simplistic in its approach.

To that point I say this. While it our responsibility to be members of the global community, we must never forget our local communities. Glocalization is more important than globalization. Think global, act local. If you are upset at what happens in the world, fight injustice around you as well.

The difference with Trayvon Martin is there is a clear goal for our cause – get George Zimmerman arrested and arraigned for his crimes. Continue to put public pressure on the trial to ensure a fair process and hopefully secure a conviction. While social media activism does have its flaws longterm, when done right it can lead to great change.

More people will also look for ways to paint Trayvon at fault for what happened. Wearing his hoodie wasn’t a good look at night. He should’ve known better at 17 (looking at you, Geraldo Rivera). Show photos of him looking a certain way (which is ironic, given that assumptions got him killed despite a clean record). Report some witness saying that he was fought back against Zimmerman, which considering that his life was in danger is a pretty normal reaction any of us would do if approached by a stranger who made the first move to attack you.

It's a common courtroom/investigation technique used to distract from what happened to paint doubt in your mind. All of which will quickly be disproven when you hear the 911 call or his friend’s final moments with him. It doesn’t change the fact Zimmerman was the aggressor and approached an unarmed young person that he outweighed. Or the fact Zimmerman has a track record for being overzealous.

Ultimately this is about realizing and fighting prejudices. It’s deeper than racism, a pattern of believing one ethnic group is inferior to another. To a man, most reasonable people will admit this is wrong but what about prejudices. What about assuming things about someone based on how they look and letting that lead to judgments and actions?

We live in a world where we do this on a daily basis and the media consciously or unconsciously shapes them. Communication theorist George Gerbner proved with years of research that the amount of media we consume usually leads to how we see the world. He told Congress that fearful people are “more dependent, more easily manipulated and controlled, more susceptible to deceptively simple, strong, tough measures and hard-line postures.”

That was in 1981. He prophetically added that “they may accept and even welcome repression if it promises to relieve their insecurities.” (Hello, Patriot Act)

Like Tim Wise and Davey D said, America has created a climate of fear. You are living in a culture that tells you to fear somebody. Look at your news – the lead stories are usually crime or tragedies. Who are the villains and who are the heroes in shows? What’s your instant reaction when you see somebody different than you? And too often, the victims of this fear are people who look like me.

My godbrother was randomly stopped in my current neighborhood when he came to visit me, for no reason. Somebody called the police on me when I was in HS because I ran back to my house to catch a baseball game and a neighbor didn't recognize me.

Here’s what I say people can do. Remain aware of this case. Sign a petition. Show your support how you see fit. Talk about it but also realize it’s not an isolated incident. It’s something that people of color face every day and you – yes, you the majority – are responsible for it changing.

Look at yourselves and your friends. Look at what you assume about people. Look at how far you’ll go about your assumptions. Nobody thinks they’ll kill or hurt somebody but fear has a way of surprising you with its pull.

 We have to unlearn our prejudices and constantly renew our minds. I’m not saying be na├»ve but I am saying watch your comments. Be quicker to listen and see before thinking something about someone. Fear is the true opposite of love, not hate, and if we learn to eliminate our biases and put ourselves and friends in check when we step out of line.

I’ve learned to not assume people are thugs by a mugshot, by how they dress or act. Maybe I’d rather be proven wrong but having been in the media and seen how people assume too much, I’d rather be a voice of caution when there’s a lot more quickness to judge – too often by people who don’t look like the people being judged.

To properly honor Trayvon Martin, we have to live remembering that he died from a bullet AND a thought. It’s more than just remembering his death by changing an avatar. It’s living with his ghost reminding us to change our perceptions and not let fear have such a power on us. When the music stops and the media and most folks move on, this is what you must do to remember what happened and provoke change.

Speaking of ghosts, I’ll let one of my inspirations, James Baldwin, get the final word, addressing what we have created by our fears.


  1. This is a great post, Evan! Totally agree that action needs to accompany emotion - and that actions can be a number of things.

    I have been having trouble processing what has happened to Trayvon for a number of reasons - even though I know it's not an isolated incident.

    Maybe it's because I live in Canada and our laws are different and I can't conceive of them being used to try to protect Zimmerman or prevent his arrest. Maybe it's because this is about my son and that scares the crap out of me - something my parents never had to consider with my son. Maybe it's because I have white family members who don't believe racism still exist, which I feel is a considerable disservice to my family. Maybe it's because this has made me hyper-aware of my whiteness and the fact that no matter how much I read, listen, witness, or study identity politics & race, I feel I will never be fully equipped to raise a black man (or woman) in North America.

    Maybe it's because a grown man stalked and killed a child and is claiming HE was defending himself - hiding behind a long-perpetuated stereotype that insists black men are threatening.

    Maybe I am having trouble processing what happened to Trayvon for all these reasons.

    Being in Canada creates an awkward dynamic in terms of action, but I am sharing Trayvon's story and making people aware.

    1. It's hard to imagine it for so many, Sarah. I'll give you some of my perspective. I had the police called on me in my old neighborhood (predominantly Black) when I was in junior high because I was running home to see a baseball game. I had a talk with my Mom and Dad about how not to appear threatening and I was conscious of this at 12/13 years old - still am now.

      I feel that this is a great chance for people like you who are enlightened to really evaluate folks around them. Evaluate what you've read and how you can teach friends and children to be better to make this world better. It's not a naive ideal but it's practical wisdom - teach people to love and understand

      This doesn't seem conceivable but it's reality. Canada is blessed not to have so much prejudice govern them from the top down but America is bathed in 400 years of it. And until we start unlearning our prejudices and not stand for others giving in to them, this will keep happening quietly in communities, offices and private thoughts.

      Yet I thank you for getting it. The more who do, the better we can grow and not let him and others die or be victims in vain.

    2. Canada isn't immune to this - my husband tells me stories of what it was like to grow up in a small city where his family was one of few black families. It manifests differently in Canada (from what I can tell). Institutional/systemic racism is pervasive, which affects people's attitudes towards race. Individual acts of racism may be less frequent, less obvious, or less often attributed to racism, but the racist attitudes do exist among white people - and most aren't even aware of it.

      For that reason, my husband and I are really conscious about the identities of our kids. They spend more time with my husband's family than with mine and have strong cultural ties. We also choose to raise them in a very diverse neighbourhood where they will have peers and teachers who share their racial identity and with whom they can relate.

      I think the story of Trayvon specifically shocks Canadians not because it happened, but because of what happened (or didn't) after. A 'stand your ground' law is so far removed from anything we have here. In that specific way, it's hard to relate.

    3. It makes sense because I had no idea a law like that existed. You shoot somebody like that, I figure you'd be in jail awaiting trial and letting the court decide what happened. The fact that we are debating Trayvon's character against a smear campaign shows you what institutional racism looks like. It's a system designed to make people think his life is meaningless because if he "contributed to it", it's his fault. The whole campaign is based on lies and that scares me because there's enough folks who believe like Zimmerman that this appeals to.

      You and your husband are raising the kids absolutely right. They'll be aware of their racial identity before somebody makes them aware in a negative way. At least they have it better in Canada but I know instances still happen.